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A Comprehensive Guide To Getting Started In Vintage Oil Can Collecting

oil can collecting

Cardlines is primarily a sports card analysis website, but we like to occasionally delve into other collectibles, sometimes focusing on the odd and quirky – including oil can collecting.

Amidst the resurgence of interest in vintage items, the TV series American Pickers played a pivotal role in propelling interest in antique items. Oil can collecting rode on this wave into the spotlight once more.

Can collecting is the hobby of collecting cans. Cans were patented in 1810, and several dozen types of cans can be collected worldwide. Most collectors collect by themes or brand variation.

This guide to oil can collecting shall cover everything you need to get started collecting oil cans. We shall discuss everything from its unique charm to how to store these colorful metal containers from the past. These cans are often branded with well-known oil company names and are considered collectibles.

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A brief history of cans and oil can collecting

An oil can (or oiler) is a can that contains oil for lubricating machinery (usually motor oil). The can’s journey dates to 1795, when Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could invent a method of preserving food for his army.

The first tin-plated cans were patented in 1810 by Peter Durand. The focus was on finding a way to store food in more durable containers than glass. However, by 1900, petroleum products were among the most commonly stored products in tin cans.

In its earliest days, oil cans featured a box-shaped design. However, the 1940s saw the widespread adoption of cylindrical-shaped oil cans. Round cans featuring a soldered lead seam became the standard from the 1920s to the 1940s. The introduction of aluminum cans for motor oil occurred in 1958, while round plastic oil cans emerged in the 1960s.

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Regardless of their shape or material, oil cans served as a canvas for oil companies to showcase their brand name and logo, offering another avenue for advertising. This is largely what cemented their place as beloved collectibles.

Collecting oil cans as a hobby can be traced back to the 1980s when cans were collected because of the advertising on their bodies. The first oil can convention was the Iowa Gas Swap Meet in 1984.

The Iowa Gas Swap Meet wasn’t limited to oil cans; it covered other items like vintage signs, gasoline pumps, neon, gas globes, maps, cans and containers, and other collectable memorabilia from the past.

According to the Journal of Antiques and Collectibles, oil can collecting peaked in the late 1990s after reaching enviable heights propelled by very competitive buyers.

They, however, dropped out of the hobby, causing the oil can market to crash. Thankfully for oil can collectors, cans are back up to where they were at their peak, and even higher.

The appeal of vintage oil can collecting

While oil can collecting is a very niche hobby, it has amassed an impressive number of collectors. Several online platforms, forums, and social media groups are dedicated to oil can collecting.

Aside from these communities, several oil can collector events and exhibitions exist. These events boast impressive attendance in the thousands, which speaks to the size of the oil can collector community. With such a considerable number of collectors, no one can deny the appeal of oil collecting.

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons people collect these oil cans.

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Historical significance

Most collectors are drawn to vintage cans for their historical significance, seeing them as artifacts from past eras. The evolution of manufacturing techniques, changes in materials, and the cultural context surrounding the production of these cans provide a unique window into the past.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia also plays an influential role in vintage can collecting, with individuals often seeking items that evoke memories of a cherished past. It can be a particular brand associated with a childhood memory or the joy of getting reacquainted with old logos of famous brands. Vintage oil cans serve as tangible connections to personal histories and experiences.

Artistry

The intricate graphic designs and artistry displayed on vintage cans are a major draw for collectors. Most of these cans feature distinct and unique designs and graphics paying homage to a particular occurrence of the time.

Prominent artists of the era were sometimes contracted to help with such campaigns, creating truly fantastic art pieces. These oil cans showcase the craftsmanship and creativity of the artists and designers of their respective eras, transforming them from mere containers to visual art pieces.

Advertising

Vintage cans are cherished for their role as historical documents in advertising and branding. Collectors appreciate the opportunity to examine how companies marketed their products in different periods, observing shifts in messaging, visual identity, and brand positioning.

Evolution of packaging

Some people collect these oil cans because they are fascinated by the evolution of packaging design and materials.

