The History of Punch Tin

Posted by The Home School in the Woods Team on

There’s no better way to study the past than doing a hands-on, creative pastime from that era! This could be anything from cooking a classic recipe, stitching together an authentic outfit, or, of course, crafting a historical work of art from that era. 

Today, we want to talk about a unique Colonial craft you can do with your kids called “punch tin” or “punched tin.” Mostly seen in the form of rustic lanterns, punch tin involves taking a tin container (a popular material used during that time) and punching holes into it so light can shine through. 

Punch tin lanterns are very fun to make. Plus, they give kids a better idea of what everyday life was like for early American colonists. Let’s talk some more about the history behind this antique craft and how you can make your own with directions from one of our Time Travelers.

For more information on why you should use our hands-on Time Travelers history studies, check out our blog posts What is a Time Traveler? and Using Time Travelers to Teach American History.

What Is a Punch Tin?

You may have seen punch tin at one point or another. Perhaps while at an antique store or while scrolling on Pinterest. Regardless, these one-of-a-kind lamps are appealing and are still a sought-after item that continues to be made in America and other countries. 

Punch tin is typically made by using recycled materials like tin, brass, or copper. Crafters punch holes into the container using a sharp object (i.e., hammer and nail, awl, or screw gun). Many everyday items can be transformed using tin-punching methods, such as tin mugs, plates, bowls, pots, ladles, and more. 

The History Behind Punch Tin

Punch tin may have reached its peak during the Colonial Era in America, but many historians believe it actually first appeared in 14th-century Europe in the form of pierced tin lanterns, and perhaps even before that in Spain. 

Its origins may be a bit hazy, but we know one thing for sure – that punch tin hit the ground running in America during the 1700s when tinware became widely available. Tin, otherwise known as “poor man’s silver,” was an incredibly popular material with which to make everyday items since it was inexpensive, lightweight, and durable. 

Tinsmiths – also referred to as “whitesmiths” since they worked with hot, light-colored metals such as tin as opposed to blacksmiths who worked with cold, dark metals like iron and steel – became common in England around 1630. Peddlers traveled near and far to trade items such as tin-punched lanterns, which we’ll discuss in more detail later in this post!

During the early 1700s, large sheets of tin were being produced in England and from there exported to America. After the American Revolution, colonists began producing their own tin and making household items with the material.

Tin could be transformed into a number of unique items such as dishware, cutlery, washbasins, pails, pots and pans, watering cans, colanders, graters, candle holders, pie pans, funnels, and, of course – lanterns! 

What Are Punch Tin Lanterns?

Lamps made out of tin and punched with holes were a popular way to carry lit candles during Colonial times. The holes punched into the lanterns were an appealing feature not only because it helped display light, but also because it kept the flame from being blown out by the wind, which was important when traveling long distances. 

Aside from their practicality, they were also very beautiful. People were mesmerized by the interesting designs and patterns crafters punched into them. It wasn’t long before people began making homemade punch tin lanterns to emit their own captivating reflections. 

Traditional tin lamps of that time were usually made out of recycled metal such as old cans and stovepipes. It’s said that Colonial families would punch unique designs into their lanterns, such as their family’s symbol, so that they could be identified when walking out and about after dark. 

These durable lanterns were used all year round outdoors. However, they inevitably rusted from elements like rain and snow. To prevent tin lanterns from rusting, people would wipe the water from their lamps with an oily rag. 

Despite their old age and rust, punched tin lanterns were still charming and loved by their owners for many years! 

How to Make Your Own Punch Tin Crafts

Punching tin is loads of fun and is a great way to include a hands-on craft into your child’s studies on the Colonial Era. There are endless punch patterns to choose from. We recommend punching your family’s symbol into an old tin can and placing it on your front porch! 

We cover the history of punch tin in our Colonial Life Time Traveler study. It also comes with a punch tin project so you can follow easy instructions and get an idea of some common Colonial patterns for inspiration.

Overall, punch projects require few supplies – just an old tin can such as a soup can. From there, you’ll need a nail or awl and a hammer. You can also use a power tool, but this requires a steady hand and a bit more skill. 

Regardless of which punching device you use, you’ll want to keep a watchful eye and help assist your child. It’s also important to keep in mind that the punched slots can have sharp edges and could cut your finger if you’re not careful! 

Some people even paint their tin. However, make sure it’s fire safe, or it will burn from the heat. We personally like the rustic tin look and focus more on creating a unique design for the light to shine through! 

To practice your design, you can punch some holes into a sheet of aluminum foil or cardboard. No matter how your punch tin project turns out, your children will be amazed when the lights turn off and the lovely light shines through – just like it did for their ancestors! 

Show Us Your Punch Tin Projects!

We hope this article has inspired you to bring this unique Colonial craft into your homeschool history lessons. If you happen to make one of these antique lanterns or any punch tin projects, tag us on Facebook or Instagram! We’d love to share your photos! 

For more fun hands-on crafts from our Crafting Through the Ages series, check out our articles on the history of floorcloths, decoupage, corn husk dolls, and more!

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.