DATING ENGLISH TINNED TOBACCO
Written by John C. Loring, 1999
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.]
A large bold face lower case "e;" on the tin or label indicates that the tin dates from the 1980's or 1990 and is never found on tins prior to the late 1970's. [Note however, that the converse is not true, i.e. tins dating from the '80s & '90s may be found without an "e".] The "e" references the Euromarket.
Prior to the 1980's the country of origin on English tins was generally indicated as being "Great Britain", "England", "Scotland" or Northern Ireland". Beginning in the 1980's however, the tendency has been to use "United Kingdom".
While there are exceptions, generally speaking:
- weight labeled only in ounces suggests the mid 1970's or earlier. 1 ounce or less tins (that are not obviously samples) especially in the form of 'short filled' 2 ounce sized tins, suggest 1950's or earlier, but are known in later decades as well. Even numbered ounces only, i.e. 2, 4, and 8 ounce tins (other than Germain's Esoterica blends) strongly suggests mid 1970's or earlier, especially if that weight is embossed on the bottom of the tin. While fractional ounce only tins, e.g. 1 3/4 ounces, suggest the mid 1970's or earlier, it is not that unusual to also see them after the mid 1970's.
- weight labeled both in ounces and grams suggests the late 1970's to present. However, two styles strongly suggest only the mid to late 1970's: (i) dual weights embossed on the bottom of the tin or (ii) dual weight labeling where the ounce weight is a whole number, e.g. 2 oz / 56 gr (other than Germain's Esoterica blends); and
- weight labeled only in grams strongly suggests the 1980s to present, although it should be noted that Republic of Ireland tins dating to the 1940's and 1950's may be found measured only in grams.
A US tax stamp or remnants of the same is indicative of a tin dating from the 1950's or earlier. Note that the printed year on the tax stamp, 1926, is the year the tax law was enacted and says nothing about the age of the tin. However, if the tax stamp is largely intact you will find printed a "Series number", e.g. "SERIES 124". Adding 29 to that number will give you the approximate year of the tin, e.g. a tin with a series 124 tax stamp dates to around 1953. On occasion a US customs date will also be found rubber stamped on the tax stamp, this date will also give you the approximate date of importation.
Tins will also be found with Canadian tax stamps. Unlike the US tax stamp however, these stamps are currently in use. I have not seen enough of Canadian stamps to determine whether over time there have been differences useable for dating purposes.
Many tins found in the US will indicate the importer and its address. If the address contains a postal zone as opposed to a zip code, the 1950's or earlier is suggested. [While not English made tobacco it should be noted that Lane tinned tobacco labels apparently continued to have a postal zone address well into the '60s.]
When found, the changing address of one important importer, James B. Russell, can be quite useful for dating purposes. A Russell address of:
- W. 56th Street dates the tin to the 1960's or earlier;
- W. 61st Street dates the tin from the 1960's to the early 1970's;
- Van Brunt Street dates the tin from the 1970's to mid 1980's; and
- Parkway dates the tin from the mid 1980's to present.
[Please note that the dates given here are approximate and somewhat speculative. Hopefully response to this article will allow for some more definitive dating.]
Lastly, it is not unusual to find tins which have handwritten dates. Such dates can be quite useful but take care for they can also be quite misleading. Usually these dates are of two sorts, either they represent when someone acquired the tin, first, second or third hand and often well after manufacture, or they can represent someone's guess as to the age of the tin, which guess can often be considerably off.
[Please note that in most cases the dates given below are approximate and somewhat speculative. Hopefully response to this article will allow for more definitive dating. The absence of some popular blends from those listed below is simply an indication that at the present time I use the general dating methods set forth above to date those tins as opposed to any special brand specific indications.]
In the 1990's production of the Ashton branded tobacco blends was shifted to the Continent using exactly the same labels that were used in England. The English made blends, which were blended for Ashton by McConnell, may be distinguished from the Continental made by the 'pop top' tin top. The tin top of the McConnell English made Ashton blends was imprinted with pictorial opening instructions while the Continental made Ashton tin tops are plain.
