American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio

Date added: September 17, 2023 Categories: Ohio Industrial
Detail of west facade (2007)

Peter Durand, an Englishman, conceived and patented the idea of using tin cans instead of bottles for food packaging. By 1839, tin-coated steel containers were used widely. For many years, tin cans were locally manufactured by individual craftsmen. Gradually, machines began to be used for cutting and rolling the can bodies, and punching and flanging the ends. During the 1870s, changes in can technology were stimulated by advancements in metallurgy and by labor problems. During the 1880s, the most skilled aspects of can production became automated. By the 1890s, improvements in machine soldering led to the development of the "automatic line", the automation of the entire shaping and soldering process through a series of interfacing machines. The automatic process was both faster and cheaper than hand can-making.

A description of can-making at American Can's Portland plant provides a glimpse into the operation of the automated line.

Once operational, American Can operated eleven production lines of automatic machinery that produced packing cans as well as general lines of cans and pails. Typically, raw sheet metal would be received at the west by rail and stored in the first floor of the warehouse area. The east end first floor included special service areas such as tin-plate repair, re-enameling, lacquering and a lithography room for printing labels. These materials would be moved to the second floor where assembly lines processed the materials into finished products. The finished product, packed at the end of the assembly line, would then be moved back to the warehouse's first floor for shipping.

The American public's growing acceptance of convenience foods, and the use of cans for nonfood products such as paint and tobacco, led to an increased demand for cans. The development of "sanitary" cans gained new importance with the passage in 1906 of the Pure Food and Drug Act, a federal law that provided for the inspection of meat products and forbade the manufacture, sale or transportation of adulterated food products or poisonous patent medicines. This Act paved the way for the eventual creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

The American Can Company was established in 1901. This company was an outgrowth of a massive undertaking to consolidate approximately 60 small canning firms that operated 123 can and related product plants. The consolidation was undertaken by business investors who saw an opportunity to acquire the majority of can manufacturers under a single ownership. From the outset, the new company began to buy out other companies with top-of-the-line manufacturing equipment, thereby acquiring the latest technology while putting competitors out of business. The Cincinnati factory was constructed as part of American Can's nationwide expansion of manufacturing operations during the period prior to World War I and ending in the 1950s.

In the growth of the American Can Company patents played a secondary role, though not an unimportant one. In 1901 it acquired the plants, machinery, patents, and property of 113 concerns, the great majority of which were manufacturing cans for sale. Most of the others of any importance were engaged in the manufacture of can-making machinery of owned valuable patents for such machinery.

Helping with the consolidation was the acquisition of the then-leading can manufacturing company, the Norton Tin Can and Plate Company of Chicago. This company exhibited the leading can manufacturing technology for the period and was the deciding acquisition in making the American Can Company a reality. The company was incorporated in New Jersey with $88 million in capital (Virginia Law Register). In an effort to demonstrate the leadership role of the Norton Company, its founder, Edwin Norton became the first president of the American Can Company.

The growth of the new company was exceptional. For example, the American Can Company was ranked the 31st-largest company out of the top 500 industries in 1917. By contrast, its longtime rival, Continental, was ranked 222 for the same year. In order to achieve this remarkable rate of growth, the company ventured into new product lines assisted by the increased national population growth and demand for container-delivered foods and commodities.

In the early part of the 20th Century, the American Can Company was very secretive about publishing business information, especially production statistics, thereby making research difficult.

If it is true that the consumer has been unaware of the American Can Company and its works, it is equally true that the Can Company has made no attempt to arouse him. On the contrary, in the sober phrase of one of its sub executives, "The American Can Company is a retiring violet."

A glimpse of the growth of the company can be gained with an article published in Fortune Magazine in 1941. Shortly before publication of the article, the company began to publish can production statistics. The article examined the volume and distribution of the company's sale of cans for 1939, and at that time total sales exceeded $189 million. This dollar figure was almost evenly divided between sale of "packer's cans" used exclusively for processed fruits and vegetables and the "general line" of containers used for commodities, including coffee, beer, motor oil, paint, shortening, milk and tobacco. Total production of packers' cans amounted to 6.4 billion and 2.6 billion for the general line. These products suggest the kinds of machines that may have been produced at American Can Company's Cincinnati machine shop.