From the transition from tin to aluminum to changes in shapes and labeling techniques, each can in a collection represents a chapter in the still ongoing story of packaging innovation.

Investment potential

As is typical with most collectibles, the potential for profit has pushed several collectors into collecting oil cans. Vintage cans in excellent condition or from well-known brands are worth impressive figures and would only increase over time.

How to start an oil can collection

Learn as much as you can

While anyone can start most collections with a random purchase of whatever catches their eye, collecting vintage oil requires more intention. Unlike more casual collectables, collecting oil cans requires understanding several factors such as history, theme, and design.

Study the history

It’s essential to learn about the evolution of packaging in the oil industry and the transition from simple containers to more elaborate designs. Understand the historical context, such as the significance of specific eras or technological advancements.

Materials and designs

Familiarize yourself with the materials used in manufacturing oil cans over the years. Early cans were often made of tin, while later designs might feature aluminum.

Explore the diverse graphic designs, logos, and typography different brands use. Recognize how designs evolved to capture consumer attention and reflect changing trends.

Know the brands

Identify key brands and manufacturers in the oil industry. Some brands may be more sought after or have a significant historical presence. Research the stories behind these brands, their contributions to the industry, and any unique features that set them apart.

Oil cans at Antique Shop by David Fulmer is licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED

Become familiar with rare oil cans

Learn to recognize the factors contributing to oil cans’ rarity and collectibility. Certain cans may have limited production runs, unique designs, or associations with specific events, making them more desirable among collectors.

Pick a focus

Building a collection of oil cans is more than just accumulating empty cans. It should ideally be a curated journey into industrial history, design evolution, and personal passion.

Finding a focus when collecting oil cans is recommended as it helps shape how you collect and transform your collection from a random gathering of metal into a carefully curated piece of history. Here are the most popular themes most oil can collectors focus on.

Era of interest

Determine the era that captivates your interest as it lays the foundation for a cohesive collection. Whether it’s the early 20th century with classic tin designs or the mid-20th century when aluminum cans gained popularity. Collecting from a specific timeframe helps narrow your focus and guides your collection process.

Brand preference

Another popular theme oil can collectors curate their collection by is brand preference. Some collectors develop a deep affinity for specific brands and collect oil cans that showcase the evolution of their packaging over time.

Whether it’s the iconic logos of major oil companies or the regional charm of local brands. Choosing a brand preference adds a personal touch to your collection and often deepens your connection to the stories behind each can.

However, most collectors prefer to collect a variety of brands for a more diverse collection.

Design aesthetics

The visual appeal of vintage oil cans is a significant draw for collectors. Decide whether you appreciate vibrant, colorful labels or prefer the simplicity of early tin designs.

Understanding your design aesthetics guides your selections and ensures a visually harmonious collection.

Start small

As with most collectibles, starting small when building a collection is essential, especially as a beginner. While you might want to populate your collection as quickly as possible, starting small has numerous benefits.

Learning curve

Starting small lets you navigate the learning curve effectively. It provides an opportunity to understand the nuances of oil can collecting, from identifying valuable pieces to knowing real cans from reproduction pieces before spending a premium.

Financial prudence

Starting small aligns with financial prudence. It allows collectors to gauge exactly how much they are willing to spend. Preventing the potential strain that impulsive or oversized purchases exert on personal finances. This cautious approach fosters a sustainable and enjoyable collecting experience.

Building expertise

A smaller collection facilitates a more focused and in-depth study of each piece. Collectors can develop a keen eye for details, learn about different brands and eras, and gradually build expertise. This foundational knowledge becomes invaluable as the collection expands.

Manageable organization

Oil cans are not like trading cards that can be easily stored in a binder. A smaller collection makes storing and displaying these cans more manageable. It allows collectors to curate and showcase their pieces effectively, fostering a visually appealing and well-organized presentation that can be easily expanded as the collection grows.

As your collection grows, so will your ability to store and display them correctly. This is even more important as vintage oil cans require a certain level of care and attention.