- Tins labeled as manufactured by Sobranie Limited, Sobrainie House appear to date from the 1970's or earlier;
- Tins labled as manufactured by Sobranie Limited, 17 Worship Street appear to date to the '70s for a brief time just after 'Sobranie House';
- Tins labeled as manufactured by Sobranie Limited, Chichester Road appear to date from the late 1970s;
- Tins labeled as manufactured by Sobranie of London, 65 Kingsway appear to date to the early 1980's;
- Tins labeled as manufactured by Sobranie of London, 34 Burlington Arcade appear to date to the 1980's; and
- Tins labeled as manufactured by Sobranie of London, 13 Old Bond Street date to the 1990's.
Balkan Sobranie was imported by James Russell so as discussed earlier the Russell addresses are also useful for dating. (a Sobranie tin paper with a Russell '56th St' address & a Sobranie '17 Worship St' address has been found in a Sobranie 'Sobranie House' painted knife lid tin).
Bell's Three Nuns
Bell's Three Nuns tins may be found in five flavors.
- Prior to the 1980's Three Nuns came either in an orange bordered solid brown (or earlier, sold black) 'coin twist' tin or through the 1960's in a 'knife lid' tin or prior to World War II in a hinged rectangular tin.
- In the 1980's the 'coin twist' tin was changed from orange bordered solid brown to an orange bordered brown wood grained and marked Made in Scotland although there are some 50 gram tins without that latter marking.
- In the 1990's production was shifted to Denmark. The Danish production came in both orange bordered solid brown and wood grained tins but all tins regardless of size or color are marked Made in Denmark either on the top or side of the tin top.
The key year for Dunhill tobacco is 1981 when production of most Dunhill tobacco blends was shifted from Dunhill to Murray in Northern Ireland (at the time both Dunhill and Murray were subsidiaries of the same parent company). While the blends remained of very fine quality, distinct differences were immediately apparent, I suspect from Murray's use of younger tobacco and probably some recipe changes due to the unavailability of some tobacco varieties. The only exception to the Murray transition were the My Mixture blends (other than 965). The My Mixture blends (other than 965), were, (and are) available only from the London Duke Street shop. Those blends apparently continued to be blended in house for some time, and today are produced for the Duke Street shop by a small batch blender in London.
- '20s - '60s: During this period the 'knife lid' was the primary tin style. In the '50s some 'coin twist' tins were introduced with a decade long, transition from the 4 ounce 'knife lid' to a 4 ounce 'coin twist' starting in the early '60s. [This decade long 'transition' may be indicative of the extended 'in the tin' aging that Dunhill gave its tobaccos.] These 4 ounce 'coin twists' are often called 'tall boys' because they were the same circumference as the 2 ounce 'coin twist' tins, just twice as high. Not all tins during these five decades were imprinted with the packaging weight but when they were it was only in ounces. Closer dating may generally be arrived at through the royal crest that appears on most tins. A Prince of Wales Crest dates from 1921 to 1936; a George VI Crest with a reference to the King dates from 1936 to 1953; a George VI Crest with no reference to the King dates to 1954; a George VI Crest with reference to the late King dates from 1954 to 1962; and an Elizabeth II Crest dates from 1963 to 1995. In addition tins from the WWII era bore a small reference to war time packaging requirements.
- '70s: 'Coin twist' tins were used exclusively during the '70s in the 2 ounce, 4 ounce 'tall boy', and 8 ounce sizes and as in prior years generally were labeled with words to the effect that the tobacco was been blended 'by Dunhill' in 'England' (or prior to the '70s often 'Great Britain').
- Early '80s: The last of the 'in house' Dunhill production, ending in 1981, was packaged in 'coin twists' tins with 'painted' labels showing weight in either fractional ounces only, e.g. 1 3/4 or 3 1/2, or in both fractional ounces and grams with, in either case, the country of origin labeled as 'England'. Sometime in 1981 production of standard brands (but other then 965, not the My Mixtures) was taken over by Murray. These tins may be identified by their paper (rather than 'painted') label which, for the first time, generally indicated the country of origin as being the 'United Kingdom' (I have seen a few paper label Murray tins with 'England'). In addition, distinctively, the now 3 1/2 ounce/100 gram 'tall boy' tin style was flattened resulting in the tin having a noticeably larger circumference than its 1 3/4 ounce/50 gram counterpart.
- Mid to Late '80s: Murray changed back to painted labeling within a few years, these tins however, may be easily distinguished from earlier Dunhill production in that the Murray tins uniformly label the country of origin as the 'United Kingdom'.
