The noun tin is used figuratively, in reference to tin as a base metal, in the senses petty, worthless, counterfeit.
It is used in particular in tin Jesus and in tin god.
The two earliest instances of tin god that I have found are from The Evening News (Indianapolis, Indiana, USA):
– of Monday 31st May 1875:
The election of Mr. Reed Chairman of the Police Board did the work the Republicans counted upon it doing. From this elevation the Reed imagined himself a sort of little tin-god, and not content with kicking in Democratic traces he has turned to freeing himself from the entire breeching while trying to curry favor with the Republicans.
– of Tuesday 29th June 1875:
What has become of the Council ordinance, introduced by Madden, cutting the Contract Committee to a mere figure head, robbing the City Clerk of part of his charter duties, and making the Committee Clerk a little tin god among contractors?
The American novelist and jurist Robert Grant (1852-1940) used an extended form of the phrase in The Little Tin Gods-on-Wheels; or, Society in our Modern Athens. A Trilogy after the Manner of the Greek (Charles W. Sever – Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1879).
In his autobiography, Fourscore (Houghton Mifflin Company – Boston and New York, 1934), Robert Grant, recounting his days as a law student, wrote that this trilogy first appeared in instalments in the Harvard Lampoon, a humour publication founded in 1876 by undergraduates of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts:
– The Wallflowers. A Tragedy after the Manner of the Greek, on 19th January 1878;
– The Little Tin Gods-on-Wheels. A Sequel to “The Wallflowers”, on 1st February 1878;
– The Chaperons. A Supplement to “The Wallflowers” and “The Little Tin Gods-on-Wheels”, on 26th April 1878.
Robert Grant explained in Fourscore what his purpose was:
I was attempting to satirize with the aid of classical metres and the ancient Greek chorus the fashionable balls of our days.
In the trilogy, the term little Tin Gods-on-wheels denotes fashionable young men of high social position, characterised by their stupidity, vanity and lack of tact.
For example, this is the beginning of The Little Tin Gods-on-Wheels. A Sequel to “The Wallflowers”:
Miss Jacqueminot, a raving beauty.
Miss Bonselline, a tearing bud.
Mr. Souvenir, a howling swell, one of the little Tin Gods-on-Wheels.
Miss Smilax, a parasite.
Choruses of Tin Gods-on-Wheels, parasitical young ladies, tearing buds, raving beauties, etc.
The scene is laid in Boston, the Modern Athens. The curtain rises on a magnificent ballroom. Young ladies and men of all sorts are grouped about the room. The clock strikes half past ten. The door opens, and Mr. Souvenir and a number of other little Tin Gods-on-Wheels just from a dinner-party enter, with boutonnières in their buttonholes and pride in their hearts.
Chorus of little Tin Gods-on-Wheels.
Look at those dear little, sweet little, nice little
Girls in the corner, who are all dying to
Have us come up to them. Which of the darlings
Shall we make happy to-night with our presence?
We the magnificent leaders of fashion,
Fresh from a dinner and tony as possible;
We the young men who don’t rise in the morning,
Wedded to style, and without occupation.
Chorus of parasitical young ladies.
Happy the maid whom fate ordains
To spend the evening with a swell;
What matter that he has no brains,
Provided that it looketh well!
For what is sense compared to dog,
Or intellect to tone and style?
Though he be heavy as a log,
If he ’s the fashion we will smile.
The following occurs later, about Mr. Souvenir, in The Little Tin Gods-on-Wheels. A Sequel to “The Wallflowers”:
Chorus of tearing buds.
Look at that mass of conceited presumption
Going the rounds in his usual manner.
Is n’t he horrid? But, sisters, speak softly,
It would not do for the world to offend him.
He is a man who can make us or mar us;
Make us the “thing,” or condemn us forever.
So we must smile and seem awfully flattered,
For it is swell to be seen with the creature.
Rough him as much as you like, for he never
By the least possible chance would perceive it;
For he considers he does us a favor
If he but tread on the train of our dresses.
Francis Gilbert Attwood (1856-1900) illustrated the 1879 edition of The Little Tin Gods-on-Wheels; or, Society in our Modern Athens. A Trilogy after the Manner of the Greek. This is the illustration for The Little Tin Gods-on-Wheels. A Sequel to “The Wallflowers”:
The British novelist, short-story writer and poet Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) used Little Tin Gods (on Wheels) and little tin souls in Public Waste, published in Departmental Ditties (De Vinne Press – Lahore, 1886):
Walpole talks of “a man and his price”—
List to a ditty queer—
The sale of a Deputy-Acting-Vice-
Bought like a bullock, hoof and hide,
By the Little Tin Gods on the Mountain Side.
By the Laws of the Family Circle ’tis written in letters of brass
That only a Colonel from Chatham can manage the Railways of State,
Because of the gold on his breeks, and the subjects wherein he must pass,
Because in all matters that deal not with Railways his knowledge is great.
Now Exeter Battleby Tring had laboured from boyhood to eld
On the Lines of the East and the West, and eke of the North and South;
Many Lines had he built and surveyed—important the posts which he held;
And the Lords of the Iron Horse were dumb when he opened his mouth.
Black as the raven his garb, and his heresies jettier still—
Hinting that Railways required decades of study and knowledge—
Never clanked sword by his side—Vauban he knew not nor drill—
Nor was his name on the list of the men who had gone through the “College.”
Wherefore the Little Tin Gods harried their little tin souls,
Seeing he came not from Chatham, jingled no spurs at his heels;
Knowing that, nevertheless, was he first on the Government rolls
For the billet of — “Railway Instructor to Little Tin Gods on Wheels.”