DATING ENGLISH TINNED TOBACCO
Written by John C. Loring
Contributed by Yang Forcióri
It is useful and valuable to be able to generally date tins of English made tobacco.
Until recent years English tobacco blending laws prohibited blenders in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland from using the chemicals commonly found in the blends of Continental Europe and the United States and placed very strict limitations on the use of natural additives. Out of these restrictions arose the traditional English blends, blends which derive their distinctive aroma and flavor from the natural properties of the tobacco as opposed to chemical additives.
Natural products, free of chemical additives and preservatives, change and mature with age. Tobacco is no exception and this is especially true of virginia tobacco which has a high sugar content. Initially sharp and biting, virginia tobacco will mellow and sweeten over decades. Oriental tobaccos will also evolve in time, most notably latakia, traditionally the most desirable of aged tin tobacco, which will both soften and grow more pungent. On the other hand some tobaccos, such as burley will not change appreciably with age. [I suspect that the aging of tobaccos treated with chemical additives and/or preservatives is effected in two ways. First, preservatives will retard the aging process. Second, the chemicals and the tobaccos will neither uniformly age nor maintain the original balance of flavors. Personal experiences leads me to believe that for at least the first decade the chemical component becomes more noticeable as the years go by. For these reasons I generally avoid 'cellering' of chemically treated or preserved tobaccos and tend to believe the manufacturers of those blends when they state that their blends are best smoked shortly after purchase.] Since English blends are invariably based on virginia or virginia and oriental tobaccos and rarely use burley tobaccos, a tin of traditionally blended English tobacco will evolve for decades. [It is important to note that this is true not only for English 'virginia' and 'latakia' blends but also for English cavendish and matured press flake or roll blends. While these latter blends invariably contain natural additives, traditionally, unlike 'non english' blends of similar name, that use was very limited and the tobaccos used were of the highest quality virginias as opposed to burleys or low grade leaf.]
English blenders long recognized the importance of age in the blending process and before the high cost of money dictated otherwise, they aged their tobaccos at three stages, prior to blending, prior to tinning, and prior to shipment. Beginning in the mid to late 1970's however, rising interest rates and the invasion of the industry by MBAs forced the use of younger tobacco. Coincidentally it was also about this time that blenders began to run out of Syrian latakia. Unquestionably Syria produced the finest latakia, but the heat/smoke process consumed so much wood that in the early 1970's the Syrian government banned the manufacture to save what remained of its forests. The 1970s also saw the beginnings of a concentration of the English tobacco industry and by the end of the decade for instance, both Dunhill and Rattray had farmed out production of their blends to third party English blenders with noticeable changes in the blends resulting from the transitions. Twenty years later, in the 1990's, production of most English blends (Dunhill being the most notable exception) shifted to the Continent resulting in quite significant changes in the blending and characteristics of the blends, the most important of which being the common use of chemical additives.
Thus when you pick up a tin of English made tobacco it is important to know the age of that tin in order to determine the character and maturity of the tobacco, where the tobacco was blended and who was the actual blender. Fortunately, it is in fact possible to approximately date English tinned tobacco.
There are five major indicia useful to generally date an English tin, the tin type, the origin labeling, the weight labeling, tax stamps and the US importer address. While often no single one of these indicia alone will be definitive, used together most tins can be comfortably dated. I shall deal briefly with each seriatim.
There are three major types of English tobacco tins as well as some minor varieties:
The 'knife lid' or 'cutter top' tin style appears to have come into use during World War I (although there may be evidence of late 19th century use) and was generally used through the 1960s. This tin type has two tops, a disposable metal inner top used to create an airtight seal and a loose metal outer top. The inner top is a thin metal sheet which effects an air seal until the initial opening of the tin. The outer top is used to initially open the tin by cutting away the inner top (the inner top being then disposed of) and then used to loosely cover the opened tin. There is a cutting point on the inside of outer top near the edge that comes in one of two styles 'fixed' and 'moveable'. This point is used to cut away the inner top and is activated by either sliding a movable cutting point towards the center of the top about a quarter of an inch or bending the tip of a fixed cutting point down 90 degrees. In either case, once the point is activated the outer top is placed on the inner top and pressed down with the result that the cutting point pierces the inner top. The outer top is then turned 360 degrees so that the cutting point completely cuts away the inner top. It appears that the fixed cutting point style was the first to be used and was phased out in the early 1950's. I am not certain when the movable cutting point style began use but I have seen it on tins dating to at least the 1930's, and it was the predominate style after World War II and the only style after the early 1950's.
The 'coin twist' tin, which is still used today, appears to have been introduced in the 1940's following World War II and by the '70s became the predominant tin style. Some early 'coin twists' dating to no later then the early 1950's had rubber gaskets that extended past the outer lip of the top or rubber stoppers that plugged a hole in the bottom of the tin.
