Gardeners have always prized their watering cans. A well-made watering can of just the right size, with a sturdy handle, is as indispensable as a trowel; it's "a masterpiece of appropriate technology," wrote William Bryant Logan in The Tool Book (1997). Watering cans are beautiful tools, and vintage models are as satisfyingly useful and attractive as the day they were made.
Buckets and earthenware watering pots preceded watering cans, Logan says. The first mention of a "watering kan" was in 1692, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary also notes the use of the term watering pan "as more accurately imitating the genial rains," in Sir Henry Steuart's The Planter's Guide (1827). Logan credits enterprising French and English gardeners of the late 19th century for the shape and style of vessels we recognize today.
French watering cans tend to be oval in cross section with a graceful handle arching from the top of the can to the back, which makes them especially easy to carry. English-style watering cans often have two handles, one for carrying and one for pouring. The Haws watering can—a tall vessel with two handles, a long spout, and a distinctive brass rose that gently waters—was patented in 1886 and remains a classic.
American watering cans are made in the English style and often have a generous spout and a rose the size of a doorknob that screws on and off. My great-grandmother's watering can is made of galvanized steel and says "Cream City" on the side, a name that was once applied to Milwaukee. I treasure it, and it works hard in my garden.
Vintage watering cans in working condition (without leaks, if with some repairs) can command high prices. Fine old Haws watering cans, with their polished-brass roses and hawthorn-leaf medallions, sell for about $150—when you can find them. Painted French watering cans cost $100 and more. The selection of watering cans on eBay changes often: A very old copper watering can sold for $250 not long ago—a terrific bargain compared to prices in shops—and a vintage green enamel can sold for $100. Prices are based on condition and rarity; copper watering cans are the most expensive, but unusual sizes and styles in other materials also yield high prices. However, there are still bargains to be found: Keep your eyes open for watering cans at estate sales and flea markets. These cans might be somewhat the worse for wear, a little beat up and missing their rose, but they still lend instant history to a garden.
If a watering can does not sit flat or has a convex bottom, that usually indicates it has been left outdoors, full of water, in freezing weather. You can hammer the bottom carefully to make it flat again, but the damage might have been done: Freezing sometimes splits the seams around the base, and your watering can might no longer hold water. A bead of waterproof silicone caulk around the inside edge might solve the problem.