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TINDECO

by

James A. Shaw

    A favorite item in my cigarette packs and tins collection is a gorgeous 1923 Pall Mall Christmas gift tin made by the Tin Decorating Company of Baltimore, or Tindeco for short. The outside red and gold lid pictures holly, while a group of Victorian men in a street scene decorates the inside. The original contents are two bright red cardboard boxes of 100 cigarettes each. A festive red ribbon tied around each box completes the holiday mood. My tin is just one of four Pall Mall Christmas designs that Tindeco made in the early 1920’s for The American Tobacco Company.

    The Tindeco factory was located on Baltimore’s waterfront, and began making tins primarily for the American Tobacco Company beginning June 1914. Its modern factory was the largest tin decorating plant in the world. The plant floor area was just over 7 acres, housing 35 lithographic presses, plus flat bed presses which used engraved stones, shaping and stamping machines, and huge drying ovens. Tindeco could produce four million tins a day, including one million 10 cent tobacco tins. Besides the different tobacco items made, there were also candy boxes, cookie and cake tins, medicine tins and talcum powder cans.

    Tindeco employed 1,000 to 1,400 men the first full year of operation. By 1922, 3,000 workers were needed during busy seasons when the factory operated 24 hours a day. The Tindeco factory was self-sufficient. Everything needed to make a tin except the raw materials, was within the factory confines. This included an art department, and machinists to design the dies needed. Paints were ground and mixed on site. The Tindeco machine shop was one of the finest in the United States. Many of the employees, but especially the machinists, were highly skilled German and Polish immigrants. Many of the machines used in the tin industry were invented in the Tindeco machine shop. By 1922 the product line had been expanded to include a variety of kitchen objects, plus items from several famous illustrators. Harrison Fisher’s signed artwork was used on fruitcake tins, while Harrison Cady did a series of Peter Rabbit children’s tins. Tindeco tins also included the famous Roly Polys and other gorgeous tins, which were often embossed and printed in seven or eight different colors.

    Producing the beautiful tins that we collectors so covet today, was a dangerous business. Factory workers in the lithography department were considered lucky if they had all their fingers. The 4 foot x 4 foot tin plates, when coated with paint, were slippery and they had knife-sharp edges. There was a fully equipped surgical room within the factory, along with a full-time nurse and a company doctor for the men who weren’t careful enough. It was also hot in the lithography department. The windows couldn’t be opened when the presses were running because a draft would blur words on the wet paint. The ovens that baked on the color really heated the department up, making that area of the factory hot to work in.

    Tindeco had a junk pile outside the plant that kids in that Baltimore neighborhood loved. Little tin discs in all the colors of the rainbow were gathered up by the local boys. These discs were what was discarded after the holes were punched into the different tin cans being made. After being pinched and pressed into doll furniture, the small discs were then sold to the neighborhood girls for a penny each.

    Tindeco was sold to the Owens-Illinois Glass Company in 1935. The introduction of the metal beer can convinced the glass company management to buy two tin manufacturers to protect itself. Now known as the Owens-Illinois Can Company, plant #31, the factory continued to produce tins using fine lithography. In October 1944 Owens-Illinois sold the former Tindeco to the Continental Can Company of New York. Continental made Bayer Aspirin tins, Sucret boxes, Anacin and Excedrin tins, Sterno cans, beer trays and tobacco cans. During World War II a lot of work was done for the US Army, including olive drab oil cans, little ointment cans for burns, and machine gun clips. Continental closed the plant on July 9, 1965. Tins were now old fashioned; plastic was the modern way to package consumer products. The former factory on Baltimore’s spectacular waterfront is now Tindeco Wharf, home to luxury rental apartments, restaurants, a health club, and office and retail space.

    Ms. Kristin Helberg wrote a wonderful short history of The Tin Decorating Company of Baltimore in 1986 to celebrate the rehabilitation of the old Tindeco property. This small book has many factory pictures, and includes the memories of former employees. For those of you who would like to see a scan of my Pall Mall Christmas tin, plus the equally good looking 1925 Lucky Strike green Christmas flat 50, you will find them here:

http://www.wclynx.com/burntofferings/tinspallmall.html   

 

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