Sometimes a collection starts very deliberately. Other times it happens purely by accident.
Allan Wilt, Cresson, Pennsylvania, says his collection of oil cans started in the 1970s, when a friend surprised him with a can from the Pennsylvania Railroad. “He knew I liked old stuff,” Allan says. “That started the collection.” After that, Allan started noticing cans. “They are so interesting,” he says, “without a huge expense.”
Today, Allan displays the majority of his collection – about 230 cans – in his shop. The remaining 10 percent is displayed in his house. The cans come in many different types and sizes for varied uses. “Some guys need a little drop of oil,” he says, “and some need a big splash.” There is a can for every need, and Allan probably has one for every type.
The satisfaction of a rare find
Allan’s collection didn’t really take off until five years ago. Before that, he collected just about anything old, from trivets to cast iron knickknacks. Allan loves antiques and loves learning about them. He’s found cans for his collection at auctions, flea markets and yard sales, and friends often give him old cans. His collection is not displayed at shows, but Allan loves going to shows.
Allan’s most interesting find came last spring at a tractor show. A collector of Wheel Horse garden tractors, Allan was looking at Wheel Horse items in the swap area. As he visited with the vendor and browsed through boxes, Allan found an oil can made from cast iron, rather than tin, as many are. The can has a copper bottom that is soldered onto the cast iron. He believes it to be a very rare oil can.
The earliest “cans” were made from glass with a cork stopper. A dauber was inserted into the cork. By removing the cork, the dauber collects a small amount of oil that could be applied as needed. Some glass vessels were small, but there were also very large ones, such as those used for automotive servicing. Some manufacturers produced unique oils for their goods. Edison typewriters, for instance, came with a special oil. Over the years, more than a few companies encouraged use of only their oil on their products.
Unique features lend character
The oil cans in Allan’s collection have had all sorts of lives. Some are in decent condition; others are rough. Allan takes some apart to see how they work, but he rarely does any restoration work. He appreciates the marks of use. On some, spouts have been bent and cut to fit a specific application.
One can has a round bottom, causing the can to fall over when it is more than half full. The previous owner soldered a lead weight on the bottom to prevent tips. “Each can has its own character,” Allan says. “I have one that looks like it went through a fire. I’ll never touch that. It’s what makes each one unique.”
One of his most unusual cans is roughly 23 inches tall (with the funnel) and a lever on the inside. The operator could fill the can, turn it upside down, insert it into a hard-to-reach area and then hold the button to release oil. Release the button again, and the flow stops. Another can, made of plastic, holds one quart of oil. Press a metal spout down into the can’s top and the contents are easily poured into an engine.
Each can is different for a different purpose. It’s important to use the right type of oil needed for the job. In the past, lighter oil was used for winter driving and a heavier oil was used for summer driving. In the oil can’s heyday, there were fewer refineries than there are today and fewer varieties of oil.
Some cans’ lids screw onto the inside; some screw onto the outside. Container sizes vary, even when the cans are made by the same company. In Allan’s collection, the shortest spout on a can is 3 inches; the longest is 14 inches. Some cans were sold with oil in them; others would be sold empty and buyers would load them with the oil of their choice.
Automatic lubrication spelled the end of an era
While oil cans are still made today, technology and advanced lubrication methods have made them much less common. Many types of pull-type equipment once had mounts for oil cans, making it easy for farmers to keep equipment oiled throughout the day.
By the mid-1980s, automatic lubrication on cars became commonplace. Today, all automotive gears are completely enclosed. “The younger generation will buy a lawn mower and never think to oil the wheels,” Allan says. “They will wear them out and then go buy another lawn mower instead of fixing it.”
Allan’s favorite cans are marked with the names of the manufacturer, city and state, and purpose. Some markings were stamped into the metal; others were printed on paper labels. Because paper is so fragile and cans were heavily used, antique oil cans with intact paper labels are very rare today.
Allan sorts pieces in his collection by appearance. While oil cans were much more common in the past, tight budgets prevented many people from accumulating cans for multiple uses. People were more likely to buy one squirt-type can and use it for everything. They might have one can in the garage and one in the shop. Small, pocket-size “traveling” oil cans offered convenience for repairmen.
For Allan, oil cans are a way to preserve history. His collection is a fun and interesting way for him to remember where we’ve been and how far we’ve come. FC
For more information: Call Allan Wilt at (814) 244-6301.
Kelsey Pagel is a freelance writer based in northeast Kansas. She grew up on a cow/calf and row-crop operation and married into another. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.