DATING ENGLISH TINNED TOBACCO
© 1999 John C. Loring
[This article comes at a price - if you are aware of any errors or additional information on how to date English tobacco tins generally or for specific brands please advise me at firstname.lastname@example.org . The tinned tobacco inventory that was primarily used for this article may be found at Tobacco Inventory .]
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
Natural products, free of chemical additives and preservatives, change and
mature with age. Tobacco is no exception and this is especially true of
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
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.
Generally Dating English Tins
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
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
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
[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
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 "
While there are exceptions, generally speaking:
Tins will also be found with Canadian tax stamps. Unlike the
Many tins found in the
When found, the changing address of one important importer, James B. Russell, can be quite useful for dating purposes. A Russell address of:
[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.
Some Specific Brands
[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
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 '
The key year for Dunhill tobacco is 1981 when production of most Dunhill
tobacco blends was shifted from Dunhill to
In short (and with some generalization):
'Association' or 'authority' equals
Paper label 'coin twist' standard blends equals
Fractional or dual weight painted 'coin twists' made in '
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
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:
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)
Picture top / gold bottom / "by" label -------------------------
Picture top / gold bottom / "for" label -----------------
Picture top / silver bottom / "by" label ----------------------------
Text only top / silver bottom / "by" label -----------------------
© 1999 John C. Loring
[This article comes at a price - if you are aware of any errors or additional information on how to date English tobacco tins generally or for specific brands please advise me at email@example.com].