In an era when eager bow-tie-wearing gas station attendants stood ready to fill your car with gasoline, they would also take the opportunity to check and change your oil. The oil cans that held the fluid once seemed to be nothing more than discarded trash, but today they’re among the most desirable petroliana items for collectors. Those that are in mint condition—not to mention unopened—are especially valuable.
The most common size is the standard quart, but oil cans came in sizes as large as 10 gallons. Collectors are interested in the can’s shape, graphics and condition. They focus on a specific manufacturer or even a particular era and style of oil can. Some are made from plastic, unusual metals or rare shapes, and they may be curved, flat or domed.
One of the most important factors in determining an oil can’s value is its date. Cans produced before the early 1900s were square and boxy, and had soldered seams that appeared as a long gray stripe on the can’s side. The later crimped seam cans eliminated the need, and expense, of soldering and simply continued the artwork right over the seam. In the 1940s, due to metal shortages during World War II, companies started using composite or cardboard vintage oil cans quart oil cans (sometimes called paper quarts) with metal tops and bottoms but cardboard sides as a way to save metal. These cans were used until the 1960s when aluminum cans for motor oil were introduced.
A vintage oil can’s condition is another factor in determining its value. A can that is rusty or dinged, or has an open seam or a hole in the lid, is less desirable and will likely sell for a lower price. With a little elbow grease, however, most cans can be restored to their former glory and brought back into service.
Finally, the graphics on an oil can will also affect its value. Most cans have a large image that was designed to catch the eye and bring in customers. Some images are more desirable than others, and the rarer the image is, the higher the price.
Because most oil cans were discarded and never reused, those that are intact and unopened will hold the highest value. Of course, if you find an unopened can of the wrong brand of oil, you’re going to have a hard time selling it. While it’s obvious that Mobil and Texaco will fetch a premium, collectors are also attracted to obscure brands and regional products. The age of a logo variant also impacts the value of an oil can; early variations tend to command a higher price than more contemporary ones.