Tennis balls are a critical element of the sport. Yet to the average person, they may seem boring. They are all round, composed of similar materials, and share the same dimensions. However, their containers are a different story. Tennis ball containers come in a variety of styles, sizes and materials, ranging from the twelve-ball metal buckets, six-ball cardboard cartons to the more familiar four-ball and three-ball cans. More than mere storage devices, these colorful containers chronicle the history of tennis, its players, organizations, competitions, and changing technology.
Early Tennis Ball Containers
From the 1880s until about 1930, tennis balls were sold in paper bags or cardboard boxes, and occasionally metal boxes. To improve bounce, gas was forced into the balls during manufacture, but since the pressure was greater inside than outside it was only a matter of time before the balls went flat.
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"Championship" (12-ball box), 1912
Early Pressurized Containers
In the late 1920s Thomas E. Wilson & Co. and the Pennsylvania Rubber Company, respectively, began manufacturing the first pressurized metal tubes for preserving the shelf life of tennis balls. The air pressure in the can was increased to equal the pressure in the ball. As long as the can was sealed, no gas escaped, guaranteeing freshness. Once the can was opened, however, the balls would eventually go flat.
These early cans can be identified by their flat tops and a solder spot on the lid or bottom where pressurized gas was injected. They were opened by winding a thin metal strip on a key, a process familiar to sardine-lovers. Keys were attached to cans in a variety of locations: some are attached to the lid, some recessed into the bottom, and others were attached to the side. British tins often had lids that could be reused. Opening an American can, however, left opposing sharp edges, making reuse of the lid impossible.
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"Pennsylvania Championship", 1929
World War II Era Ball Containers
World War II created a severe shortage of crude rubber and steel. Tennis ball companies had to legally adjust their manufacturing process. Once they depleted their existing stock of metal cans, they switched to cardboard tubes, boxes and paper bags for packaging. In regards to tennis balls, they began using recycled or synthetic rubber as a substitute for crude rubber from East Asia. Plain paper labels, “Victory” labels, and drab olive green cans were common.
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"Championship" (3-ball bag), ca. 1945
Post WWII through 1960s
With metal no longer being reserved for the war effort, metal cans came back on the market. Though they still were opened with a key, the big change for American-made cans were that lids could be snapped back on top.
The balls made from recycled rubber that entered the market during the war years proved popular due to their prolonged playing life and continued to be made after the war. Another innovation was the introduction of pressureless tennis balls, led by the Swedish company Tretorn, who patented the technology in 1954.
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"The RMC Championship", 1952
Tennis Ball Containers from 1970 to the Present
The first big change to the industry was the introduction and wide-scale use of tennis balls in other colors besides the traditional white. Though there had been a history of using red felt (for increased visibility) since about 1930, white was the dominant color choice for both tournament and recreational play.
The shade of tennis ball that is synonymous with the modern game—optic yellow—was introduced by Pennsylvania Rubber Company in mid-1969 and advertised as a visibility aid for playing longer into the evening. By the following year, other companies, such as Slazenger, also began offering that shade in addition to white balls. To market their new offerings, companies clearly advertised and designed their cans to advertise what was inside.
Another manufacturing change to cans, still used today, is the pull-tab metal plate under a re-usable plastic lid. In July 1972, Penn, who had recently shortened their name from Pennsylvania, began advertising their new easy-to-open can in the trade magazines. The other tennis ball manufacturers quickly followed suit.
Though metal cans are still manufactured today, Wilson introduced the plastic can in 1984. They advertised it as the “new Wilson Squeezable Pressure Pack,” a transparent plastic tube so consumers could feel the freshness of the tennis balls contained within simply by squeezing the can.
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"Pennsylvania Centre Court X-76YHD Heavy Duty High Visibility Yellow", 1970
Player Endorsed Tennis Ball Containers
Tennis equipment manufacturers began relationships with the top players as far back as the 1920s, and, in addition to players endorsing racquets, their names and likenesses would also be worked into the design of ball cans. The popularity of professional tennis post-World War II can be seen by the increased use of player endorsements on the can designs.
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"Championship Vinnie Richards", ca. 1945
Tennis Ball Containers of Various Shapes and Sizes
Throughout this history of the sport, ball containers have come in a variety of materials, shapes, and sizes.