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By Gary Gauger

Today's beer can is a fine feat of engineering with its thin aluminum body, aluminum top, and its own built-in opener.  But, do you remember when beer cans came with a heavy steel body, spout top, and had a bottle cap?  Probably not.  Sit back, relax, and take a journey back through the history of crowntainer style beer cans.

Back in the early 1900's, the most convenient way to take beer home was to lug a very heavy wooden case of long neck bottles. Around 1909, a small brewery in Montana first inquired as to whether it was possible to distribute beer in a more convenient container. At that time, cans were beginning to be used for other purposes, so why not put beer into a can?  It was a good thought, so the American Can Company set out to investigate the feasibility.  It turned out to be easier said than done.  In fact, it would be another 24 years before beer cans became a reality.  So what took so long?

The first problem was to find materials and a manufacturing process that could produce a can strong enough to withstand the intense pressure during the pasteurization, yet do it at a reasonable cost.  You can bet there were many seams and lids blown off during the initial tests.  With these obstacles, the first results were unsuccessful and the answer was "No, beer could not be canned.”

Next came another long setback: Prohibition.  On December 18, 1917 Congress passed the 18th amendment that banned the sale and transport of alcoholic beverages.  The amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919 with the provision that it would take effect one year after the amendment was ratified by the state legislatures.  So, on January 16, 1920, the country became dry.  Congress may have had good intentions, but it didn’t work as alcohol was made available through underground sources.  On February 20, 1933 Congress passed the 21st amendment which repealed the 18th amendment.  This was ratified on December 5, 1933 and breweries restarted production of alcoholic beverages.

Anticipating the end of Prohibition, the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company of Newark, New Jersey agreed to test market beer filled in a can produced by the American Can Company.  In November 1933, the first beer cans rolled off a temporary canning line.  On January 24, 1935, Krueger sold their Krueger's Finest Beer and Krueger's Cream Ale brands in cans for the first time in a test market in Richmond, Virginia.  These cans had a flat tin lid which required opening instructions on the side of the can showing how to puncture the top of this new fangled container with a tool that became known as a "churchkey."  Seeing the huge success of the trial, the National Can Company also started manufacturing flat top beer cans soon afterwards.

Later that year, a new style of can called the “cone top” appeared.  This type of can, so named because of its funnel-like tops, appealed to smaller brewers because cone top cans could be filled on existing bottling lines and sealed with regular bottle caps.   In September 1935, the first cap sealed cone type style beer can was introduced by the Continental Can Company for the G. Heilemann Brewing Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin.  The Schlitz Brewing Company was the first national brewer to follow suit.  The following year, the Crown Cork & Seal Company became the fourth beer can manufacturer after acquiring the Acme Can Company of Philadelphia.  In 1937, they introduced their own version of a cone top called a J-Spout.

There are four basic types of cone-top cans: Low Profile, J-Spout, High Profile, and Crowntainer.  The first three styles are three-piece cans, with the main difference being the height of the spout.  They were manufactured from flat sheets of tinplate that were cut into smaller rectangular pieces, rolled into a cylindrical shape, then the two edges soldered together at the seam to form the body of the can.  The bottom lid and the top cone were then attached to complete the can.  

The low profile cone top was the first cone top style can and debuted in 1937.  It had a low spout and indented ribs in the top for added strength. The second cone style, called a J-Spout, had a long spout and was produced by the Crown Cork & Seal Company from 1937 until 1943. The high profile was introduced in 1939 and used until 1965.

Crown Cork & Seal was founded in 1892 by William Painter soon after he patented the "crown cork".  In 1898, he automated the process of filling and capping bottles. With its headquarters in Baltimore, the company grew quickly, and by 1930 it produced half of the world’s supply of bottle caps.  In the 1930s, then-chairman Charles McManus perfected the electrolytic tin-plating process that was used in producing the flat sheets used in rolling three-piece beer cans, like their own J-Spout cone top.

Because of manufacturing problems with the J-Spout, Crown Cork & Seal soon switched to a new two-piece cone top can in late 1939.  This new style of can, called a Crowntainer, was very different from the other type of cone tops.  Crowntainers were very popular with small and medium sized breweries and were a big success for a 15-year period.  Crowntainer cans were first used by C. Schmidt & Sons brewing company in September 1939 and continued to be used until the middle 1950’s when the Louis F. Neuweiler’s Sons brewing company gave them up. 

So why did Crown Cork & Seal suddenly switch can designs?  The answer to that question can be found in their patent application to the US Patent Office & Trademark Office.  The inventors of the Crowntainer were Amos Calleson and his son Edgar Calleson from Merrick, New York.  While working for Crown Cork & Seal, they filed a design patent application for a new and original “Metal Bottle” with the United States Patent Office on June 23, 1937 and were assigned design patent number 109,311.  They also filed a patent application for their “Container” on May 13, 1940 and were assigned patent number 2,384,810. 

