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Evolution of the Tobacco Tin

Tobacco was first introduced into England in 1573 when Sir Francis Drake brought the tobacco leaf to our shores from the Americas. In 1586 the smoking of tobacco in pipes was introduced by returning Virginia Colonists disembarking at Plymouth, which caused a sensation in Elizabethan Society. The first book devoted to the art of smoking was published in 1595 and in 1600 Sir Walter Raleigh famously persuaded Queen Elizabeth to try smoking.

By 1614 there were over 7000 tobacco shops in London alone and tobacco smoking had spread like wildfire throughout the land. Tobacco merchants established in all of the major seaports supplying raw tobacco to all manner of retail trades including public houses, grocers, hardware shops and of course tobacconists. As tobacco smoking rapidly took hold of the population, the habit forming nature of smoking was soon recognised and there was a strong movement against smoking. King James I in particular strongly opposed it’s use, writing ‘A Counterblast to Tobacco’ in 1604 and then introducing the first Tax on tobacco of 4% in the same year. Despite the Kings opposition tobacco smoking proliferated and an unhappy King James I was obliged to Incorporate the Guild of British Pipe Makers in 1619.  

In 1660, the restoration of King Charles II to the English throne introduced the French Court habit of taking Snuff (powdered tobacco) and the use of small bejewelled snuff boxes. The fashion of taking snuff soon spread to the mass population who purchased their snuff in a loose form from tobacconists shops dispensed in paper wraps or small card boxes. As the working classes could not afford the fine snuff boxes used by Society all manner of crude containers made from horn or wood were being fashioned to contain snuff.  

In 1760 London tobacconists recognised the need for a pre-packaged option for dispensing snuff and so introduced the first pre-packaged snuff in tin boxes. At first wrap around paper labels were used to brand the product and to conceal rust which quickly formed on the un-plated tin, but in some cases premium snuff was sold in highly coloured hand painted tins simulating the luxurious tins used in Society. By 1860 the process of printing directly on tin had been perfected and the major producers soon adopted this practice to brand and advertise their products.  

The use of tin advertising boxes was soon extended to pipe tobacco which had previously been sold in paper wraps, card boxes, cartridges (paper wrapped tobacco plugs), cedar boxes and of course predominantly loose. Large retail advertising boxes were produced from which tobacconist’s dispensed loose tobacco. Smaller boxes followed in 1lb, 8oz, 4oz, 20z and 1oz sizes that contained pre-weighed tobacco of a specific brand.  

As production and printing processes developed, so the quality and durability of the tins improved, with the result that many survive waiting for collectors to find them.  

Tobacco packaging Timeline

1700 Tobacco packed in paper, card and Cedar boxes

1700’s Printed paper labels first used

1764 Tin boxes first used for Snuff by London Tobacconists

1770 First Tobacco brands appear in tin boxes

1780 Tobacco tins Hand painted

1780 Wrap around paper labels carrying printed advertising used to hide rust on tins

1800’s Tins hand soldered, thick uneven solder

1850’s Print on tins done by direct printing method – variable quality

1860’s Printing tins by transfer printing method introduced – better quality

1883 Machine soldered tins introduced, thinner evenly applied solder

1875 Offset Lithographic printing on tins patented – High quality, more colours.

1890’s First solder less tins introduced (crimped seams)

1890’s Enamelled and Lacquered 1 LB Tin boxes introduced – Mainly for retail trade.

1900 W. D & H O Wills introduce patented Vacuum Sealed Tins

1900 Tobacco sold in Lead Foil Packets known as Leads.

1900 Metal Lithographic printing on tin introduced.

Tin plate much thinner than previously

1905 Knife Lid or Cutter tins come in to common use. Moveable point variant introduced about

1930. Fixed point variant phased out by 1950

1900 + Mixtures and Blends start to proliferate replacing older ‘Hard’ Tobacco variants

1901 Tin foil packaging introduced

1901 Imperial Tobacco Company founded. Brands bearing “Branch of the Imperial Tobacco Co (of Great Britain and Ireland) Limited are post 1904

1903 Rationalisation of Imperial Group ranges, many brands discontinued

1904 Many smaller suppliers and brands disappear as a result of the price war between imperial Tobacco and The American Tobacco Company

1915 Tobacco smoking increases after WW1, particularly cigarettes which begin to dominate

1916 Sans Serif lettering on packaging is introduced

1925 + More Medium and Mild variants introduced at the expense of stronger Full strength brands

1925 Empire Grown or Empire Blend comes into common usage

1929 Tin foil replaced by aluminium foil on paper.

1932 Ready Rubbed starts to appear as a brand variation

1937 Electroplating introduced

1940’s Coin Twist Lids introduced, some later variants had rubber gaskets that extended past the lid or rubber bungs on the base that maintained the vacuum until removed

1945 Tin lids now have rolled over edges

1945+ Retail and Large 1lb Tins gradually phased out in favour of more convenient pocket sized tins.

1945+ Many companies merge (see Companies Timeline) with ranges being rationalised and some brands transferred between companies, especially Imperial Tobacco Group Members.

1890 - 1950

Tins with air holes in them were introduced in the late 1800's when the majority of tobacco was sold in bulk to the retail trade in large branded tins. The purpose of the holes was to allow a small amount of air into the tin to prevent the tobacco from going mouldy and in some cases to allow it to mature. Inside the tins the contents would have been wrapped in waxed paper or foil to help minimize evaporation.

By 1900 most of the leading brands were available in off the shelf pre-packaged 1Lb tins which also required air holes to ensure tobacco quality. As smoking habits changed and pocket sized packs became popular, 1lb tins were gradually replaced by smaller tin sizes which in the main did not require ventilation holes, although there were exceptions to this such as Digger Flake and Erinmore Mixture which were available in 2oz ventilated tins in the 1950’s

Unfortunately, the presence or absence of air holes does not give much if an indication as to the age of a tin as the ventilated tins were phased out very gradually over a long period of time.