Oil Cans, From Tin to Sterling

After years of lugging hit-and-miss engines to shows, a Pennsylvania man now hauls oil cans

Guy Cerberich's largest oil can is a railroad can

Guy Cerberich's largest oil can is a railroad can, probably 3 feet tall at the top of the spout, he says. The smallest? A watchmaker's oil can. "It's about the diameter of a quarter," he says. Big and small, the cans make a novel exhibit at shows. Guy and his wife, Ruth, are shown here with the display.

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When show season arrives, Guy Gerberich's bags are always packed and ready. But his suitcases aren't loaded down with clean socks and extra shirts: Instead, his vintage valises carry as many as 600 antique oil cans.

Guy, who lives in Jonestown, Pa., puts old suitcases to work when he hits the road. He finds the oil cans much easier to haul than his original collection.

"I always took hit-and-miss engines to shows," he says. "But about 15 years ago, I took along a pegboard I had with cans on it, and it fit right into an old suitcase."

When he got to the show, he set up the engines, and opened the suitcase loaded with oil cans.

"After a while, I noticed that nobody was looking at the engines," he says. "They were all looking in the suitcase at the oil cans. I told my wife, 'That's it: I'm going to go to the flea market and buy oil cans.''"

When he started collecting oil cans, he says, it was almost as a sideline to his first love.

"I still have hit-and-miss engines in my head," he says, "but it got to the point where it was too much work to haul them around."

Fifteen years later, though, he ranks as a serious collector.

"I have everything from a sterling silver Tiffany can, to an old handmade tin can," he says. "I never knew there were so many different ones."

Guy's collection provides a footnote to the industrial age. Many engines, machines, industries and even guns had their own unique oil cans.

His collection includes cans from machine guns, railroads, steamships, farm equipment, watchmakers, automobiles and gas engines, to name a few. A special find, he says, is an early, tin oil can.

"The early handmade tin cans are real interesting," he says. "There's no two alike. That's what the tinsmiths did in the winter, that's when they would make that kind of thing. Originally, I went for those early cans. But they're so hard to find."

At least one has family ties.

"My wife's uncle worked at the Bethlehem steel mill years ago, and he wanted to get on at maintenance," Guy says. "When he applied, they gave him a test project: They handed him a sheet of tin, some patterns, tin-snips and solder, and said, 'Make an oil can.' I've seen a couple of cans marked 'BS': that's for Bethlehem Steel."

Guy doesn't know the stories behind all of his oil cans. But as soon as he opens his suitcases, the tales pour out.

"At the shows, people will come by and talk about the cans they remember," he says. "That's how we identify a lot of them.

"I learn something every time I go to a show," he says. "Like my Eagle Oil Can, it had this ugly cotton cloth bag with a drawstring. I was going to throw the bag away. Then one day, these three ladies came up, looked at it, and started laughing. 'That's one of our bags!' one said. They had worked at a sewing machine company, and the cans they used on their machines left oil marks on their work area, so they made bags to protect the surface. Women like the collection," Guy says. "They get tired of looking at hit-and-miss engines."

The pieces in his collection show the passage of time, as well as hard use.

"A lot of times they're not in as good a condition as you'd like," he says.

But he leaves them as he finds them.

"I don't do any restoration," he says, "other than maybe try to straighten out the spout."

Guy's antique oil cans are made of tin, copper or brass, sometimes even cast iron with a brass bottom.

"The brass cans are hard to come by," he says. "I've got one, and everybody who sees it will say, 'Oh, we've got one of those at home, all polished and up on the mantel.'"

The heavier metal cans, he says, came with the early textile machinery shipped from England. Other pieces in his collection come from as far away as Germany and Canada.

He even has a sterling silver oil can made by Tiffany. "I can't believe it was ever actually used," he says. "I think it was just something that sat around." The best place to find oil cans, he says, is at a flea market.

"But it's getting tough," he adds. "Until the last couple of years, I always called this the poor man's hobby. I used to give a quarter, 50 cents, for these cans when I started. Now, there's some over $200. When they get to that high a price, it becomes a business. But I don't buy near as many as I used to, and I'm not trying to buy them all."

Guy has spent much of his life on the working end of an oil can. He worked for years in a machine shop, and he was raised on a farm. "My dad was kind of tough about maintenance," he says. "He always said, 'If it moves, you oil it.'" It's an admonition Guy's taken to heart.

"I get a kick out of going to shows," he says. "It's been real interesting to show the cans. People come up and want you to have the one they remember. They'll see me coming and say, 'Here comes the Oil Can Man.'" FC