There’s a striking beauty in hard-working objects due to their simple, functional design and their time-worn patina and when it comes to the garden, nursery, or even the farmyard, galvanized metal garden accessories rank first and foremost in that hard working category.
Assorted watering cans, florist vases, tubs, pails, chicken feeders, buckets, gas cans, sap buckets, oil cans, garden trugs, and cream cans are just a sampling of the myriad items called into duty on a daily basis between the late 1800s and the late twentieth century. Prior to the fairly recent use of plastics, galvanized metal household tools and accessories were considered a modern invention in the fight against rust. The process of applying a galvanized or zinc coating to sheet iron was first developed in Europe during the 1830s. Later in the century, France, England and Germany were hand-dipping items in zinc (called hot-dipping) and turning out all manner of utilitarian items specifically for the large estate gardens so popular in England as well as the smaller cottages and farm houses dotting the European countryside. Galvanized items were also used in home building…think nails, gutters, and roofs. More refined methods of application were developed later on but galvanizing sheet iron was a serious game changer that created longevity in the use of these household and garden tools.
Today, interior designers, collectors, gardening enthusiasts, and anyone interested in repurposing vintage items have all taken note of galvanized wares and the untold number of ways we can incorporate them into our homes and gardens. Old galvanized watering cans and containers acquire a soft gray finish with variations in color that is actually quite beautiful. The obvious choices for use in our homes today include old vases holding fresh flowers, pails called into use for container gardening, or old tubs serving as planters or as bird baths. Galvanized items are also perfect when it comes to entertaining outdoors where buckets can hold cold drinks and old zinc trays can be used to serve food. Indoors, pails can hold magazines or towels in the bathroom while a garden trug may hold small pots of herbs on a window ledge.
Michele Newby, an avid gardener from Medford, Oregon tells us “for many years I’ve collected attractive galvanized watering cans, pails, pitchers, and oil cans for display in my garden and sunroom. By now I have quite an assortment.” Michele also points out “some items even boast their original labels. What I love about collecting them is that they’re not only eye-catching, they’re generally inexpensive, useful, and easy to come by.”
Indeed, yard sales, flea markets, antiques shows and on-lines site such as Etsy, Ruby Lane and Ebay offer plentiful opportunities for picking up galvanized metal or “zinc” items for a few dollars on up to $50. Some watering cans, oil cans, sap buckets, and pails from the 1950s through the 1970s can still be found with their original paper labels in varying conditions. At a recent antiques show and flea market in Springfield, Ohio, a vintage Behrens pail with label intact was spotted (Behrens Company of Minnesota started in 1911) for $18. Other companies, such as the Buhl Stamping Company of Detroit and Schlueter Manufacturing Company of St. Louis, MO, (which made a “Delux” watering can per their label) were also prolific in their manufacture of galvanized wares. Even “Huffy” (a name familiar to many because of their bikes) had a line of lawn and garden tools for a while during the second half of the twentieth century and their watering cans turn up occasionally with a label still attached.
Decorating with vintage galvanized wares is one thing while serious collecting is another. More costly and rare examples are typically those from Europe such as a French flower market bucket with a label still attached, a German watering can with a bat insignia, or a British HAWS watering can sporting a trademark brass tag. In 1886 John Haws designed a watering can with perfect balance and the HAWS cans became hugely popular. It remains a favorite among gardeners to this day and HAWS watering cans for both indoor and outdoor use are still being manufactured. Look for antique European examples of galvanized wares at antiques shows or through dealers specializing in European garden accessories. Prices typically run anywhere from $100 to $400 for these higher end European galvanized water jugs, watering cans, floral buckets and so on.
Tough stuff these vintage galvanized wares and thankfully so. Due to that zinc coating there are plenty of opportunities to pick up items and create your own special display or attractive garden corner combining flowers with these eye-catching relics from the past.