Vintage oil cans & service station lights by Northbaywanderer is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

Where to buy vintage oil cans

Discovering the right places to buy oil cans is essential to succeed as a collector. Unlike most collectibles that are still in production, the oil cans worth collecting are vintage cans.

Discovering the right places to acquire these vintage treasures is a crucial aspect of oil can collecting. We shall discuss some of the best places new collectors can find and purchase oil cans:

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Antique and vintage shops

Visiting antique shops and vintage stores is the most reliable way to obtain oil cans. These stores often contain diverse collectibles, including vintage oil cans. Regular visits to such stores can yield hidden gems at very fair prices.

Swap Meets

Swap meets are treasure troves for collectors. Vendors at these events frequently offer unique and affordable finds. The allure of these events is that pieces can range from as low as $0.50 to $400, making them accessible to collectors on various budgets. Remember that more collectible items can command prices as high as $700 and above.

Online auctions

Online auction platforms like eBay have created a vast marketplace for vintage oil cans. Collectors can bid on items from around the world from their homes. However, the drawback to buying from eBay is that finding a bargain can be difficult. However, it’s not unheard of for collectors to find an excellent deal on the platform.

Collector shows

Aside from being an avenue to buy oil cans, attending collector shows dedicated to antiques can be a rewarding experience. These gatherings bring together vendors and enthusiasts, providing a platform to explore various oil cans, engage with sellers, and network with fellow collectors.

Estate sales

Estate sales and auctions are among the best avenues for new collectors to build their collections. Collectors have reported finding entire oil can collections at these sales. These events can be excellent opportunities to acquire vintage oil cans, sometimes at more favorable prices than traditional retail settings.

Auto memorabilia shops

Shops specializing in automotive memorabilia may feature sections dedicated to vintage oil cans. These platforms are suitable for collecting precious pieces. However, the drawback is the lack of finding a “bargain offer”.

From other collectors

Building connections with fellow collectors can open doors to unique buying opportunities. Networking through collector clubs, forums, and events may lead to private sales, trades, or insights into hidden caches of oil cans.

Several social media platforms and online collector groups are dedicated to oil can collectors. Joining these groups allows collectors to learn about available items, engage in discussions, and purchase directly from other members.

A couple at a flea market by Sheila is licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED

Types of oil can collectibles

While the standard oil can size was one quart, some cans were as large as five gallons. Let’s look at a few of the most popular types of oil can collectibles according to Oilcans, a website dedicated to old oil can collectors.

Soldered Seam Quart

These cans can be identified by a distinctive grey stripe. They are made from soldered metal standard from the quart-size can’s inception until the early 1940s. Some companies still use them today, notably for speciality aviation oils.

Crimped Seam Quart

These cans eliminated the need and expense incurred during soldering. The crimped seam can, with strength similar to the can’s top and bottom seams, swiftly replaced its soldered counterpart.

Advertisements on these cans were even more expressive as companies adapted their soldered seam cans, seamlessly continuing it over the seam. Crimped seam cans became the norm for all future quart oil cans, even as others adopted more economical composite or plastic options.

Composite/Cardboard Quarts

These cans emerged in the late 1940s and were used until the 1980s. They were constructed with heavy cardboard and metal top and bottom lids. There are various variations of these composite quarts, which include square cardboard quarts and square metal quarts.

5 Gallon Oil Cans – E-ZE Pour

Created by St. Louis Can company in the 1920s/1930s, the unique 5 Gallon E-ZE Pour can feature heavy steel edges that enable rolling for easy pouring from the side spout. The can also include two handles for added convenience.

Other include;

  • 1/2 Gallon Oil Cans – Early Rectangle
  • 1/2 Gallon Oil Cans – Tall Rectangle
  • 1 Gallon Oil Cans – Early Rectangle
  • 1 Gallon Oil Cans – Early Rectangle, Short
  • 1 Gallon Oil Cans – Early Rectangle, Tall
  • 1 Gallon Oil Cans – Rectangle
  • 2 Gallon Oil Cans – Early Round
  • 2 Gallon Oil Cans – Early Square
  • 2 Gallon Oil Cans – Standard Rectangle
  • 5 Gallon Oil Cans – Early Square
  • 5 Gallon Early Square Motor Oil Can – Selwin
  • 5 Gallon Oil Cans – Round

Value of oil cans

Let’s consider several factors that affect the value of these oil cans.

