Can man opens lid on history |

Can man opens lid on history

April Clark
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Author Douglas H. Rhoades will speak at the Glenwood Springs Library at 7 p.m. today. (Kelley Cox/Post Independent)

Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. ” Douglas Rhoades doesn’t have a problem spending $100 on an empty can ” and obviously neither do other people.

“An oysters can sold on eBay for $600,” said Rhoades, author of “Labels, Leadville and Lore: 1870s-1890s History From a Tin Can.” “I paid $102 for one ” I just wanted to see how high it would go. The price of can labels can really go up for the old ones.”

A Grand Junction native and historian from Snohomish, Wash., Rhoades is in town to talk trash. More specifically, he’ll discuss the late 1800s history of the labels on tin cans he found discarded under a Leadville house.

His presentation takes place at 7 p.m. today at the Glenwood Springs Library as part of the annual Winter Lecture Series. The event is sponsored by the Frontier Historical Society and the Friends of the Glenwood Springs Library.

“I’ve been on the Antiques Roadshow twice,” he said. “They told me the most exciting thing on Seattle’s Antiques Roadshow was this pile of trash.”

Curiosity caused Rhoades to discover the gold mine of early canning history that later became the subject of his 2005 self-published book. He saw a reflection on a tin can while shining his flashlight under the old Leadville home he was remodeling. Of the 70 cans he found, at least 50 had intact color labels dating back as far as 1877.

“The wood chips they were found on kept the paper labels dry,” he said. “And the oils in the pine kept the bugs from getting them. To find something that was 125 years old laying under a house ” and to look like that ” is just unbelievable.”

The Antiques Roadshow estimated the value of the cans to be around $10,000 to $14,000, although Rhoades said he was told they are priceless.

“Antiques Roadshow said they ought to be in a museum,” he said. “I have two cans that are patented.”

One period piece in his collection ” discovered a few weeks before finding the other cans – is the only original Underwood Deviled Ham canister featuring the signature Red Devil documented, to Rhoades’ knowledge. The Underwood Red Devil, artwork that dates back to 1867 or 1868, is the oldest existing trademark still in use in the United States.

“What’s fun about it is you can get so much history from a tin can,” Rhoades said. “It’s a product we use every day. When was the last time you didn’t open a can of something?”

In the remodeling business for 30 years, Rhoades never pictured himself an author. And he never expected to know so much about little old tin cans.

“I’ve always loved history,” he said. “But I never thought I’d be a world’s authority of early canning labels.”

Rhoades researched his book for six years before taking five months to self-publish it. The book offers a historical look at Leadville, including photos, maps, coal receipts, and newspaper clippings dating back to 1876 Rhoades found in the walls of his wife’s antique store. He also goes to great lengths to describe the contents of the cans found beneath the house.

“What is exciting to me is, how often do you find something that no one has? Especially something we use every day,” Rhoades said. “You can see I get a little excited about this.”

Enthusiastic enough to spend $100 on an empty tin can.

Douglas Rhoades’ accidental discovery of 70 tin cans with color labels dating back to the late 1800s in Leadville allowed the author to delve into the history of the canning process in America. During his research, he also found out quite a bit about Leadville during the gold mining boom.

“Leadville had the highest per capita income in the world,” said Rhoades, author of “Labels, Leadville and Lore: 1870s-1890s History From a Tin Can.” “In 1882, $17 million worth of precious metals came out of Leadville, Colo.”

That wealth is one reason Leadville residents were able to afford such canned luxuries as Boston Baked Beans (a patented product on Aug. 7, 1877), codfish balls, blueberries, tomatoes, oysters, salmon and condensed milk. The arrival of the railroad in the Rocky Mountains also helped the people of Leadville enjoy the conveniences of canned goods.

“Before, it cost too much. If you were to bring them by stage coach you’d pay $1 for a can of beans,” Rhoades said. “By the time the train came in, it was down to 15 cents a can.”