I’ve heard rumors that WWII canteens might contain lead since I started collecting militaria in 2015. While I initially dismissed this as reenactor folklore, I recently saw a postwar study (see below) about unsafe levels of lead in GI canteens and wanted to figure out how many of my WWII US GI canteens were actually safe to drink from.
Based on the following memorandum (found with the help of Rob Parise), I discovered that the later war stainless steel canteens (with horizontal seams) were likely to have lead used as a soldering agent whereas the vertical seam aluminum canteens used in the First World War and early in the Second World War would almost certainly not contain lead.
Extract from memorandum Mr. Gustav A, Schwartz, Special assistant, Office of Quartermaster General to Col. W. S. Stone, Medical Department, Office of Surgeon General, SUBJECT: Stainless Steel Canteens., December 16, 1942, (National Archives, Record Group 92, Entry 1890, file Q.M.400.112(Canteen Stainless Steel)):
- Manufacturers have experienced difficulty in welding the “430” type stainless steel and in properly cleaning the inside of the canteen at the weld. The difficultly lies in successfully removing the scale that forms during the welding operation and in presenting a joint that is free from blow holes and pits as well as corrosion.
- Current design obviates the necessity of welding and incorporates a seamed joint which is to be filled with lead-tin solder, 50% each. The problem has been previously discussed with you by Mr. G. A. Schwartz of this office and shown to Capt. Carroll.
- Cross section sample submitted herewith, marked #1, indicated a rather wide crevice on the inside being completely filled with solder somewhat in the manner indicated by cross-section #2 also submitted.
- It is felt that this type construction will result in a satisfactory canteen which will be highly resistant to impact and corrosion, and will be as clean on the inside as it is possible to make it.
- Approval of the canteen as proposed is desired.
SPMCE 426.-1 1st Ind[orsdement]. Ext 79051
WD, SOS, SGO, Washington, DC, December 16, 1942 – To: The Quartermaster General (Attention: Mr. G. A. Schwartz, Special assistant)
- The stainless steel canteen and method of soldering the same thereof discussed in the basic communication are considered to be satisfactory from a health viewpoint.
Setting up the Experiment
Based on this finding, I hypothesized that my US S.M. Co 1945 stainless steel canteen with the horizontal seam would contain at least some trace of lead, whereas my other (reproduction or vertical seam aluminum) canteens would not.
Here is each of the canteens I filled with tap water from Madison, Wisconsin and left out for 24 hours (named according to the stamp I found):
- What Price Glory 1917 canteen
- US A.G.M Co. 1942
- US-1918-T J.W.B.M CO
- Unknown maker, stamped G169
- US S.M.Co 1944
- US S.M. CO 1945
- US BECO Canteen Cup
- US WWII-era canteen mess cup
- Swedish postwar canteen
- Late 1930s Spanish Army canteen
- Glass mug
I decided to have two controls for my study: a reproduction 1917 canteen from What Price Glory (far left) and a modern all-glass mug. For curiosity, I also compared a 1945 canteen cup, a 1930s Spanish Army canteen, and a postwar Swedish canteen I plan on using for Spanish Civil War events.
For this study, I used the “17 in 1” water testing kit produced by Varify.
A few notes on other variables that may contribute to my results:
- Madison’s water is exceptionally hard (as you can see by the dark purple “hardness” reading below) which, according to the study cited above, results in less lead seeping into water.
- I have only ever used these canteens to carry water (no coffee, lemonade, wine, beer, etc).
- I regularly clean them with Efferdent Denture Cleanser at least once a year.
- When I am not using the canteens, I empty them, let them air dry, then store them with their caps screwed on.
Part 1: Tap Water
I filled up each of the canteens, cups, and mugs I mentioned above with room temperature unfiltered tap water and let them sit, testing them at 2 hours, 17 hours, and 25 hours. To test a canteen, I followed the instructions on the package, submerging the testing strip for ~2 seconds, gently shaking the strip dry, then comparing with the guide on the package.
At no point did any of the drinking vessels test positive for lead.
Part 2: Canteens at the Cutting Edge
In Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, WWII veteran Paul Fussell writes “The canteens of those at the cutting edge contained brandy, whisky, or gin almost as often as water” (Fussell, Wartime, 101). I’ve often read reports of American soldiers using their canteens to store everything from lemonade to wine and, noting the effects that liquids with varying acidities had on the results of lead in the Norwegian study, I wanted to compare how my canteens would react to a variety of liquids. I also wanted to see if my typical cleaning method (using Efferdent Denture Cleanser tablets) would cause a reaction.
To control for as many variables as possible, I tested a glass mug (as my control variable), the aluminum vertical-seam 1944 S.M. Co canteen, and the stainless steel horizontal-seam 1945 S.M. Co canteen. I figured using canteens made by the same manufacturer might control for manufacturer-based variables like quality control.
EDIT: Someone kindly pointed out that the aluminum M1910 canteen “S.M. Co 1944” was made by Southeastern Metals and the stainless steel “S.M. Co 1945” was made by Strong Mfg. Co., invalidating my ability to control for manufacturers.
I tested for lead after leaving the following liquids in these vessels for 24+ hours, rinsing out each vessel 2-3 times with tap water between tests:
- Efferdent Denture Cleanser
- Beer (slightly watered down New Glarus Cabin Fever, typically 5.5% ABV)
- Cherry Mimosa Cider (Door Peninsula Cidery, ~8% ABV)
- Coffee (Buona Giornata – Italian Roast, straight from the coffee maker)
- White vinegar
No lead was found to be present in any of these tests.
The canteens I tested were safe to drink from after testing a variety of substances with a variety of acidities. I cannot make a definitive statement about all WWII-era canteens, but this experiment gave me comfort that I am not slowly poisoning myself at living history events.
I plan on testing a few other liquids (orange juice, lemonade, distilled water, wine, chilled water, hot water), but I do not expect that these will cause lead to be present in these canteens.
Note that I cannot speak for every canteen that was produced between 1910-1945. There may be some manufacturers or models that I did not test here that contained unsafe levels of lead. At the moment, I cannot account for the discrepancy between my study and the Norwegian study, so it is possible that there are other models that are unsafe. This article is meant only to show my findings from an incredibly limited survey of canteens.
I am not a scientist, but I was happy with how much high school science I remembered for this little test (or was able to find online).
I encourage anyone who is concerned about their own canteens to try this study on their own. However, learn from my mistake and warn your partner what you’re doing before they see the water test kit sitting open next to the sink.