- '90s: In about 1990 the Murry blended tobacco label was changed to show that it was manufactured under the authority of Dunhill. In 1995 the Elizabeth II Crest was deleted from the tins and 'authority' was changed to 'in association' with Dunhill.
In short (and with some generalization):
'Association' or 'authority' equals Murray / '90s;
'United Kingdom' equals Murray / '80s - '90s;
Paper label 'coin twist' standard blends equals Murray / early '80s;
Fractional or dual weight painted 'coin twists' made in 'England' equal Dunhill/early '80s;
Whole ounces, or tall boy 'coin twists' equals Dunhill / '70s - '60s; and
'Knife-lid' equals Dunhill / '60s or earlier.
More mistakes are made in dating Rattray tobacco tins than with any other brand. The key is to generally disregard the label and look at the tin itself.
Rattray was a Scottish tobacconist who closed up shop in about 1980 but whose highly regarded pipe tobacco blends continue to the present day. Up to about 1970 all Rattray tobacco was blended by Rattray and came in tall thin 4 ounce 'knife lid' (or briefly in the 1960's in 4 ounce 'lever') tins. These tins were all labeled 'Made by Rattray'. [For reasons unknown the Highland Targe label has never been imprinted either 'Made by' or 'Made for' and dating of this blend has to be done by the tin top and bottom alone.] It is generally thought that Rattray continued blending all of its blends for another ten years and then, in 1980, turned them over to Robert McConnell, a fine English blender. However, based on a conversation related by Irwin Friedman with a former Rattray employee and which I find, with some modification, collaborated by the packaging, it appears rather that in about 1970 Rattray turned over the blending of some of its blends intended for the United States to McConnell. McConnel labeled the tins it blended 'Made for Rattray'. Rattray continued to blend itself the tins intended for the English and European markets, as well as all the blends of lesser demand, which tins were labeled, as in the past, 'Made by Rattray'.
When Rattray closed its doors in 1980 McConnell took over the blending of all the Rattray labeled tobacco, but did not change the labeling, thus after 1980 some McConnell blended tins were labeled 'Made for Rattray' while others also blended by McConnell were nonetheless labeled 'Made by Rattray'. McConnell blended in England through the 1980s but shifted production to Germany (and later elsewhere) beginning in about 1990 without any change in the labels, thus continuing the now meaningless 'Made by Rattray' and 'Made for Rattray' duality. Further, the country of origin for the German made Rattray was not included on the label (in the US only it was on a removable tab on the bottom of the tin).
Thus for Rattray tobaccos it is impossible to determine from the label alone who was the blender or when or where the tin was blended.
But if you largely disregard the label and look at the tin top and bottom you will do just fine:
- if the 'pop top' tin top is plain, the tin dates to the 1990's and was blended on the Continent;
- 'if the 'pop top' tin top has pictorial opening instructions and there is a "Made for Rattray" label Robert McConnell of England was the blender and the tin dates to the 1970's -1880s;
- if the 'pop top' tin top has text only opening instructions and there is a "Made by Rattray label it dates to the 1970's and was blended by Rattray of Scotland; and
- if the 'pop top' tin top has pictorial opening instructions and there is a "Made by Rattray" label the tin dates either to the 1970's and was blended by Rattray in Scotland, if it has a silver tinted bottom, or to the 1980's and was blended by McConnell in England, if the tin has a gold tinted bottom.
The problem with the last category of tins however, is that it is extremely difficult to determine whether you are looking at a silver or a gold tinted tin bottom unless you have one of the other for comparison (and do not believe any one that tells you they can do it without a comparison tin). For comparison purposes you can safely use either a Rattray's 'pop top' with text only instructions on the top, which tin will only have a silver bottom or, more readily findable, a tin with pictorial instructions on the top and a 'made for Rattray' label, which tin will only have a gold bottom.
- Plain top (either a "for" or "by" label & either a gold or silver bottom) ---------------- Europe/'90s
- Picture top / gold bottom / "by" label ------------------------- England (McConnell)/'80s
- Picture top / gold bottom / "for" label ----------------- England (McConnell)/'70s - '80s
- Picture top / silver bottom / "by" label ---------------------------- Scotland (Rattray) /'70s
- Text only top / silver bottom / "by" label ----------------------- Scotland (Rattray) /'70s.