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The American Can Company

The original occupant has a legacy of innovation

“No Canadian city offers better facilities for factories than Hamilton with its natural gas, cheap electric power, factory sites, shipping facilities, water and rail, labour conditions, blast furnaces and steel plants,” reported Macleans Magazine in 1911.

That same year, The American Can Company built a sprawling three-storey brick-and-beam factory at Emerald and Shaw, just north of the tracks. In the span of about 15 years, fellow U.S. corporate giants Westinghouse, Otis Elevator, Hoover Vacuum, National Steel Car, and Procter & Gamble set up shop in the Hammer.

About 600 locals staffed the factory creating cans made of steel. The Royal Connaught, built in 1914, housed American Can’s regional head office.

356 Emerald Street
The American Can Company Factory at Emerald & Shaw
The Royal Connaught Hotel, circa 1917

By 1911, Hamilton was Canada’s leading city for manufacturing. According to Maclean’s, it boasted:

  • an excellent harbour
  • 6 lines of boats making it a port of call
  • 6 steam railways
  • 4 suburban electric roads

In 1910, the value of building permits was $2.5 million (over $79 million in today’s dollars). It had increased by over $1 million ($31 million) since the previous year. There were 65 permits for new factories and factory additions in the city that year.

By 1911, Hamilton had 400 factories with an invested capital of over $40 million ($1.2 billion today), paying yearly wages of over $13 million ($405 million) and manufacturing $50 million ($1.5 billion) worth of products.

Maclean's article page on Hamilton — Canada's Manufacturing Centre
Maclean's Magazine, September 1, 1911
Incorporated in 1901, The American Can Company's culture of innovation lead them to develop:
  • a method of mass-producing tin cans by replacing hand-soldiered joints with mechanical crimping
  • an enamel lining to protect certain food from discolouration
  • a double-tight friction paint can lid to keep remnants from drying out
  • an improved process for vacuum-packing coffee
American Can Company Ad

'The Miracle of the can' (1956)

This hour-long film is among my top five favourite mid-century American can documentaries. There’s a “How It’s Made”-worthy sequence starting at 19:05, but if you skip through to it, you’ll miss some thought-provoking orchard-based dramatizations.

The American Can Company found such success at the Emerald Street site that they eventually outgrew it and moved production to the former Sawyer-Massey Company factory, north of the railway tracks between Wellington and Victoria.

The former Sawyer-Massey Company Factory

Fun Fact: The American Can Company is not a Canadian company. It’s an American (can) company. But in addition to dozens of American facilities, The American Can Company built facilities in Montreal, Simcoe, Chatham and Hamilton. Here’s the Montreal factory, then and now, plus a pic of a 1925 delivery truck in Montreal. Looks like American Can created buildings that were meant to last (and snazzy trucks).

The American Can Company building in Montreal
The American Can Company building in Montreal
The American Can Company building in Montreal

American Can had a facility in New Orleans, too, until it shut down in 1988. Now, the building has been rechristened American Can Apartments. The leasing agent told CBC’s Paul Wilson that former employees come by to see the place. The factory ran around the clock, and 1,500 workers could turn out 5,000 cans an hour. They say the most common injury was sliced fingers. 

The apartments feature factory-scarred original hardwood floors and 16-foot high ceilings. An outdoor pool and patio replace the ruins of the back portion of the plant, which suffered fire damage while the building was abandoned.

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