Friday, February 15, 2008


By Ian Sattler and Darrell and Ben Chapnick
Photos By Darrell and Ben Chapnick
Illustration By Anthony Smyrski

They’re everywhere. There are millions of them sold every year in hundreds of thousands of stores across the country. They are most likely in your house right now. “They” are aerosol spray paint cans. While you may not give them an awful lot of thought on a daily basis, they have been coloring Americans’ vision, literally, since well before you were born. But, like many innovations that we take for granted, spray paint has an interesting history and a greater effect on our culture than you may realize

The beginnings of spray paint can be traced back to the 1920s, and possibly earlier. The term “aerosol bomb” originated with the very first portable spray can, which was originally shaped like a 19th-century fuse bomb (like in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons). Containing a foul-smelling oil, the ZACO can was extremely well engineered and made of heavy-gauge steel. The nozzle had a small knurled brass knob incorporated in it that was turned on or off simply by screwing it clockwise or counterclockwise. Specific industrial use of this same nozzle design can be dated to 1942, thanks to its inclusion in a government-issued photo of a woman demonstrating an aerosol insect spray. As with most technological advances at the time, World War II greatly influenced the development and introduction of the push-button spray can. Malaria and other insect-borne diseases were wreaking havoc on American troops, so a portable repellent had to be developed. Due to the use of these insecticides during WWII, the first real advances were made in the portable spray can.

The various technologies that emerged during wartime were quickly retooled and adapted for domestic use. In 1946, the Continental Can Company in New York created the first “push-button” portable spray can. They marketed it to any company that could apply it to their products: makers of pesticides, car wax, household deodorizers, and various other projects. The following year, Krylon adopted the push-button spray can as a delivery system for clear acrylic spray fixative (meant to protect artwork and print advertisements). By the end of the decade, Krylon had developed a totally new can design and was quickly becoming the leading innovator in the industry. However, there was still a key technical advancement missing from the formula.

Crown Holdings Inc. was already a major player in the aerosol business when, in 1952, they introduced the “Spra-tainer,” a lightweight, two-piece “no side seam, no top seam” aerosol can. Krylon adopted the can as the final piece of what would become the modern push-button spray nozzle we know today.

It is important to note that Krylon was not alone in their work during the late 1940s. Seymour Paints claims to be the first to use paint in a spray can in 1949. Although the Krylon inventions precede this claim, Seymour played an important role, in that they focused solely on using the aerosol can as an application for paint. Their work helped bring the idea of using cans as paint supplies to the masses, an instrumental step in making spray
paint the norm for everyday use.

Over the years, spray cans took the place of rollers and brushes in administering paint to nearly every surface but artists’ canvases. However, New York’s graffiti explosion in the ’70s changed everything, when subway cars became canvases in their own respect. In many ways, the art form evolved around the capabilities and limitations of the spray can. What was originally created as a convenient, mobile tool for household and commercial use has since enabled the creation of innumerable works of art. Looking back on the original spray paint cans, it becomes apparent that they not only influenced art, but were truly works of art themselves.

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