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What Is Tin Foil?

Tin foil, often mistaken for aluminum foil, is a thin sheet of tin that was historically used for wrapping food. Its malleable nature allows for tight sealing, preserving freshness. Today, aluminum has largely replaced tin due to cost and durability. But the story of tin foil's evolution is fascinating—how did this switch happen, and what were the implications? Join us to uncover the tale.
Britt Archer
Britt Archer

Tin foil is a thin and pliable metal sheeting that is manufactured, as the name implies, from tin. Sometimes the product’s name is also written "tinfoil." In popular parlance today, many people use the term “tin foil” when what they actually are referring to is aluminum foil, which came into common use following World War II. Aluminum foil is less costly and holds up better to use.

Tin foil uses include covering and protecting food items. Homemakers and cooks frequently wrap sandwiches, leftovers and other foods in foil. The foil is more durable than some plastic wraps, and easier to carry than plastic tubs or bowls. Tin also is used in the manufacture of cans. Some people in today’s society even construct tin foil hats, or cover their windows with the foil, under a delusion that such a covering will impede mind control efforts or stop radio or electromagnetic waves from influencing their behavior.

Tin foil.
Tin foil.

Tin foil gained in popularity in the late 1800s, and it continued into the 1900s until aluminum foil displaced it. Despite changing the raw material used in making the foil product, the name “tin foil” has stuck, even though it’s generally understood that the item in question is a thin foil sheet made of aluminum. There are differences between aluminum and tin, with tin being a bit stiffer. Tin also has a tendency to impart a metallic flavor to the food it protects or encloses.

Tin foil or aluminum foil may be used in art projects.
Tin foil or aluminum foil may be used in art projects.

Tin is a metal that was used early by mankind, and it is used in the production of bronze and as an alloy with other types of metal. Aluminum was discovered in 1825. Aluminum, like tin, is used to protect food products, including milk, and also pharmaceutical goods. The first aluminum manufacturer to produce rolls of foil made of aluminum was based in Switzerland, and the company started processing the foil rolls in 1910.

Tin foil was used in World War II by the Allies, who dropped strips of it to confound the enemy’s radar. World War II was also when plastic wrap began to overtake the popularity of aluminum foil. The war also prompted rationing and conservation measures for all sorts of materials, including tin. People on the home front in the United States, for example, were encouraged to save their strips of tin foil, roll them into a ball and turn them in for salvage. The collected foil balls in some towns could be exchanged for free entry to a movie theater.

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    • Tin foil.
      Tin foil.
    • Tin foil or aluminum foil may be used in art projects.
      By: Eliane Haykal
      Tin foil or aluminum foil may be used in art projects.