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What Is a Vintage Canister?

S. McNesby
S. McNesby

A vintage canister is a container used in the kitchen or bathroom to hold small or loose items. Kitchen canisters are used to keep food staples like coffee, tea, sugar, and flour fresh and pest free, while bathroom canisters are used to keep small items like cotton swabs, cotton balls, and bath beads clean and in one location. To be considered vintage, a canister should be at least 30 years old, but not more than 100 years old; items older than 100 years old are considered antiques.

Depending on the era it is from, a vintage canister can be made from metal, ceramic, wood, or glass. Some vintage glass canisters are clear, but most are opaque so that light does not get in and damage the contents. Complete kitchen canister sets often contain three or more canisters with the same design, but of slightly different sizes. A sole vintage canister may be of any size and originally may have been sold as part of a set.

A vintage canister may be used to hold cotton balls.
A vintage canister may be used to hold cotton balls.

Single canisters can generally be purchased at a discount; it may be more difficult to complete a vintage canister set if the pieces are acquired at different times. Complete sets of canisters may sell for a premium price, particularly if they are from a collectible line or era. Displaying a mismatched set of vintage canisters can add a bit of shabby or cottage charm to a kitchen or bath.

Since canisters are used to keep food and other items fresh, clean, and pest free, they usually have a lid. A vintage canister will usually have a matching lid made from the same or a similar material. In some cases, the lid may be lined with a rubber gasket to seal air out of the canister. Some types of vintage canister models have an attached, hinged lid that can be opened and closed but not entirely removed.

Vintage items generally have been used by their previous owners. When a vintage canister is purchased, there is no way to know what items were stored inside it in the past or what kind of treatment it was exposed to. It is a good idea to thoroughly wash and sanitize a vintage canister of any type before using it to store food or kitchen items. If the aged canister is too fragile to wash thoroughly, it can still be wiped down and used to store non-edible items like crayons, pens, and office supplies.

Discussion Comments


My grandmother had a set of glasses that came with a pitcher and canisters to match. They were covered in oranges, some of which were cut open to show the sections, and green leaves also were scattered around on top of the clear glass.

My mother inherited this set, and she gave me the canisters, since she already has some. I love the fact that I can see through them, because I like to store different things inside as the need arises. I probably wouldn't remember what I had in there if this weren't the case.

I especially love putting colorful hard candy in the canisters. The colors look cheerful, and the orange design on the surface goes well with them. The only downside is that when I see them, I start craving candy.


I'm a big fan of vintage canisters. I like to buy them in sets, and I keep the biggest pieces in the kitchen and use the smaller ones in the bathroom.

The shorter canisters are great for holding lipstick, which I have a lot of, because I can fit several tubes inside a canister to keep them from rolling around and falling into the sink. I also keep a canister of cotton balls handy.

The set I purchased are green glass canisters. The lids have round knobby areas encircling the base of the top, and this makes it easy to get a grip on them when I have wet hands.


@shell4life – Anything you do that could permanently alter the canisters would affect their resale value. Might I suggest adding a removable ribbon to the knob of the lid, if it has one?

You could make a cardboard tag and tie it on the knob with a ribbon. You could write on the cardboard, and if you ever decided to sell the canisters, you wouldn't have affected the value at all.

I was tempted to buy some opaque vintage canisters, but I resisted for this very reason. I settled for some transparent ones instead.

The glass at the base and near the top is colored, yet the middle section is totally clear. So, I have two means by which to identify the contents, since each canister has a different color.


I have some vintage ceramic kitchen canisters, but they are not labeled. They are all the same size, so it is hard for me to remember which one has which product in it.

You would think I could remember the order that I place them in, like the first one contains flour. However, I move them around a lot, because I get in such a rush while I'm cooking.

Would it detract from the resale value of them if I painted labels on them? I would really like a way to identify their contents without having to open the lid every time.


Vintage canisters always remind me of my childhood and simpler days. My mom spent a lot of time in the kitchen cooking and baking, and always had a set of canisters on the kitchen counter.

The set I remember most looked like tin as they were all a gray/silver color and had the words flour, sugar, coffee and tea engraved on them. Each lid was topped with a small black knob.

Even though this wasn't a stainless steel canister set, they would look nice in my kitchen today. I have stainless steel appliances and the color would fit in and give my kitchen a little bit of a country look.

