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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 4, 1990

Kerosene and Petrol Tins

Kerosene and Petrol Tins

Sometimes on TV, or in magazines, we sec pictures taken in Third World countries of people carrying water in four gallon tins, sometimes balanced on their heads. It would scarcely be a comfortable load, but possibly the people in such places do not have wire to make handles.

With the fairly general use of plastic products, including buckets, it is hard for people to visualise the old square kerosene and benzine tins.

Before electric power was introduced, kerosene was in fairly general use for house lights. When petrol became an everyday requirement, it also was sold in tins.

Country stores kept limited petrol stocks to supply their clients. Motorists travelling long distances normally carried additional petrol but, unfortunately, some drivers just discarded their empty tins at the side of the road. As well as being unsightly, they sometimes caused accidents. Horses would take fright when they saw the strange shiny articles, which reflected the sunlight.

There was soon a surplus of tins and, naturally, they were put to many uses.

The old square buckets were very much in evidence around homes, in gardens, and on the farms. When used for milk buckets, wise people ran solder round the inside seams, to make them quite sterile, while some tins were cut down to a lower height, for feeding calves. One of the most obvious uses was for carrying water and, when potatoes were picked up by hand, what better container than a bucket. Contract picking of green peas was paid for at the rate of so much a bucketful. The tomato growers picked their fruit into buckets. Raspberry growers painted inside the tin buckets, which were used to collect the fruit from the smaller containers carried by the pickers. On farms, tins were used for the rendered down fat from the home killed mutton sheep. Country stores bought the full tins at prices which varied at different times, from say five shillings, down to one shilling.

The sheet metal from the tins was also used for a great variety of purposes. Sheds were sometimes walled with flattened out sheets of tin and, where a wall was tarred, it lasted fairly well, but otherwise it soon rusted badly. It was not a lasting material for roofs, but was an easy material to work with, and could be made into many different usable articles for house and workshop, including bowls and trays.

Tins cut in half lengthways were used as seed boxes in nurseries, and plants such as tomatoes were often sold in these containers. When my own people were buying their bulk supply of petrol in cases of two tins each, we saved the tins and sold them to the State Forest Service for one shilling page 31each, for use in their nurseries. Possibly one of the more unusual practical uses, was filling tins with concrete, to produce lasting piles when house building. Tins were not particularly good for toilet purposes and, when used for dunny buckets, they soon rusted out.

It is correct to say that many good uses could be made of what was an otherwise waste product. Perhaps one could make some comparison with modem times, when we see the great many uses that oil drums are put to. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but the convenience of a readily available article leads to invention.

Unlike plastic, tins did not lead to the waste disposal problem that we now have, as they were easily crushed down flat, and rusted away in a few short years.

Country stores installed petrol pumps when bulk petrol was introduced, but this meant that the pumps were locked when the stores closed up. Some storekeepers could be persuaded to supply out of hours, if the need was urgent. Eventually, country hotels also installed petrol pumps.

When the petrol came in tins there was not a great deal of competition, but the big companies each turned out a cheaper grade. Shell, who also supplied Big Tree, had Power in petrol, while Vacuum supplied Kalif, in addition to their high grade Plume brand. Of course, motorists had their own preferences. The Tadmor store had one of the few Big Tree bowers, and one man drove past the Shell and Plume pumps to buy Big Tree at Tadmor. He believed that his car ran better on that brand!

As time went along, Atlantic and other brands appeared and competition became more keen.