These soldering tools for making cans were found many years ago on the beach at the Yes Bay cannery site. Frank Roppel polished the two shiny tools and invented handles so we could display them. One copper tool is untouched to show the weathering and how the tools looked on the beach.
Story last updated at 6/20/2012 - 2:02 pm
When salmon were first put in cans in Alaska's canneries, there were no machines to make cans. All the labor was done by hand by Chinese laborers. It is hard to image the amount of work it took to cut sheet tin, shape the can, close the side seam and put the bottom on with lead solder. Imagine the work to make 13 million cans in 1896 and in 1901, 34 million cans! In the latter years, canners shipped more than a million dollars worth of tin plate to all Alaskan canneries for can making.
Why were cans made in Alaska when all the supplies and laborers were "down south?" It would have been impossible to find storage on the cannery ships for such bulk if the cans had been shipped ready-made. Furthermore, all the cannery crew came north at the same time, and the making of cans provided work for a large part of the crew, otherwise unemployed for six or eight weeks prior to the run. The remainder of the crew prepared and repaired machinery, nets and boats.
Chinese workers, in those days, were provided by a contractor. The contract called for all the labor involved for completion of a pack from making of cans, the preparing and canning the salmon, to stowing the labeled, filled cans into wooden boxes.
How were cans made? Tin plate was sheared into squares and cut into can-body sizes. Eight of these pieces passed through a can forming machine consisting of three steel rollers that rolled the plate into cylindrical shapes. Originally, this was done by hand in the very first canneries.
The man working at the seamer bench placed a rolled tin on another cylinder in a way so that the two edges of the tin came tightly together. A drop of lead solder and a particle of rosin were placed on the seam and evenly distributed by a hot tool made of copper. The can was then seamed on the inside by a man or boy using a pointed copper tool. At the next table the bottom edge of the tin was dipped into a dish containing a piece of old net saturated with acid. The bottom was placed on the can edge and a drop of solder dripped into the can. A man called the Floater soldered on the bottom by inserting a special-made tool into the can. Next the can was taken to another bench to have the edge slightly flanged outward readying it for the top or lid. The cans were piled until needed.
By 1897 at a few canneries, machines soldered the long body seams. In nearly all canneries, machines soldered the tops onto the flanged edge of the filled can. The cans ended in the retort to be pressure cooked.
Today anything containing lead is an anathema. Lead poisoning! If people who ate salmon from the early cans died, none of the early journals or newspapers mentioned it.
Many cans did not seal properly if the men who did the soldering left any kind of leak. To check, cans were put in water baths once out of the retorts. The can would have leaked juice during the cooking process making them lighter so they floated. I have seen photos of cans floating in the bay in front of a cannery, basically thrown away.
If the cannery had time, the Chinese laborers would open the can, fill it up to weight, and the can would go through the process again. These were known as "do over's" and had labels that indicated the lower grade, a much softer product. I read that men in the South would shake the can of salmon, punch a hole in it, and drink the contents.
Tin cans tended to rust. If the outside of the cans were not protected in some way, enormous losses caused by rust ensued. To prevent rust salmon packers lacquered the cans. The English market, which bought a greater part of canned fish in those years, insisted that all shipments be sent in lacquered cans because the cans were transported aboard ships.
At first, to prevent rust, men painted each can individually with red paint. Next a mixture of wood extract and alcohol were tried, but this only dyed the can. The cans were painted with Japanese varnish reduced with alcohol, but this concoction dried very slowly. After extensive experimentation, a quick-drying, brown lacquer evolved in the form of an asphalt-based varnish.
The industry soon outgrew the hand-method of lacquering when a machine was invented whereby cans were lowered into a vat. Pity the poor worker trapped in a small room, in damp or rainy weather, with the fumes rising from a number of the vats and from stacks of drying cans. Finally in 1901, a machine was invented that involved a hot blast to dry the cans within minutes.
Up until about 1909 all canneries used cans made by hand with cumbersome soldering equipment. Around that time, a new system came into use. This avoided use of solder in sealing. This was known as the "sanitary" method and meant solderless cans. Around 1918, collapsed cans were introduced, whereby the cans could be made at central locations, shipped flat, and then reformed by a machine at the cannery.
Can making, soldering and lacquering by hand became a lost art. Thank goodness. Today's cans no longer expose the public to what we now know were things harmful to our health.