Some of the vintage canister sets are in really bright colors that would clash with my kitchen. If I could find a set of those vintage canisters somewhere, I would buy them in a minute.


Many years ago I was given a metal canister that had some Cracker Jack candy in it. I was a kid then, and when I was done with the candy, thought nothing about getting rid of the canister.

This is one of those situations where one person's trash is another person's treasure. I have seen that same vintage metal canister in more than one place.

The first time I noticed it was in a restaurant that decorated their place with vintage items. The second time I saw it was in a small thrift store.

I don't know how much it would be worth today, but now it would be considered a vintage item and would probably be worth more than I thought it ever would.

One of my friends collects vintage canister jars, and has shelves in her kitchen with all different colors and styles of these. I have never told her I threw my vintage canister away when I was a kid!


A few years ago I bought a matching set of vintage kitchen canisters. They caught my eye when I walked in the store because they the same set I remember my grandma have sitting in her kitchen.

My kitchen is decorated in a modern, contemporary style, so these canisters don't fit in with my decor at all. I didn't buy them because I wanted to use them, but because of my sentimental connection to them.

I like an uncluttered look in the kitchen, so don't keep canisters on the counter that hold flour and sugar. I have these vintage canisters displayed in a china cabinet along with other antique dishes I have accumulated through the years.

They always remind me of fond memories of making cookies with my grandma, and I was so excited when I saw this complete set in this antique shop.


@turkay1 - It is interesting to know the history behind your vintage items, but that doesn't happen very often for me.

In my free time I love to browse thrift shops and antique stores looking for vintage items. If this is something you are interested in, there are also online sites where you can find a lot of different vintage items for sale.

I like vintage and retro canisters because they seem to tell a story and have more character than most new items have.

I bought an elegant glass vintage canister that I have sitting in my bathroom. I use this to keep cotton balls in and it looks so pretty sitting there with some other vintage collectibles.


@turquoise-- That can be an issue sometimes. That's why I prefer to use ceramic and glass vintage canisters because it's much easier to clean them. @alisha's tip is great. You could also put clean paper liners inside them if there is any rust.

The history of a vintage canister is actually more important than people realize. I would personally like to know what was sitting in my canister before. Sometimes the strong scent of spices can be absorbed into wood and tin canisters and it be really hard to get rid of. I had one canister like that which smelled of cumin and refused to leave no matter how many times I washed it.

If you get your vintage items in auction houses though, you can find out the history of the items you're buying. Auction houses usually have this information, but thrift stores or flea markets don't.


@turquoise-- I understand what you mean. Vintage canisters are actually pretty durable. I have some vintage canister sets as well and even though they were in good condition when my grandmother gave them to me, I haven't exactly taken care of them as I should have. Especially the kitchen canisters have some built up some grime and dirt because they sit next to the stove.

One method of cleaning I've discovered which works really well is soaking them in water with vinegar. Vinegar is a natural disinfectant and breaks up oil and dirt really well. You can't put vintage canisters in the dishwasher but you can clean them up safely this way.

Just take a large plastic bowl or a clean bucket and fill with cold clean water. Add lots of apple cider vinegar and put the canisters in. Let it soak for a couple of hours. If it's really dirty, take a small plastic brush (never the rough side of a dish-washing foam as that can scratch) and brush gently.

Finally, rinse with cold water and dry. They will be really clean and completely sanitized. Feel free to put your teas and coffees in them.


I bought a vintage canister set in red and blue for the kitchen. They're from the early 60s and have a very 60s feel to them. They have "tea," "coffee," and "sugar" written on them. I have a completely white kitchen and I love all things vintage so I thought these canisters would look great. And they do, they add color and look very fun and elegant at the same time.

The one thing I didn't notice when I bought them however is that they look a bit used up on the inside. Naturally they will, but I'm hesitant to put loose tea, coffee and sugar in them directly. I have washed them with soapy water but I'm not sure if that's enough.

What do other people do when they want to put food items in metal vintage canisters? I want to make sure that they're completely sanitized and safe.

Please give me some ideas! I love these and I really want to use them!

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    • A vintage canister may be used to hold cotton balls.
      By: nick holdsworth
      A vintage canister may be used to hold cotton balls.