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The Problem with Cans and Tins

by Geoff Woodcox, State Historical Society of North Dakota on

Cans and tins can be challenging to classify. At times the terms are used interchangeably depending upon the context, the contents of the container, and the culture a person comes from. There is no quality that is purely unique to cans or completely synonymous with tins. In this blog post, I would like to give my take on how to use these terms appropriately in your database using Nomenclature 3.0.

One resource we have to help classify terms is the Art and Architecture Thesaurus (or AAT). In developing Nomenclature 4.0, which will be released in 2015, the Nomenclature Task Force utilized it often. The main difference noted between the two terms in the AAT is that cans are generally sealed and are sometimes meant to hold liquids, while a tin has a removable lid and usually holds solid objects.

Nomenclature 3.0 also provides a bit of indirect guidance. When viewing the lexicon screen in Past Perfect (seen below), you can see that tin is a secondary term under can, meaning that a tin is a more specialized container, meant for specific functions.

On Past Perfect's lexicon screen, you can see that tin is a secondary term to can, meaning it is a more specialized term.

On Past Perfect’s lexicon screen, you can see that tin is a secondary term to can, meaning it is a more specialized term.

So what are those functions? When examining the 36 artifacts classified as a “Tin” in my institution’s collection, they do share many characteristics. Tins are decorative and less utilitarian, with colorful paper labels and rims that could be misshapen or crushed. They have lids that are meant to be opened and closed many times because they contained items that needed to be accessed repeatedly over time, meaning they held dry, durable consumables that wouldn’t immediately spoil. Products such as medicine, tea, spices, and tobacco are commonly held in tins because they do not require an airtight seal.

Notice the recloseable top on this tin of red pepper.  One of the primary differences between cans and tins is that tins usually have a resealable lid.

Notice the recloseable top on this tin of red pepper. One of the primary differences between cans and tins is that tins usually hold items that are meant to be accessed multiple times, such as spices.

The term “can” is very general, referring to items that hold anything from trash to soup. Generally speaking, cans are round (though not always) and are designed to be more durable than tins. The 183 cans in our collection contained products that require an airtight seal for various reasons, whether it is to avoid spoilage or to keep liquids confined. Products like perishable food, poisonous chemicals, soft drinks, and paint are commonly held in cans.

Cans generally hold products that require an airtight seal, such as soda.  Cans have tops that are not able to be resealed.

Cans like this generally hold products that require an airtight seal, such as soda. Most (though not all) cans have tops that are not able to be resealed.

You can see that even though there are similarities between the two terms, they may be classified differently in your database.

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