In their patent application, they made 35 claims of innovation and improvements to “metal receptacles of the can type” for which they sought patent protection.  The Calleson’s created a metal container that did not have the conventional side and top seams.  These cans were drawn and formed from a mold of cold steel to produce a can with just two pieces: (1) the seamless body with an integral funnel-shaped spout, and (2) the concave tin bottom.

The Calleson’s invention was a container that was extremely strong, had a nice appearance, and was capable of simple and cheap production.  Their patent was officially approved on September 15, 1945, and “Crowntainer” became a registered trademark of the Crown Cork & Seal Company.  The following patent statement appeared on all crowntainer style beer cans produced after that date. 

CROWNTAINER
REG. U.S. PAT. OFF. NO. 366873
PATENT NO.2384810
DESIGN PATENT NO. 109311

Constructing the spout and body of a crowntainer from steel with no seams, made the container incredibly strong allowing it to withstand the high heat and pressure during the sterilization and pasteurizing process without causing leaks or bulges in the can.  Not having a seam also allowed the can to be better decorated since the entire surface of the can could be painted.  With conventional tin cans, the areas next to the seams could not be painted so that the seams could be soldered without ruining the paint. The mouth of the can, used for filling and pouring, was designed to be sealed by a crimped cap known as a “crown”.  After all, this is what Crown Cork & Seal built their company on.

After a crowntainer can was formed, the body and spout were coated with aluminum, which gave it a shiny silver color.  This prompted several breweries to trademark phrases to describe their new cans, such as “Silver Growler” (a pail brought by a customer for beer), “Silver Bumper” (a glass of beer filled to the brim) or “Silver Seidel” (a large beer mug with a hinged lid). 

Later in the manufacturing process, the destination brewery’s label and graphics on the can were painted onto the already formed cylindrical body.  This was much different and more difficult than the process used to create the labels of three-piece cans where the labels were painted on flat sheets of tinplate before being rolled.  That process allowed for more colorful and intricate graphics.  As such, the painting process for crowntainers was limited to using just four colors of paint on top of the base coat.

The recognizable silver color for crowntainers stopped during World War II when the government mandated that certain materials were diverted for military use.  Tinplate, which as used on the three-piece rolled beer cans, was no longer available to can manufacturers. As a result, the production of most beer cans for civilian use came to a halt from 1943 until the end of the war.  Since crowntainers used tinplate only on the bottom lid, Crown Cork & Seal was able to continue producing crowntainers during the war.  However, two changes were made to the cans.  First, the tin bottom was replaced with a lacquered metal bottom.  Second, the body and spout of the can was painted with a base coat of dull gray enamel paint instead of the silver colored aluminum coating.  Cans shipped overseas for military use were painted an olive drab color for camouflage.

After World War II when beer can production resumed, the use of the dull gray color stopped. Most breweries using crowntainers chose to return to the silver aluminum coated cans.  Others breweries chose to use cream-colored or white-colored enamel paint as the base coat to help make their can more appealing.

During the fifteen-year period, Crown Cork & Seal sold their patented Crowntainer cans to 74 breweries in 53 cities across 19 states.  Almost all breweries using crowntainers were in the Northeast and Mid-West. The only exceptions were one brewery in Texas, one in Cuba, and two in Venezuela who used crowntainer cans.

 Most breweries using crowntainers and other cone tops were small breweries with local or regional coverage.  These small breweries preferred the cone top style beer cans since they could reuse their existing bottling equipment and not have to re-tool their entire assembly line for flat-top beer cans.  Because these breweries quite small, they tended to be bought out by larger breweries or couldn’t compete and went out of business.  By the end of the crowntainer era in the mid 1950's, about half of the breweries using crowntainers had either closed or were purchased by a larger national company.  Today, only a handful of brand names brewed during the crowntainer era still exist.

After crowntainer cans disappeared in the mid 1950’s, all other cone tops were eventually replaced by flat top cans.  Flat top beer cans later were replaced by tab top cans.  Tin beer cans were gradually replaced by all-aluminum cans.  Pull tabs were replaced by stay-on tab tops.  While all of these improvements were great feats of engineering, they lack that nostalgic allure of days gone by when beer cans had caps. 

 

Timeline

Below are some key dates in the history of beer cans.  The top of the timeline is information about beer cans in general and the bottom of the timeline shows key dates regarding crowntainers.

 

Crowntainer History Timeline

   
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Last updated 08/17/17

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