As a cornerstone of petroliana, or gas station memorabilia, antique oil cans hold a particular attraction to collectors. These colorful containers of lubricant transport a collector back to the days when bow-tie wearing attendants greeted car drivers at the pumps, cleaned windshields and checked and changed the oil. Whether in pristine condition or deformed, rusty and dinged, vintage oil cans bring a smile to the faces of their owners. As with any collectible, finding a desirable oil can takes time, patience and research.
The first step to determining the value of an antique oil can is to determine its age and general type. The boxy shapes of early oil cans date to the 1920’s. Round cans with a soldered seam appeared in the 1940’s, while the first aluminum motor oil cans were produced in 1958. In addition, a basic understanding of can manufacturing techniques helps to date and approximate the value of a can.
An older oil can’s brand name also influences its value. While well known national brands such as Texaco Havoline, Castrol, Esso and Shell are valued by collectors, smaller regional oil companies also command a premium. Likewise, the design and appearance of an oil can’s logo also plays a role in its overall value. Early variants of a company’s logo tend to be worth more than current versions, and bonus points are earned when a variant’s time of appearance coincides with an important milestone for the brand.
While a can’s age and design are influential, the most important factor in determining its value is its overall condition. An oil can that is rust free and in good shape generally sells for more than one that is not. In most cases, a can that is rusted but otherwise in good condition can be restored with a little elbow grease.
In addition to being a great collector’s item, old oil cans make for a good conversation piece in any home. They are a reminder of a time when gasoline was 29 cents a gallon and life seemed much simpler. For this reason, many people choose to decorate their garages with vintage quart oil cans and other petroliana.
The price of a quart oil can depends on its condition and rarity. In excellent, near mint condition, a can can fetch up to $400 or more. If a can is in good to fair condition, it will typically sell for $50 to $100 or more. A 5-gallon service station oil can with a twist-off lid is even rarer and can command an even greater price tag. A can’s size also affects its value. While quart cans are most popular with collectors, larger oil cans are valuable as well, especially those bearing a well-known logo. A complete set of 1-quart cans with matching racks and pouring spouts is considered ideal, although this is not always possible to find in perfect condition.