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Red Gasoline Cans, 1909


Oftentimes we look at everyday items and have little idea why those things are the way they are. Take, for instance, the gasoline cans. Why are they colored red?

The answer comes from bygone days when kerosene lanterns were common. Kerosene was relatively safe, being somewhat less flammable than gasoline, but with the rising popularity of automobiles, gasoline became more prevalent.

Some homeowners used a splash of kerosene to start fires more easily in wood-burning stoves and furnaces, but problems arose when they mistakenly used gasoline instead. For instance, in 1902, Nicholina Nelson, a young domestic servant in Fargo, “got hold of the gasoline can instead of the kerosene can when she went to start the fire,” and became “severely burned in the blaze which resulted.”

Similarly, in Langdon, Thomas Finerty “wanted to use kerosene to start a fire . . . and got hold of the gasoline can by mistake.” Mr. Finerty was “badly injured.”

Many others died.

To promote safety, North Dakota passed a new law in 1903, “requiring all receptacles for gasoline to be colored red.” Some mockingly said the color was a “flaming red,” but most people thought it was a good law for better consumer-protection.

On this date, in 1909, the Bismarck Tribune published an advertisement for “Gasoline and Kerosene Cans,” with a red three-gallon gas can selling for fifty cents.

Even after the red can law, sadly, careless fire-starters sometimes picked up a gasoline can instead of a kerosene can, resulting in headlines that read: “Took Gasoline Can, Thought It Kerosene.” And, “Mistakes Gasoline for Kerosene With Deadly Result.” And, “Bottineau Man Starts Fire With Gasoline With Usual Results; Is Badly Burned.”

A contemporary poem, entitled “Results Count,” told the story succinctly:

“He could not tell
By the smell
What the man
Put in the can,
If kerosene
Or gasoline.
So [he] made a scratch
With a match
And applied

* * *

The Doctor knew
Which of the two!” (From American Spectator).

It took awhile for people to understand the flammability of gasoline, but red eventually became universally-known as the highly-visible color of gasoline-fueled danger.

And so today, in general, color codes protect us – gasoline is kept in red cans; diesel fuel in yellow; kerosene in blue; and oil in green.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: Advertisement, “Gasoline and Kerosene Cans,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, September 14, 1909, p. 3.

“Nicholina Nelson,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, December 10, 1902, p. 4.

“Thomas Finerty,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, February 1, 1903, p. 4.

“Attention is called to the new law requiring all receptacles for gasoline to be colored red,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, May 24, 1903, p. 2.

“Gasoline Cans,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, June 4, 1903, p. 2.

“Paint ‘Em Red,” Bismarck Tribune, July 6, 1903, p. 3.

“Took Gasoline Can Thought It Kerosene,” Bismarck Tribune, May 10, 1910, p. 8.

“Cremated Before Husband’s Eyes; Mistakes Gasoline for Kerosene With Deadly Result,” Golden Valley Chronicle [Beach, ND], December 8, 1911, p. 1.

“Is Badly Burned: Bottineau Man Starts Fire With Gasoline With Usual Results,” Evening Times [Grand Forks, ND], April 2, 1913, p. 2.

“Results Count,” Williston Graphic, November 29, 1906, p. 7.

“Marking Of Vessels in Which Gasoline Is Kept,” Revised Codes of the State of N.D., 1905, p. 458.