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Brand

Depending on which brand it is, the value for these collectible oil cans ranges from $10 for a common name brand motor oil to up to $7,000 for some rare unopened off-brand cans.

Some common brands include Castrol, Havoline, Sinclair, Esso, Shell, and other national brands. Off-brand metal cans hold their value exceedingly well. These are regional oil brands such as Autoplane, Black Gold Motor Oil, Chieftain, and Conoco.

Collectors looking to get an oil Golden Flash can would have to fork out as much as $6,500. Finding an off-brand oil can in decent condition means you’ve hit the jackpot. Limited editions, discontinued brands, or cans from companies with historical significance can fetch premium prices.

Mobile oil Can by Alf van Beem is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal

Condition

Like any collectible, the condition of the oil can significantly impact its value. Factors such as dents, scratches, rust, or paint loss would substantially affect an oil can value.

Cans in pristine or near-mint condition are generally more valuable. Even the common ones can be sold for a premium. A distinct factor that also determines the value of oil cans is whether they’ve been opened. An unopened can would be worth quite more than cans that have been opened.

Design

The design on the can’s label also plays a part in the overall value of the oil can. These include the quality and uniqueness of its graphics and artwork. Without fail, attractive images would significantly improve an oil can’s value.

Aside from being colorful, detailed, and well-preserved, labels or logos enhance the overall value even more. Lastly, oil cans were also used in promotional campaigns or featured unique advertising elements, such as special offers or endorsements. These also have increased value.

Scarcity

Scarcity significantly impacts the value of an oil can. For example, a regular oil can in pristine condition might fetch up to $2,000 in the market. However, a rare oil can from the same brand printed to commemorate a past occurrence would be worth up to $5,000 even in worse conditions.

While vintage oil cans can be hard to come by, these oil cans were widely used. Hence, a fair number of them are available for collectors even today. However, a specific design to commemorate a unique event would have a much lower production run. This scarcity adds to its value.

Age and historical significance

Older oil cans can be more valuable, especially those with ample historical significance or from a specific era. Cans from the early days of the oil industry or a particular period may attract collectors.

Cans with a documented history or a connection to a famous event, person, or company may command a higher price. These cans usually have colorful and distinct logos that increase their value even more.

Three ways to know the value of your oil can collection

Knowing the value of your oil can collection is essential to ensure you sell it for what it’s truly worth. Whether you might have gotten your cans at a bargain or built your collection without spending a dime, selling your oil cans for the right price can make collecting satisfying.

Official price guides

Oil cans have been collectors for several decades, and like most collectibles, there are multiple price guides specific to oil cans. These guides often offer comprehensive listings detailing various brands, styles, conditions, and corresponding price ranges.

However, I suggest you use the price stated in these guides as a reference point. This is because they might not be as frequently updated as real-time online platforms.

Market fluctuations and evolving collector preferences may not be immediately reflected. One oil can price guide that comes highly recommended is the oil can section at Antique Advertising. They list the prices real customers have paid for these oil cans.

Vintage oil cans by Jon Stow is licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED

eBay

Like most collectibles, eBay is one of the most widely used platforms for gauging the value of oil cans. eBay provides a real-time glimpse into the market demand and pricing trends. Finding an oil can’s price using eBay is relatively straightforward.

Simply search for similar oil cans and check how much they’ve recently sold for. Take note of factors such as brand, condition, and rarity to make more informed comparisons.

Additionally, eBay allows you to track specific items and observe how bidding unfolds, giving you a practical understanding of how much your oil can collection is worth.

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Be an active part of an oil can collectors’ community.

