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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Canned Food

Updated: May 15, 2022

“The dry and fresh-gathered fruits are put into strong, wide-mouthed glass bottles, carefully corked, and luted with a cement of lime and soft cheese, and bound down with wire. The bottles are then inclosed separately in canvas bags, and put into a kettle of water, which is gradually heated until it boils; the bottles are kept in this condition until the fruits are boiled in their own juice. The whole is then left to cool; after which the bottles are examined separately, and put away for store.”

Godey's Lady Book, 1854

Throughout human history, there has been a driving need to keep food from spoiling. Before the modern era, food that was harvested, hunted, or slaughtered needed to be either eaten immediately or preserved in some fashion. Cultures smoked, dried, cured, salted, and pickled meats, fruits, and vegetables. Techniques varied with climate and environment. People living in colder latitudes were able to freeze their food at least through the winter months. Often societies came up with unique solutions to particular problems of preservation. In Iceland, they prepare the Greenlandic shark, an abundant but toxic Atlantic fish, utilizing a traditional method done since the Vikings. They bury the headless fish in a hole filled with stones and sand. Over six to twelve weeks, the pressure squeezes the toxic liquids out of the shark, and then the meat is hung to dry for several months. The development of the canning process would revolutionize how we consume and obtain our foodstuffs.

Fresh food supply was a concern for most individuals, but it was a particularly thorny problem for armies. Organized supply chains limited the reach of military campaigns, and any long-range conquest was supported by outright pillaging of needed supplies. By the 18th century, with the emergence of the professional army, armies grew larger and harder to keep supplied. Pillaging and raiding could not be controlled, making maintaining needed discipline that much harder. As the adage goes, "an army marches on its stomach," governments sought ways to provide their military with a steady supply of proper foods. The far-flung campaigns of Napoleon brought the issue to the forefront.

Nicholas Appert

Traditional methods of preserving food were no guarantee that food wouldn't go bad. Shortly after the French Revolution, the French army realized it had a severe and fatal problem on its hands. So much so, in 1795, it offered 12,000 francs to whoever could solve the problem of preventing spoilage. In Paris, a confectioner, Nicholas Appert, was already beginning to think about this very question. Inspired by the wine bottling process, Appert focused his work on removing air from food. It took him nearly a decade of tinkering and experimenting, but Appert developed a method of placing food in a jar, sealing the jar to make it airtight, and then the jars are boiled. In 1806, the French Navy provided a test of Appert's process, then called appertization. They applied the process to a wide range of foodstuffs, including meats, vegetables, and milk. The tests were so successful that Appert was awarded the prize money in 1810. He then wrote a book outlining his method, which we call canning today: The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years.

One of Appert's canning jars

Appert knew the importance of preventing exposure to outside air and applying sufficient heat to the process. But he didn't know why, and it would be Louis Pasteur who would show the correlation between microorganisms and food spoilage. Canning involves placing food into a container. Then the container is heated such that it kills any bacteria. As the container cools, a vacuum seal is created, preventing bacteria from coming in from the outside. Appert used wide mouth jars which he sealed with a mixture of cheese and lime, and then he wrapped the jars in canvas and placed them into a boiling water bath.

As successful as Appert's preservation breakthrough was, glass jars proved to be impractical for an army on the march. The jars were unwieldy and heavy thus making them hard to transport and prone to breakage. It did not take long for a better way to appear—this time in Great Britain. Within months of Appert winning his prize, an entrepreneurial Peter Durand received a patent from King George III for preserving food in tinplated cans. Tin was already known for being non-corrosive and used for plating steel and iron. Durand's patent is the first evidence of food being heated and sterilized in a tin container. His method differed slightly from Appert's in that he placed food inside the container, sealed it, and placed the container into a cold water bath. The water was gradually brought to a boil, the lid opened slightly, and then sealed again.

There are indications that Durand did not actually invent the process but held the patent in name only. The honor, it seems, goes to another Frenchman, Philippe de Girard, who apparently had sold the patent to Durand. Records of the Royal Society show that Girard demonstrated his technique of preserving food in tin containers. It is uncertain why Girard was in London at this time, and there is speculation as to the reasons. It is possible that he sought to escape the bureaucracy of the French government. At the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, England, London especially, was awash with venture capital and people willing to take a risk. But France and England were at war, so a Frenchman gaining an English patent was not likely.

Early tin canister

Neither Girard nor Durand seemed interested in capitalizing on their innovation. Durand ends up selling his patent to fellow Englishman Bryan Donkin for £1,000. Donkin, for his part, had more than a passing interest in tin. He had already proven himself a commercially successful engineer. He developed an early steel pen and a device to measure the speed of machines. He created a papermaking machine when others had failed. His papermaking business earned enough to invest in his new interest in canning. In 1811, he set up a factory and began refining the Girard's process. Within two years, Donkin and his partners were mass-producing canned beef.

Some of Donkin's canned beef made its way to the table of the Duke of Wellington in the field in the spring of 1813. The Duke liked the taste, and he recommended it for both the army and the Navy. At the end of June, Donkin presented his canned food to the Duke of Kent at his residence in Kensington. The following day, he received a note from the Duke:

"I am commanded by the Duke of Kent to acquaint you that his Royal Highness having procured introduction of some of your patent beef on the Duke of York's table, where it was tasted by the Queen, the Prince Regent and several distinguished personages and highly approved. He wishes you to furnish him with some of your printed papers in order that His Majesty and many other individuals may according to their wish expressed have an opportunity of further proving the merits of the things for general adoption."

Of course, such glowing recommendations meant a lucrative government contract. The Admiralty made an initial order of 150lbs of canned beef. In 1814, the number was 2,939lbs. By the end of the decade, it increased to nearly 9,000lbs. Yet early on, the popularity of canned goods was limited to the military and those undertaking long journies. The early canning process was not mechanized like other industries and was labor-intensive. It took two skilled workers to produce 120 cans per day. It wouldn't be until 1847 that a machine was invented that could make 1500 cans a day. This reduced costs, but the general public was still skeptical of the concept of canned food. People were used to obtaining and eating their food fresh. They were suspicious of the taste, quality, and safety of the newfangled tin canisters, or "cans." Added to this was the difficulty of opening the cans. The can opener had not been invented. Soldiers opened cans with bayonets, and others used hammers, chisels, and knives.

After the mid-19th century, the popularity of canned food gained traction in the general populace. In the United States, this was in part a result of Civil War veterans, who acquired the taste for canned food during the war, returning home. Today, canned food is a staple of household pantries. The process of canning was a breakthrough in food preservation and changed how we eat.


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