A brief history of the 2 Gallon petrol can.
The first packaging for ‘petrol’ as we know it today was seen in the late 1800s in the form of drums, supplied by The Carless Capel & Leonard company who held the rights to the word petrol and as such all other companies had to use the term ‘motor spirit’. These drums were an awkward shape for shipping and the well known square shape was quickly adopted making 2 gallon Carless drums a rare find today. The new shape could be packed 4 to a crate for transport whereas only 3 drums would fit before. Currently the earliest known 2 gallon cans in this format are around 1903 with a handfull as early as 1901. Mike ‘The two gallon can man’ Berry was among the first people to have started saving and collecting these cans and his excellent book ‘Petroleum Collectables’ by Shire is a must read for budding collectors, it well documents Carless’ early involvement with petrol production and petrol can history.
Hardware shops, even chemists supplied petrol in cans and most cans were required to be returned and so carried a deposit mark on them, usually on the top panel and for many years priced at 3/ (3 shillings) This rose later on and cans can be found with markings as low as 2/6 and up to 6/ or even 8/ by the 1950’s. Given the amount of these cans that have survived, it would seem that many people were happy to lose the deposit and keep the useful can! Examples without a deposit mark were non returnable, bought and kept. Often these cans are described as ‘running board’ cans being that they were sold with, or kept by owners, for use on the running board bracket of early motor cars and filled when visiting the local garage. A good example of this are the Shell for Morris Cars cans.
The cans were usually always marked by the maker and the date helped depots to keep track of how long they had been in service. As one of the best forms of advertising cans were kept tidy and removed from use if they became too old or battered.Cans in service were returned to depots, cleaned, often repainted, refilled and caps refitted with a wire and lead seal. Some were repaired if necessary and many recycled, occasionally early can examples will be found with much later decals applied having spent years in service. During the war years some cans were dateless and by the late 1940’s-50s a simple letter system was adopted though it is unknown as to which dates the letters refer to.
The earliest forms of ‘square’ can commonly feature a recessed or ‘lipped’ top panel. This style of inverted top was phased out by some manufacturers by the early teens but it was the style seen used again by some military cans during WW2. Early caps and can necks were also a smaller size with some being as small as 3/4” to 1” in size, necks often angled out on earlier cans for easier pouring. Handles too usually feature flat ends on earlier cans where the date and maker may be found stamped and often also a brass company name and address tag soldered to the top.
Colours can be hard to match but there are plenty of examples to be found in ‘original’ condition to use to roughly match the correct colours. Old advertising from the time can help too with hand drawn colour pictures used on invoice papers and posters depicting the colours used at the time. Many still prefer clean fresh paint to the ‘oily rag’ look. Few cans had the lettering picked out in a separate colour and often this was done with a decal and not paint, a good artists brush is ideal for painting in lettering. Care must be taken if you want to media blast cans though as the metal is often thin and you could end up left with something more resembling a colander than a can!
A rare Shell shipping crate for cans.
Thanks must go to all the collectors who have helped to provide the pictures and information provided on this site.
Much history has been briefly compiled with the aid of the excellent www.gracesguide.co.uk website which details company history and dates far better than we have here.
The fantastic petroliana.co.uk website and book collection ‘Petroliana – On Location’ and ‘Petroliana – Hidden Treasures’ by Alan Chandler are also invaluable guides for the collector to the history of the petroleum industry and the well documented items produced by these companies that they feature, all in one of the best collections in Europe.