The 'pop top' or 'ring pull' tin was introduced in the 1970's and like the 'coin twist' continues in use through today. In essence it is a modern day 'knife lid' with a disposable inner metal top that is pulled away and a plastic outer top that is used to cover the tin after initial opening. Into the 1980's the tops of this type of tin often had text, pictorial or a combination of text and pictorial instructions. The text or combination of text and pictorial instruction styles (but not the pictorial only style) are generally the earlier and suggests the early or mid '70s.
The 'key top' tin is a tin having a top that is sealed to the body by a thin strip of metal. A removable 'key' affixed to the tin top is used to open the tin by winding up and removing the metal strip (in America this type of tin was commonly used for coffee). This seldom seen tobacco tin style was used occasionally by John Cotton in the 1970's, for most Fribourg and Treyer tins into the 1980's, and perhaps by McConnell for larger tin sizes in the '70s. I suspect it was introduced in the 1960's as a substitute for the 'knife lid'.
The 'lever top' tin is most commonly associated with American tobacco blends between the 1950's and 1980's in 8, 14 and 16 ounce sizes. The removable top of this type of tin is about a quarter inch smaller than the circumference of the tin. The top is levered open via a lever that is permanently hinged to the top. I have never seen this specific type of tin for an English blend but I have seen a few instances of a similar style lacking an attached hinged lever (you use a coin, at least I do) on two and four ounce Rattray and Sullivan tins dating to the 1960's. While this type of tin can be very nearly air tight it is seldom absolutely so, so tobacco in older such tins will almost always be found to be on the dry side.
The 'Canister' tin, like the 'lever top' is rarely seen in connection with post World War II English tobacco. This type of tin has a screw on, hinged, or slip-on top which does not create an air tight seal and is generally associated with foil packed tobacco inside. Balkan Sobranie used this style for 7 ounce packaging in the late 1970's (rectangular tin with a hinged top) and again during the 1990's (round tin with a screw on top). A more common earlier pre World War variant of the canister tin, used by Bell's Three Nuns among others, was a rectangular hinged top style holding up to eight ounces of pressed flake tobacco.
Lastly, in America during World War II war time material shortages forced the occational use of glass jars for tobacco and although I have not seen any English varieties I suspect the same may exist for at least some war time English blends.
[A note about some of the above older tins as they are found today. The two principal problems presented by older tins today are dried out tobacco and rust. The inner top of a knife lid tin should be 'puffed out', if it is not there is a good possibility that a small hole has developed somewhere in the tin. Also regardless of external condition there is a tendency for knife lid tins to develop internal rust. The thick metal of coin twist tins generally means that external rust rarely penetrates to the inside. The particular danger presented by coin twist tins, especially the rectangular variety, is that in time the top will slightly lift away from the bottom breaking the air seal - gently pulling up on the top with your fingertips will not break a sound seal but will generally expose an already broken one. Also note that the oversized rubber gaskets or stoppers used in some early '50s coin twists have deteriorated by now and most probably are no longer air tight. The pop top tin metal tends to thin towards the top making pin prick rust holes a danger. Unlike wine and cigars however, the forgoing problems do not necessarily spell disaster. Dry tobacco may almost always be rejuvenated with good, sometimes exceptional results and even when rust is involved the rust generally effects only a small portion of the tin often allowing the bulk of the tobacco to be rejuvenated.] [Besides dating, tins and similarity of tins can also be used to identify the actual manufacturer of blends. For instance blends in the '60s - '70s from the famed English 'high end' pipe shop Simmons come in exactly the same 4 ounce 'tall boy' coin twist tin used by Dunhill at that time - obviously Dunhill was the blender. Likewise, in the comparison the English made Ashton pop tops and those of the last English blender of Rattray are from the same English blender. As we know that the Rattray blender was Robert McConnell it follows that it too was the Ashton blender. Similarly, the McConnell coin twist tins of the '60s-'70s are fairly distinctive, so when one comes across 'store brand' 'Made in England' tins from Leavitt & Peirce (a famed Cambridge, Massachusetts pipe shop) in the same distinctive style and with McConnell blend names the conclusion is self evident. More intriguing is that at the same time Leavitt & Peirce offered its 'Made in England' blends in 8 ounce key top tins, assumedly also produced by McConnell. English key top tins however, are unusual otherwise known only from Fribourg and Treyer and John Cotton, both important albeit deceased UK pipe shops, which in turn leads to the speculation that perhaps McConnell was the blender of these blends as well. Hopefully, response to this article will allow for better definition of the 'true blenders' of the many British and American 'store brand' 'made in England' blends.]