American Can Company in Geneva, 1901-1989

April 8th, 2022

(From March 2001 Historical Society Newsletter)

The American Can Company was a major employer in Geneva for most of the 20th Century.  The company’s “Canco” trademark was well known in the community, and at one point in Geneva’s history it was difficult to find a person who didn’t either work at the “Can” or know someone who did.

In 1901, 123 small American companies, including Geneva’s Empire State Can Company, consolidated to form the American Can Company.  Located at 122 North Genesee Street, Empire Can was founded in the late 1890s to support Geneva’s active food preserving industry.  The factory continued to produce cans until 1913.  During World War I (1914-1918), however, American Can began manufacturing brass shell casings, and in 1923 converted the Geneva factory into a machine shop that produced machinery for the caning industry.  The factory doubled in size in 1925.

During the Depression of the 1930s, the company developed a work plan of “one week on and one week off” so that it could provide as many jobs as possible.  In 1935-36, when little new construction was initiated in Geneva, the company built a new “Art Deco” office in front of its existing building.

During World War II, American Can was one of Geneva’s defense industries.  Canco engineers designed machinery to mass-produce torpedoes for the war effort, and the Geneva Machine Shop began manufacturing this machinery.  In the war years the company employed as many a 1,500 workers and the factory operated around the clock.

Postcard card of the American Can ca. 1918

American Can Works

American Can celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 1951.  Employment at this time was about 700 with an annual payroll of $2,600,000.  By this time the company operated 60 plants, which produced canning machinery and various types of containers.

The 1960s were peak years for Canco in Geneva.  In 1961 the Geneva Shop produced a “Nose Cone” for the US Government’s Space program.  By 1963, the company began producing high speed machinery used in packaging.  In the early 1960s, the company closed its Cincinnati, Ohio plant and transferred a number of its employees to Geneva.  Fearing a similar closing, Geneva’s union workers agreed to a series of wage reductions to keep the plant in the city.  As a result of these changes, the Geneva factory was expanded and by 1966 American Can was the city’s largest employer.  The factory covered 250,000 square feet, employed 875 workers with an annual payroll of $7 million, and produced $19 million dollars’ worth of machinery. It appeared that Canco’s presence in Geneva was secure.

The 1970s and 1980s, however, were not as prosperous at the “Can.”  Changes in technology, a weakening economy, and a redirection of the company all took their toll on the Geneva operation.  After a series of layoffs, employment was down to 242 by 1981.  By 1989 when the plant closing was announced, there was only 91 employees left.

Since 1994 the Geneva Industrial Development Agency has operated the American Can building as business incubator knowns as the Geneva Enterprise Development Center.

4 responses to “American Can Company in Geneva, 1901-1989”

  1. Charlie Bauder says:

    Enjoyed this article. A very good concise history of the “Can”. I knew a number of people who worked there including my father-in-law, Clifford Pangburn, who kept the machinery running.

  2. Dianna Young says:

    Does anybody have any photos of the location at 3200 South Kingshighway in St. Louis, Mo?

    1. Anne Dealy says:

      I would suggest reaching out to archives and history organizations in St. Louis. We only have material on the Geneva facility.

  3. Todd Fetterolf says:

    My Grandfather Dayton Locke worked at the Cannery his whole life. He walked across town everyday from Lyceum Street. Excellent article, outstanding historical revelance.

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