Using eBay to determine the value of your oil can collection is the most time-effective. However, nothing beats being a part of collectors’ communities. This includes online forums, local clubs, Facebook groups, and subreddits. These communities offer invaluable advantages in assessing the value of your old oil can.

To find out the value of an oil can using this method, simply share an image and other details of your oil can. More knowledgeable collectors would share their insights into its actual value.

Additionally, these communities often host discussions, appraisals, and trading platforms, providing a rich source of information on market trends. One of the recommended communities includes OldGas.

Most expensive oil cans

Let’s consider the top six most expensive oil cans according to Antique Advertising. However, the figures aren’t current prices as most of these sales occurred several years ago.

If such oil cans were to make their way to the market now, they would command more impressive prices.Shop for vintage oil cans on eBay

NamePriceYear
Liberty Air-O Oil Can$11,5002013
Harley-Davidson Oil Can$10,6652016
Golden Flash Oil Can$6,544.282021
Wilube Motor Oil Can$6,4402016
Cadillac Motor Oil Can$5,534.202017
Bengol Motor Oil Can$4,8302017

Recent eBay oil can sales.

Let’s consider some top eBay oil can sales over the last month.

Vintage Kendall Penzbest Motor Oils Metal 5 Gallon Advertising Rocker Oil Can$510
Vintage DSL 1 Qt Full Metal Outboard Motor Hypoid Gear Oil Can Great Graphics$343
Rare Vintage 1933 Sweney Motor Oil Peoria ILL Illinois 1 Gallon Metal Can Sign$665
Rare Vintage 1930’s Sweney Motor Oil Peoria ILL Illinois 1/2 Gal. Metal Can Sign$460.55

How to care for your oil can collection.

Caring for your oil can collection requires a delicate touch to ensure longevity. Here are a few points on handling and storing your oil cans to ensure they do not lose any value due to poor handling.

Shield from direct sunlight

Protect the colors of vintage and antique tins by storing them away from direct sunlight. Prolonged exposure to sunlight can lead to fading and deterioration.

Clean gently

Avoid abrasive cleaners, as they can harm the delicate surfaces of your oil cans, especially the artwork. When cleaning is necessary, opt for a soft, lint-free cloth moistened with fresh water.

This ensures a gentle touch while removing dust or grime that may have accumulated over time. If soap is required for cleaning, use it sparingly and only when necessary.

Store in a controlled environment

Choose a storage area with a stable and controlled climate. Extremes in temperature and humidity can adversely affect the condition of oil cans, leading to rust or mold formation. A cool, dry place is ideal for maintaining the integrity of your collection.

§  Never store at floor level

Store your oil cans on elevated shelves or platforms to protect them from potential water damage, especially in basements or areas susceptible to flooding.

When storing, arrange the cans with enough space between them to prevent any possible contact or pressure that may lead to scratches or dents. For more expensive oil cans, utilize padding or cushioning materials to maintain a safe distance between each can.

Vintage Promotional Puzzle In A Phillips 66 Trop-Artic Quart Oil Can, 2 Sided Hawaii-Alaska 165 Piece Puzzle, Circa 1970s by Joe Haupt is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

Final thoughts on oil can collecting

While not as mainstream as most collectibles, oil can collecting has an undeniable charm. Indeed, the monetary value of these oil cans might never compare with that of most collectibles.

However, its allure lies beyond the monetary value and, more importantly, in the stories they tell. The early days of man’s inventiveness, its continuous evolution, the historical imprints of brands long gone, and the craftsmanship in their design.

If you’re undecided about taking a step, here’s an encouragement to get started today!

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John Bassey

John Bassey

John is a freelance writer and founder of WordCraft Consult, a consultancy that provides expert writing services and enhances youth engagement in reading. With six years of writing experience and over 300 clients, He has made significant contributions as a content writer for several brands, such as Tech Triangle, KBO Bikes, Dolls Magazine, and, more recently, Cardlines.

John has a Bachelor's degree in Statistics and an enduring passion for creating content.  He is  currently dedicated to nurturing WordCraft while advancing appreciation for collectibles and literature through highly informative articles. 
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