A "master of container technology", the American Can Company was a leader in the development of new and innovative canning processes. The "sanitary" can, with top and bottom crimped to the body without solder, was developed commercially by George W. Cobb, Sr., whose can company was absorbed by American in 1908. The use of enamel linings to protect food against discoloration by contact with tin or iron was first worked out in Can Company's laboratories.... The "double-tight" friction cover for paint cans was a Can Company invention. So was the process for high-speed vacuum-packing of coffee.... The can for motor oil was American's, although Continental [American's rival] promptly snatched up the idea and ran away with it. The beer can was-yes-pioneered by American.... And at this moment American is engaged in what may turn out to be one of the biggest developments of all-the paper milk container.... American was the first to put important money into research and development of the new package and is the only company geared to large-scale production.

"There are dozens of other Can Company achievements....". In the 1920s, for example, the company developed a compound called C-Enamel for lining cans filled with corrosive substances such as citrus fruits and juices. In 1935 the company originated the flattop beer can. A cone-top beer can followed in 1937. In the 1940s American Can experimented with a quick-canning process that preserved more of the foodstuff's flavor, texture, vitamin content and, sometimes, color. It is not known whether these inventions were patented. The American Can Company is credited with the following patents:

Patent # Innovation Date
169930 Early paper can (Canadian patent) 1916
2601825 Printing mechanism for can labels 1952
2601826 Marking mechanism 1952
2608072 Varnish over ink 1952

American Can Company's income from can sales was double that of its major competitor, the Continental Can Company. The two companies accounted for 76 percent of all can sales in the United States. The company maintained 60 manufacturing plants and seven machine shops, including the Cincinnati building.

During World War Two, the Cincinnati plant was part of the larger American Can Company effort to provide facilities used for the war effort. Because the machine shops were essentially tool and die operations, the federal government involved the company with work to manufacture parts for naval ships and airplanes. After the war, the company and its Cincinnati machine tool-making plant resumed the production of machines for making cans and tin closures.

In 1950 litigation was brought against the American and Continental can companies by smaller competitors. Each of these can companies offered volume discounts to its larger customers, thus significantly weakening the ability of smaller can-making firms to serve larger customers. A federal court ordered that the two largest can makers stop the volume discount practice. Both companies were required to offer can-making machinery and technology to the smaller firms that brought the suit (Viatech Continental Can Company history). The end result was more competition within the can-making industry. Up to that time, both rival companies expanded sales through technological improvements. With the court ruling, smaller manufacturers became, to an extent, more competitive. In 1951, American Can Company's Cincinnati machine shop provided approximately 1,000 jobs. It appears that the decade of the 1950s was a pivotal period for the company and this machine plant. The beginning of the decade witnessed the continuation of steady growth in machines that made cans and top closures for the company. However, a new innovation that was reaching the marketplace would change the economic fortune of the company and negate the production within this building. The advent of plastic containers in the late 1950s resulted in the slowing down of can production by the American Can Company.

A can production facility was built in the north Cincinnati suburb of Blue Ash in 1957 to meet a perceived demand for cans. This demand did not materialize, and the short-lived plant closed in 1960.

In 1952, American Can Company maintained nine machine shops across the country, including factories in Geneva, New York, and San Francisco, California. By 1961, the number of shops dwindled to three, including the building in Cincinnati. The number of jobs at the Cincinnati plant was cut approximately in half, to 500.

In 1963, the Cincinnati machine shop was sold. Over the years, tool and die businesses as well as light manufacturing and storage activities occupied the building. Until recently, several small diverse businesses were housed within it. Presently, the building is undergoing extensive historic rehabilitation and will be adaptively re-used for market-rate housing and retail facilities.

The construction of the American Can Company Building along Spring Grove Avenue in the neighborhood of Northside followed a long-established pattern of industrial development along this significant street. In the early development of Cincinnati and especially during the post-Civil War years up to the beginning of the 20 century, Spring Grove Avenue attracted numerous large and small-scale industrial companies. The initial emphasis for the development was the proximity to the Miami & Erie Canal, which was built through Cincinnati in the early 1820s. The canal, which connected the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, flowed through the Mill Creek Valley. Later, railroads were built through the valley, connecting Cincinnati with the expanding countryside and Midwestern cities.

