Tom Caniff, a great hobbyist, is gone

Tom Caniff, a great hobbyist, is gone

Sad notes, compiled by Ralph Finch

Tom was an impressive collector, an intense researcher, a fire department chief, a fruit jar expert, and a keeper of pets, including stuffed toys, turtles, snakes and cats—a LOT of cats. There were few animals not found on the Caniffs’ Noah’s Ark.

Over the past decades I have written more obituaries than I can count, but this one hurts. For me, over the past 50 years, Tom has been a friend.

Tom, of Steubenville, Ohio, died May 24, in the same healthcare facility he shared with his wife, Deena. They were married just under 49 years. He had a wonderful and dry sense of humor and, while he rarely laughed, he always had a mischievous smile. As are many in the hobby, Tom was um, unusual.

Tom was a FOHBC 2008 Hall of Fame inductee, which he so well-deserved. The Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors notes on their Hall of Fame listing for Tom that he had written The Label Space (1997); Fruit Jar Annual Volume 6 (2001), and The Guide To Collecting Fruit Jars (2001). And in all of this, his wife, Deena, assisted him with her photographic skills.

Tom entered the bottle collecting world in 1975, became active in Midwest collecting circles, and has been the president of the Jefferson County Antique Bottle Club in Steubenville. For two years he was the co-editor of the Federation newsletter (1978-80), was the Northeast Region newsletter editor (1981-83), and a juror of the Federation’s annual newsletter contest in 1995. He was vice president and president of the national Jelly Jammers group (1990-93). He was the recognized authority on the various Flaccus family companies and their food-packing competitors along the Ohio River.

As mentioned, Tom—a fireman for 28 years—had become the department’s chief. And some 35 years ago, while I was at work and planning in a few hours to drive to the Steubenville bottle club’s show, Jerry McCann—who was waiting at my home—noticed a small problem. My house, just outside Detroit, had caught fire! Although my local fire department took care of things, I called Tom for help, but—Holy Smoke—he said the 297 miles difference was just out of his territory.

Over the years his jars have been sold, and only recently Greg Spurgeon’s North American Glass firm sold the Christmas lights from the Caniff collection.

But, a fireman to the end, Tom was cremated.

And old friends add:

[Adam and Phyllis Koch – Akron, Ohio] “We were sorry to hear about Tom’s passing. So many memories of the Steubenville bottle shows with Tom and Deena hosting an open house to share their collections. And it was never just Tom, it was always Tom and Deena. They were strong supporters and members of the Steubenville and the Ohio bottle clubs. He was a great researcher and shared that knowledge with other collectors. Our condolences to Deena and family and his many friends who will miss him.”

[Jerry McCann – Chicago, Illinois] “Tom had a passion for the story, the history behind the glass containers we collect. He doggedly pursued his research applying the journalistic rule: verify, verify. Although his education did not include formal education beyond high school he was extremely well-read and curious, well beyond the narrow areas of glass collecting. Unlike his contemporaries—Alice Creswick, Dick Roller and Vivian Kath, who had devotees who regularly provided resource material—Tom worked quietly in the background confirming their ideas or offering alternative information. In the area of paper-labeled fruit jars and commercial containers, his work was seminal and stands alone in the hobby. Researching companies represented by their product labels was labor intensive and difficult. Yet he found much information to help collectors interested in their history. As a fellow collector he was always a friend first and a competitor last. His gentle curmudgeon presence at a bottle show was always welcomed. It will be missed.”

[Greg Spurgeon, North American Glass] “Tom collected what he truly liked and didn’t accumulate objects based on whether they’d be considered “investment-grade.” Having visited his home several times, it was a pleasure to view and handle his extensive displays of the “eclectic.” Looking over these collections, expertly curated by Tom, was always a fun and educational experience. During those visits we’d also learn that Tom was a master in finetuning his colorful fleet of “livestock” in order to strike a proper balance between cats and turtles. Tom possessed enviable skills as an orator. His topical presentations at the Muncie Fruit Jar Show meetings were not to be missed. You just knew that his impeccable wit and dry sense of humor were lurking and about to come out at any turn. Tom was ever humble and wouldn’t think of claiming to be the expert on anything. Even though, of course, he very much was. His eagerness to dive into detailed research and share that work in a skillful way has enriched several generations of collectors. Our hobby has been given a better chance to endure and prosper, thanks to his life-long efforts.  

