Museum Collection Ablaze With Tobacco Tins

Finding a topic to blog about can sometimes be a daunting and hazy task. At other times, inspiration for sharing a blog comes so naturally in my daily work duties that I can’t get it down on paper fast enough! It’s in the very unusual moments that spark a blog thought or topic that make for truly unique blogs, the ones about strange items, or odd customs, or lost relics. Never did I expect that a simple conversation with a friend would ignite an interest into seeking a history on such a specific area of items in our collection – tobacco containers and tins.

While conversing with a like-minded history-loving friend of mine, we got into the topic of artifacts and common products of the not-so-distant past. The conversation started with our discussion on his project at a local care centre where he works as a Recreation Aide. He has started a “travelling museum” once a month where he brings in items and artifacts he’s been collecting over the years, typically set to a specific theme.  We talked about ancient art, statues and idols, and pieces of meteorite from millions of years ago…and then quickly switched to Mrs. Stewart’s Laundry Bluing liquid… What a transition!

Because WDHM has several bottles of Mrs. Stewart in the collection, I knew exactly what it was and what laundry bluing was used for, but I was surprised that he knew of it. These items, along with all his ancient relics and pieces, are a result of years of collecting and attending local flea markets and antique shops. Suddenly, we were comparing all the old brands and products we had learned about through our work within our own collections. I chimed in about the common items that come through our doors so often as artifact donations, including tobacco cans.

I decided to do a bit of research on the history of tobacco and the recreation of smoking. Wow, what a topic! As it turns out, there is a lot of history on tobacco! From ancient myths to old-fashioned healing uses, tobacco has a rich and flavoured history and evolution. By the early 20th century, smoking had become a popular and, one might say “cool,” habit. Its growing popularity made it so commonplace that it’s not surprising to see positive advertisements for various cigarette and tobacco brands. Storage and sale of tobacco really lit up over the decades as tobacco was largely sold and carried in tins, often small and compact enough to fit into a pocket. How convenient! Today, most cigarette packages are in small box cartons with very graphic images and warnings on them. Certainly a far cry from a cover with a suitable gentleman or a feisty animal.

Black Cat tobacco tin from the WDHM collection

The demographic of the smoking trend has changed in more recent decades as the warnings and concerns over tobacco and associated health issues has increased. Studying such a movement, it is interesting to note aspects that play a role in determining habits such as these, looking at areas regarding the legal developments over the sale and regulation of tobacco. In Canada, persons under 18 years of age were no longer permitted to buy tobacco as of 1993. In more recent years, smoking laws came into effect banning smoking within public spaces and businesses and, most recently, in personal vehicles with children under the age of 18. As we move forward into the 21st century it is probable that even more laws will be filtered out to extinguish the habit of smoking!

In the WDHM collection there are over 48 different tobacco tins and cans! This includes the Prince Albert brand… The butt of the joke that fuelled this blog:

Prince Albert in a can.....

“Do you have Prince Albert in a Can?” Asks a customer over the phone to the store clerk. He responds, “yes.”


Thanks to my friend, Ron, for passing on that joke of old and getting me hooked on writing a blog about smoking!


Addicted to the topic of Tobacco and it’s history? Check out these sources that helped light up this topic:

CBC News. “A Legal History of Smoking in Canada.” July 29, 2011. accessed Nov 26, 2015.

Charlton, Anne. “Medicinal Uses of Tobacco in History.” June 2004. accessed Nov 26, 2015.

CNN. “A Brief History of Tobacco.” accessed Nov 26, 2015.

Collectors Weekly. “Antique Tobacco Tins.” accessed Nov 26, 2015.

Proctor, Robert N. “The History of the Discovery of the Cigarette- lung cancer link: evidentiary traditions, corporate denial, global toll.” November 22, 2011. accessed Nov 26, 2015.

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