In the 1850s, the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad was built to link southwest Ohio's three largest cities. Roughly paralleling the canal route, the railroad cut across Northside at an angle, then turned north through the Miami Valley. The Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton line was followed in 1867 by the Marietta & Cincinnati Railroad, which was established in 1845 to connect with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Parkersburg, West Virginia. The Marietta & Cincinnati was built through the Brighton and Camp Washington neighborhoods in the Mill Creek Valley. Construction of these rail lines attracted stockyards, meat packers, and processors of meat by-products. In 1861, Spring Grove Avenue was built to facilitate the early flow of raw materials into the area and movement of finished products to markets. By the 1880s, the neighborhoods of Camp Washington, Brighton, and Northside began to attract residents who worked in the nearby factories.

The majority of industrial-related buildings were found south of Northside along Spring Grove Avenue. This portion of the street evolved as the major concentration of industrial activity. Significant industrial businesses located on Spring Grove Avenue or in close proximity to it included the Powell Valve Company, makers of industrial valves, the Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine manufacturers, the Andrew Jergens Company, makers of soap and toiletries, and Kahn's and Company, meatpackers. Numerous small industrial activities were also located along the street.

However, as early 20th-century industrial expansion was attracted into the area, companies found that it was easier and cheaper to locate towards the northern end of Spring Grove Avenue. The American Can Company took advantage of the Northside location because it offered both rail and road linkage at a reasonable site development cost.

During the early 19th Century, Cincinnati's economic strength was based upon a location advantage that incorporated access to the Ohio River. The city's extensive riverfront provided a focus for goods and commodities to flow into and from the city. The riverside communities of northern Kentucky also contributed to this development.

By the 1820s, Cincinnati was emerging as the "premier city on the Ohio River and in the West". The construction of the Miami & Erie Canal Canal linked the city to sources of raw materials and agricultural goods to the north and the west.

Beginning in the 1850s, railroads that additionally linked the community to a historically growing hinterland and markets were reached by the diverse transportation network. Cincinnati produced durable goods and relied on the agricultural hinterland for agricultural products. However, as "railroads began to challenge rivers and canals as the primary means of commercial transportation. Cincinnati's rapid growth slowed as the river trade leveled off."

The early implementation of the Miami & Erie Canal functioned as a major location for a variety of industrial activities as well. Prior to the advent of the rail systems in Cincinnati, the area that was to become Spring Grove Avenue began to attract a variety of industries because of the ease of transportation across a flat riverbed. Other areas of the city were hampered by the surrounding hillsides and topographical constraints. A few areas like Spring Grove Avenue, Gilbert Avenue (the former Montgomery Turnpike), and several roads bisecting the city's West Side evolved as both locations for industry and for ease of traveling from the downtown into the surrounding rural and suburban areas.

The railroads also took advantage of the city's topography. Because the Mill Creek traversed from the Ohio River northward through hills created by the creek's channel, railroad planners found it easy to construct their tracks. As rail lines began to be built through the valley in the mid-19th century, industry soon followed. The City of Cincinnati also banned heavy industry from the urban core, so many companies formerly located at the mouth of Deer Creek near the Ohio River relocated to the present-day valley neighborhoods of Camp Washington and Northside. New manufacturing enterprises located along Spring Grove Avenue, along with many older firms that left the riverfront or the West End to build larger or more modern facilities.

By the 1870s, residential communities began to grow in close proximity to the creek and adjacent to Spring Grove Avenue. Along its length, Spring Grove Avenue influenced the growth of several communities that would subsequently become incorporated into the city. Most notable of these were the communities of Camp Washington, Northside, and Cumminsville. Spring Grove Avenue cut through these communities and attracted numerous workers within local industries as residents.

By the time the American Can Company building was constructed in 1921, Cincinnati already had an established canning industry. In 1938, the Federal Writers Project identified the Heekin Can Company as the largest manufacturer of steel food and beverage cans with two plants in the metropolitan region. American Can Company's rival, the Continental Can Company had a factory in the nearby industrial suburb of Norwood. Several other smaller companies were identified as well. In addition, several companies also made galvanized steel garbage cans. It was estimated that employment in the can industry was about 1,500 workers with wages reaching $2.25 million.

