history revealed in old tin cans

In the Yukon we have a territorial bird, a territorial flower and a territorial tree. I would like to nominate a territorial artifact: the tin can ..

In the Yukon we have a territorial bird, a territorial flower and a territorial tree. I would like to nominate a territorial artifact: the tin can …

After scouring the landscape of the Yukon for several decades I have learned one thing: old tin cans are everywhere. You may find just a single one with its lid pried open lying on a hilltop overlooking one of the Yukon’s countless magnificent vistas, or you may find them piled by the hundreds at old cabin sites.

I once came across an abandoned temporary sawmill site that dated to the construction of the Alaska Highway. Piled behind it were so many rusting beer cans I had to wonder how the operators managed to cut a straight piece of wood. A pile of castaway tins is a sure sign that somebody lived nearby.

While conducting a survey of historical remains on Black Hills Creek near the Stewart River more than 25 years ago, I found that while many sites had been stripped of picks, shovels, lanterns and other saleable antiques, the rusty tins were always left behind. The collectors had overlooked some of the greatest treasures of all.

During the gold rush, every immigrant was required to bring in a ton of supplies. For preservation and ease of handling the food was usually in tin cans: tins of corned beef, stewed tomatoes, sardines, soup and – most important of all – beans. Many five-gallon fuel tins made their way into the north as well.

The tin can was the universal container; cast off upon being opened and never given a second glance – or so I thought. The fact is, without the tin can, life in the North would have been much less livable.

What makes the tin can so useful in this regard is its physical character. Tin cans are malleable and can be bent or shaped easily. They can be cut, riveted, nailed and screwed, soldered, drilled, punched, folded, rolled, flattened and scribed with ease.

In their abandoned condition, these cans had not lost their utility. As I came to learn, these containers were only just beginning to be useful. They were in fact the object of the ultimate northern makeover.

The first reused tin can I recognized was resting on a shaky and weathered wooden table in the exposed interior of a long-abandoned log cabin. It was an old tobacco tin with the lid screwed tight. Inserted in a hole gouged in the lid was the burnt-down remnant of a candle. Recovered from the garbage heap, this tin can had taken on a new life as a candle holder.

I began to look more closely at the tins I had for so long ignored. Everywhere, there were examples of cans reused for one purpose or another. I have found more than sixty different uses so far, and the list keeps growing.

Cut out the top off a five-gallon kerosene can and run some haywire across the opening, and you have an instant bucket. I have seen these depicted in numerous historical photographs from the Yukon Archives. Take the same can and open one of the long sides and you have a container for feeding dogs or something to catch crankcase oil.

Another popular adaptation was lighting devices. Hanging in nearly every abandoned cabin I have found a variety of tin cans modified for candles. My Parks Canada colleague Christine Hedgecock let me use a candle holder on the Chilkoot Trail that she had fashioned from an empty can of olive oil. It was cut open on the top and one side, and the shiny interior reflected the candle flame and cast a respectable light.

The old-timers know these candle lanterns on sight. They even have a name for them: “bugs.” Easy to fashion with the simplest of tools from the ever-present raw material, they worked well and, because the enclosed candle was protected from vagrant breezes, didn’t easily blow out.

Some of the other wonderful creations I have seen include portable stoves, berry pickers, moose callers, ashtrays, a mailbox, cribbage boards and a foot-powered lapidary set-up.

I have seen watering cans, honey buckets and a device that would keep toilet paper dry. And, yes, they even make a better mousetrap.

I doubt the old cabins in the territory would have been livable without the ubiquitous kerosene can. They were used as wall and roof coverings, chimney caps and stovepipe safeties. Placed on the wall behind or the floor beneath a stove, they protected homes from catching fire, and wrapped around the legs of the family cache they helped to keep rodents out.

These beautiful creations in all their unique applications and individual design tell us a lot about

Yukon life in the first half of the 20th century.

The Yukon is a big land with few people. In the early days, trails and crude wagon roads facilitated travel. The rivers were the highways of that time. Transportation was costly, and people didn’t move around as easily as they do now. Many lived isolated lives and seldom came to town. They learned to make do, so it isn’t a surprise that when someone needed something they didn’t have, it was easier and cheaper to turn to the pile of cast-off tin cans and fashion something than it was to walk to town to make a purchase.

Out of interest I have looked to other parts of the world to see if the same reuse of tin cans is practised elsewhere. I have seen examples from third-world countries where interesting curiosities were fabricated from other people’s cast-offs and sold to tourists. In Cuba where material goods are often in short supply because of the American embargo, many items are made over.

In upstate New York I saw examples of obsolete farming equipment being converted into ornaments to decorate yards along rural roads. But never have I seen as many examples of utilitarian reuse as are found in the North.

There seem to be three factors that influence the practice of reuse. First, there is means: the physical properties of the tin can lend themselves to easy altering and reshaping.

Second, there is opportunity. In the Yukon the universal availability of the tin can meant that they were close at hand whenever the need arose for something.

Third, there was the motivation. Isolation breeds ingenuity. In the North, especially a hundred years ago, this was very much the case. In an era when miners didn’t go to town for years at a stretch, if something was needed immediately, the fabricator couldn’t wait for a trip to the hardware store.

This tradition of reuse hasn’t died out, although today it has changed form and material. A visit to a modern home or camp reveals that the plastic container has primarily replaced the tin can. But while our modern plastics are certainly reusable and also recyclable, in my eyes they will never have the malleability, usefulness or the beauty of the classic tin can.

This column is reprinted from the book History Hunting in the Yukon, which is available in fine stores throughout the Yukon. Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.