The story behind the Jerry can.

jerry can logo

You’ve seen it everywhere on our site, at our events, on our shirtstattooed on our arms… and although the Jerry can has become a mainstay for our staff and supporters, we want to let you know what it actually is and why it’s a symbol of the charity: water mission.

jerry can splash

What’s a Jerry can?

Simply put, a Jerry can is a container for fuel or water. Many people in developing countries use it to haul and store their drinking water. The standard five-gallon Jerry can weighs about 40 pounds when full.

To us, the Jerry can is a symbol of the water crisis. Millions of people around the world spend hours each day with one strapped securely on their backs, held tightly to their hips or balanced on top of their heads. The Jerry can is a part of their everyday lives. It accompanies them on long walks to a water source; for women in Sub-Saharan Africa, this is at least a three-hour ordeal. It is the keeper of a precious resource they must make the most of each day; many families use just one five-gallon Jerry can each day.

But the bright yellow Jerry can is also a symbol of hope to change the water crisis.

What if we could make it so that all the water collected in Jerry cans around the world was safe enough to drink? That it could bring health and opportunity for communities in need? That is our mission.

jerry can old

A little Jerry can history…

To most people, this simple metal or plastic can means “gasoline,” and rightfully so — the first Jerry cans were introduced as gasoline containers by the German military at the start of World War II. These five-gallon cans, also called “Jeep cans” or “blitz cans” (or, in Germany, “Wehrmachtskanisters”) were made of steel and usually sat in the back of vehicles as a reserve tank of gas. It’s said that Adolph Hitler anticipated the biggest challenge to taking over Europe in WWII was fuel supply. So Germany stocked up.

As Germany moved through Europe and North Africa, so did their thousands of gasoline cans. These cans proved to be dependable and durable; soon, countries all over the world were adapting them to haul and store liquids, coining them “Jerry cans” because of their German origin (“Jerry” was a snide name for a German WWII soldier). New water container designs emerged but nothing could top the strength and simplicity of the original rectangular, X-marked Jerry can.

By the 70s, the plastic Jerry hit the market. Steel Jerry cans weigh 10 pounds empty; a plastic Jerry can weighs 3.5 pounds, and is much cheaper to manufacture. While the military uses metal cans, people all over the world now buy fuel or water for domestic use in plastic Jerry cans.

jerry can line

Since plastic cans ship easily and inexpensively, you can find fuel for sale in bright yellow or blue Jerry cans in just about any developing country. And when the gas is gone, families resourcefully keep the can — and after a good wash, it becomes a primary water container.

Before plastic Jerry cans, many communities we work in used heavy clay pots or metal containers to haul their water. Their switch to Jerry cans in the last few decades makes sense: a recycled plastic can lightens up the three-hour walk many take each day to collect water.

jerry can line

Join us to share the Jerry can.

We invite you to also take up this symbol to raise awareness about the nearly one billion people who live without clean drinking water. Check out our new Jerry can merchandise. Use our Jerry can banners, Twitter backgrounds and print materials to spread the word. Pass on the Jerry can and teach others that we can change the water crisis in our lifetime.

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