Building Description

The American Can Company Building is located at the northwest corner of Spring Grove Avenue and Fergus Street in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Northside. The building occupies a 2.62-acre parcel of level land; no other buildings are present. The south and east facades front on the north side of Spring Grove and the west side of Fergus. To the west of the building is a vacant parcel formerly crossed by a rail line. Land uses in the immediate area are mixed they include: light industry, storage, automobile dealerships, older one- and two-story working-class residences, and vacant land. The area is in transition, with some residential and commercial buildings being renovated for new uses.

Built in 1921, the building is a multi-bay industrial structure composed of a major five-story, reinforced concrete, Commercial Style building containing 113,944 square feet. Commercial Style detailing includes reinforced concrete pier and spandrel wall construction highlighted by brick panels extending below the window bays.

At the main, south, and east facades, each of the multiple window bays, delineated with the pier and spandrel wall detailing, is composed of an upper and lower multi-sash steel frame with multi-light treatment. The simple piers, each capped with a small rectangular panel, rise to terminate below the plain cornice. The western portion of the south side facade projects one bay beyond the eastern part. A simple entry bay is found at the south facade and is composed of decorative, paired metal doors, surmounted with a multi-light transom, and flanked by plain, vertical brick panels and simple, smooth limestone trim.

The west, rear facade repeats this detailing. The one major exception in design is the inclusion of several lower-scale vaulted bays used to store, hoist, and assemble various materials and fabricated machinery used in the manufacturing of cans. The rear, brick functional construction is accentuated by the use of low parapets, plain stone lintels and sills, multi-light metal windows, and a large entrance originally used for rail access.

The north facade is much narrower in size and is asymmetrical, conforming to the layout of a rail line that comes into the property from Fergus Street. This facade rises to one story with a second story extending above at the central portion of the three-bay facade. The same overall exterior detailing as the main facades extends to this facade. A tall, brick chimney, located towards the west of the north facade, rises above the building.

The roof system of the building is made up of composition-built-up materials. The vaulted construction of the lower roof at the west rear exhibits a shallow gable configuration made up of rectangular concrete panels.

A fifth floor appears to have been added to the west wing. This addition appears to have been built in stages; the work was begun around World War II and finished around 1954. This added floor exhibits the same bay delineation as at the low stories, but its window construction differs. Here, all bays contain four-part, wooden window sashes. Over the years, they have experienced considerable deterioration.

Interior detailing, at each of the main floors, exhibits large, reinforced, plain columns with distinctive, plain splayed capitals. Floors and ceiling are reinforced concrete. The exception to this are the east side floors, where wooden blocks are placed over the concrete floors. Across the east wing interior, columns are equally spaced across each floor and where there are no significant wall partitions, a large volumetric space results.

At each floor, limited interior wall treatment is functional in detailing. Most is composed of partitions with later modern materials and are not significant. However, some original office partitioning is found at the west portion of the building on several floors. Surviving details include plain wooden window and door surrounds. Overall wall partitioning is at a minimum. Four stairwells rise at various interior locations. Overall they are composed of concrete and are plain in detailing.

The vaulted, rear lower level portions of the building exhibit plain, brick wall construction and structural steel gable roof detailing. Some structural decay is evident in the steel and brick. The roofing system is made of an unusual individual concrete panel system. Each rectangular concrete panel is supported by a metal grid system that extends across the low gable roofs. Significant concrete and metal decay is evident.

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio East and south facades (2007)
East and south facades (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Main south and east facades (2007)
Main south and east facades (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Detail of south facade (2007)
Detail of south facade (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Detail of entry (2007)
Detail of entry (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Portion of south facade (2007)
Portion of south facade (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Portion of south and west facades (2007)
Portion of south and west facades (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Stairs and fire escape, west facade (2007)
Stairs and fire escape, west facade (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Detail of west facade (2007)
Detail of west facade (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Detail of west facade (2007)
Detail of west facade (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio West and north facades (2007)
West and north facades (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio East and north facades (2007)
East and north facades (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Detail of east facade (2007)
Detail of east facade (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Materials storage area (2007)
Materials storage area (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Rear bay loading dock (2007)
Rear bay loading dock (2007)

American Can Company Building, Cincinnati Ohio Interior truss detail at rear (2007)
Interior truss detail at rear (2007)