A few years ago, I interviewed Tom; here is the unpublished article:

Jarring comments from Tom Caniff

Tom, at 80, takes the lid off and looks back on a lifetime of interesting jars and old friends.

Compiled by Ralph Finch

In the middle of a cold January day, I got a warm message from friend, jar expert, and AB&GC magazine columnist Tom Caniff of Steubenville, Ohio. So, since Tom and I are getting older, I thought that now might be a good time to ask him a few questions; his first few answers were:

“I’m afraid that the virus is getting to a lot of folks, leading them to be less careful, and I’m afraid that many, especially us old fogies, may well pay a stiff price for their foolishness. As far as I know, I’ve reached an age, almost 80, that none of my earlier relatives achieved, but, although I’m grateful for what I’ve had, I don’t want to go down the tubes because of doing something stupid.

I’m at the end of my rope with the jar column, I’m afraid, but it’s been a long run and there’s not much left that I’d like to cover. I’ve done this mainly to satisfy myself and now it’s getting to be too much like work, having covered so many topics that I’d wanted to clarify, for myself if not for others.

I, too, find myself missing old friends and acquaintances, some of whom I barely talked to at bottle shows; now that we don’t even see them I find myself wondering how they are and, in some cases, if they’re still alive. I can’t blame all of this on Covid though, some of it’s due to health problems, and an unfortunate declining interest since we’re no longer actively collecting.

We’re still doing as well as can be expected though.”

And we had more questions, to which Tom—using his unique, humorous style—replied:

“Questions?  I’m too old to remember answers, and if I do, the answers are probably wrong.”

“Quiz 1 – FIRST JAR? I already had a grouping of “old” fruit jars that we’d liberated from abandoned farmhouses, when I bought my first “good’ jar,” after several weeks of soul searching (and yes, I did finally find my soul and still have it today, although in somewhat worn condition).  I shelled out $15 for a stained quart aqua LEADER jar with no lid nor clamp. Although I remember it kindly, it’s now long gone; not sure if I got my money back or not.”

“Quiz 2 – FIRST COLUMN? The Label Space first appeared in the March, 1992, issue of Bottles and Extras, published by Scott Grandstaff and Kitty Roach, of Happy Camp, Calif. (My first printed article was, I believe, on the J. Ellwood Lee Gauze Jars in the October, 1978, Federation magazine.) Over the past 42 years I’ve written more than 500 columns, newsletters and articles.”

“Quiz 3 – SAINTHOOD? In putting up with me for 47 years, I suspect that Deena’s closer to sainthood than I’ll ever be, God love her.”

“And, remember, keep away from people, some of them are carriers and most of them are nuts, one way or another.”

How many shows have you been to over the last century? None for the first 53 years, until 1974; since then, probably close to a couple hundred, starting out with one or two a year, peaking at 17 for several years, and then gradually declining to two a year for the last several years (until covid), as age and health dictated.

What’s your fave show? Mansfield, Ohio

What’s your fave pet? Right now, Spot Marie LeBlanc, our four-year-old cat. (Note: Tom is famous for a house filled with pets, including cats, turtles and a snake.)

What are some of your favorite memories? Learning as much as I did about fruit jars from Dick Roller when we first started collecting, the research he did was awesome in a time before computers and the Internet.

What’s the most unusual jar you ever came acrossI’ve seen a lot of great jars, but the most unusual? …I give up.

What’s the most unusual ANYTHING you ever came across? Someone who lives in Michigan. (Editor’s note: Ha, ha, ha, lol.)

What else have you collected? Christmas lights.

What are the favorite jar people you’ve met over the years? Don and Glenny Burkett, Dick Roller, and Jerry McCann.

How many years were you with the fire department? 28 years.

“P.S. What exactly is a “fave”? You kids and your slang…

Tom, who also collects stuffed…stuff—he and Deena call them “children”—explains:

“Here’s my latest composite photo, showing the kids (Deena, Mr. Bird, Katrina Koala, Charles T. Chicken, Dipsy & Doodle Duckling, Squeekmore Mousely, Wartimer T. Frog, Mr. Bandit, Quackers N. Milik, and Kermit T. Frog, watching the beginning of a Randolph Scott western on TV; I’m supervising on the left, dutifully wearing my mask, like the Lone Ranger. (Tonight they stay up all night for cowboys).”

FYI* When Scott and Kitty announced their first issue, I wrote them—since I had already done the magazine thing myself—and warned them that the challenges they faced would be awesome. It didn’t take long for them to agree with me.