Of the many antiques that populate collectors’ list of petrol ephemera, the humble oil can is often seen with the worse for wear. However, unlike most other petroliana nostalgia, oil cans, which have been in production for over 100 years, might just be the face of nostalgia. A time when eager bow-tie-wearing gas station attendants wait at your call and when gasoline was selling at 29 cents to the gallon.
The lowly, perpetually rusty oil can is ever present in swap meets, old garages, and junk stores as well as on tv such as the History channel’s American Pickers. Arguably, the boxy tin is representative of the iconography in the past century of gas, fuel, and oil retail. It’s also a versatile collectible, overlapping both auto-related (“automobilia”) and gas-related (petroliana) industries. Really, there are a few better examples of “one man’s trash is another’s treasure.” How did the vintage motor oil can become so well-loved?
The idea of collecting and displaying oil cans was far from the minds of the people leaving in the early part of the 20th century. Back then, people were preoccupied with getting their own Ford Model T and traversing now busy highways, all the while taking care not to run out of gas. If one did run out of fuel, a quick trip to service stores (or even local blacksmiths) would often be enough to go back on the road.
Then came the filling stations with the classic visible gas pumps where consumers could clearly see just how much gas they’re getting. Visible gas pumps would eventually give way to more advanced pumps that abandoned the need for clear glass cylinders and opted for self-measuring gauges – an innovation by the same man who developed the early gas pump, F.S. Bowser.
When the service stations of the ‘Teens slowly evolved into purpose-built gas stations, the image of the drive-in service station started to change. Hitherto, motorists would get their tanks filled up and their oil checked filling stations, or even at their local hardware and grocery stores. With the early gas stations, motorists would be greeted by enthusiastic, sharply dressed attendants who would then proceed to fill up their tank, clean windshields, and check their oil.
In the event that your automobile needed new oil, the attendant would grab a tin of oil, add it to your auto’s engine, and discard the empty tin. Unbeknownst to people back then, what seemed as refuse and of no value, are now considered among the most coveted collector’s item for enthusiasts.
The standard size of the early oil can was a quart but was available in sizes as large as 10 gallons. Since the vast majority of oil cans were discarded, those that remained unopened, and in good condition are often the rarest and most desirable collectibles.
Vintage oil cans have, through the years, steadily gained popularity as a collector’s item. Being accessible certainly helps well. Moreover, their sheer diversity in design, size, and shape make oil cans one of the more exciting petroliana collectibles and encourages much discussion in the collectors’ community.
Empty vs. Full Oil Cans
There are two camps in the oil can collectors’ community on finding and maintaining unopened, mint condition cans. One camp prefers emptying the can to prevent further damage, remove unnecessary weight, and avoid leaks while the other camp prefers to keep everything mint. Of course, finding or selling an unopened oil can could be considered an even rarer item that some collectors may find valuable.
Ultimately, there is no standard to pricing vintage oil cans, and cans desirability depends heavily on individual judgment. Typically, though, rare finds in mint condition will most likely fetch higher prices than worn and damaged items. How high, you ask? Some antique oil can collections have sold for nearly $1000.
Buying the Right Oil Cans
There’s no denying that turning seemingly mundane everyday objects into a well-rounded collection takes skill, research, and an eye for antique detail. Moreover, it may take a while for beginner collectors to spot the difference of value between a Polly or a Texaco Oil can. However, with enough practice and study, the decision to sell, keep or discard an antique find will become easier. Start with the factors below to get a good foundation of valuing antique oil cans.
Some brands, of course, would naturally be more popular and more coveted than others. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Although names like Mobil, Texaco, and Esso have the numbers and fame, obscure brands and regional products may rarer and therefore more valuable for collectors.
Apart from an oil can’s brand name, their logo variants also heavily influence their overall value. Typically, a collectible has more value if its logo is an early variant of its current version. Bonus points (or dollars) if the period of a variant logo’s appearance coincides with a landmark year for the brand.
Due to the rarity of unopened, unrestored oil cans in mint condition, many collectors would often settle for a middle ground between the former and deformed, rusty, scratched-up can. Of course, with some elbow grease, once rusty and dinged vintage oil cans can be brought to look their best, if not restored completely.
At the risk of oversimplifying, there’s a quick way to date an oil can and approximate its value. If the quart can is boxy and square-ish, it’s most likely from the early 1900’s. Meanwhile, oil cans in the early 40’s were more cylindrical, with soldered seams that presented itself as a long gray stripe on the can’s body.
Apart from the standard quart, vintage oil cans come in various sizes. Rarer finds are often the larger ones of sizes up to 10 gallons.
It takes a certain amount of skill to find desirable vintage oil cans. However, you’ll understand how these products of a bygone era bring heaps of nostalgia to their enthusiasts. It’s like time travel for the mind. Petroliana collectors like Route 32 Auctions are driven by memory and nostalgia for simpler times. It seems that the century-old oil can carry more than just motor oil.