As early as 1930, can manufacturers had begun to explore the possibility of adapting cans to package carbonated beverages. And beer and soft drink companies eagerly anticipated a means of delivering more volume, more efficiently to consumers. Cans would be sturdier than glass bottles and their shape more amenable to transportation and storage. But the can first had to be strengthened to accommodate higher internal can pressures created by carbonation—especially during warm summer months. Without increasing the thickness of the metal used, distortion of the end would strain the seal, potentially causing leaks and making the cans unstackable.

Tobacco, cigarettes and cigard were among the first products to be commonly sold in tins of various shapes and styles including the infamous Prince Albert in a can.

Another concern for the new beverage can was its shelf life. Even small amounts of dissolved tin or iron from the can could impair the drinking quality of both beer and soft drinks. Fortunately beer, which is only mildly acidic, is relatively non-corrosive. In addition, beer ages naturally so it has a limited shelf life of about three months in any package. In contrast, the carbonic, phosphoric and citric acids in soft drinks presented a risk for rapid corrosion of exposed tin and iron in the can. To solve the problem, organic coatings were used to line the inside of cans making them heavier and more encasing.

A scientist from the University of Wisconsin, H. L. Russell, determined in 1894 that it was living organisms in spoiled cans of peas that caused them to mysteriously burst in a local warehouse. Legend has it that the professor was called in when the explosions kept the warehouse superintendent, who slept above the warehouse, awake at night. His discovery led to an increase in the time and temperature of boiling during the canning process, as well as greater safety in canned food products.

The National Canners Association was established in 1907 to make use of such knowledge and built laboratories to study canning techniques. The association published reports on sterilization, sources of spoilage and safe cooking times and temperatures.

Cliquot Club ginger ale was the first canned soft drink in 1938. They used a cone top can produced by Continental Can Company, but the sodas were beset by leakage and flavor absorption problems from the can liner. It took several years for the glitches to be worked out, but finally in 1948, with an improved design, Continental Can Company and Pepsi-Cola launched the first major soft drink in cans. Twelve ounces sold for ten cents.

Soft drinks appeared in cans as early as 1938. This Pepsi can design dates from the 1960s.

The James Vernor Company of Detroit introduced its ginger ale in a twelve-ounce flat top can it called the “Vernor Picnic Can” in 1955. It was sold in six-can cartons that retailed for 79 cents. The company expected the pricing of the package to limit its use to outdoor activities such as picnics, camping and boating. Dr Pepper introduced cans into a few select cities that same year. Dr Pepper Company president Leonard Green called it “the most significant packaging development in our history.”

The Coca-Cola Company introduced the “Harlequin” design in 1966. Coca-Cola had tested their product in cans as early as 1940. They tried a 16-ounce and 32-ounce cone top can with a red, green and white logo that read “canned specially for use at home and on outings.” Coca-Cola began selling cans to overseas armed services in 1955 and, in 1959, test marketed cans in five U.S. cities. By 1960, however, it was Royal Crown that was selling the most canned soft drinks. Inspired by the new competition, Coca-Cola began using and promoting cans on a large scale soon thereafter. The soft drink maker even introduced a new label design specifically for their canned product called the “Harlequin” which featured a pattern of diamonds and proved popular with consumers.

The use of cans for carbonated beverages was delayed, however, because of material limitations mandated by the government during the Korean War. When the restriction ended after the war, the new beverage can was introduced and marketed nationwide. However, a new competitor to the market—aluminum—would soon inspire can manufacturers to embark on a program of cost savings to reduce both the amount of steel and coatings used in can making.

The first aluminum beverage can was manufactured by Reynolds Metals Company in 1963 and used to package a diet cola called “Slenderella.” Royal Crown adopted the aluminum can in 1964, and by 1967 Pepsi and Coke followed. This was an exciting innovation for the packaging industry because the aluminum can was made with only two pieces—a body and an end. This made 360-degree printing possible on the body of the can, increasing store display potential and shelf appeal. A can could now advertise its contents with dramatic and colorful graphics, drawing the consumer’s eye to the package and creating a visual draw to purchases of one brand over another. This market advantage was further leveraged by the introduction of the multi-pack, which allowed for twelve cans to be packaged together in a compact paperboard box. The secondary packaging of the multi-pack, in addition to the graphics on the cans themselves, created a billboard for product advertising. Even more importantly, multi-packs increased sales. Consumers could easily and cost-effectively stock their refrigerators and pantries with their favorite beverages, and bottlers could move signficantly more volume. Pepsi-Cola first introduced a twelve pack of cans in 1972, noting that once consumers chose a product and a brand they would happily buy larger units.

Canned soft drinks were first dispensed in vending machines in 1961, joining glass bottle and paper cup machines, and by the late 1960s, dominated the vending market. Some years later, in a popular series of national television ads, both space aliens and supermodel Cindy Crawford would choose cans of Pepsi from a vending machine. By 1985, the aluminum can was the most popular beverage package in any market. Today’s consumers buy soft drinks from their grocery stores in aluminum cans four times as often as in plastic bottles, and thirty-eight times as often as in glass bottles.

Next: A Renewable Can