History of Canning

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Home canning was not always that heavy-duty summer-time activity we visualize when we think of women’s work in the past. Preserving? Yes, surely, but not canning. Foods were indeed put up in ceramic crocks—everything from meat (French confit or its English counterpart potted duck) to vinegared and salted vegetables. And those who could afford the sugar did some jellying and candying. One prevented spoilage by use of salt, sugar, vinegar and spices that did a marginal job of preventing spoilage-bacteria. In the case of potted meats, baked morsels were shielded from the contaminating air by complete immersion in melted fat and a tied-on cloth or leather covering. But this was not canning.


"Flexi-Seal Canner," a pressure-canner manufactured by Vischer Products Co., Chicago, Ill, USA

An example of a WWII era canner from Flexible. The lid is secured and the steam gauge is placed over the steam port, where it releases steam to keep the enamelled kettle’s pressure constant. This canner comes with a wire rack to hold jars off the can bottom and allow for full circulation of steam and raise and lower the jars within the kettle. Note that like many early canners, it also came with its own adjustable jar lifter.

Canning depends on sealed, airtight containers, whether they be tin cans or canning jars. While home canning processes have not always involved hermetical seals, they have usually made some attempt to thoroughly cook the contents, to clean the containers (the term sterilization would not have been used early), and to keep out air by means of a tight mechanical closure.

Actually it all started with Nicolas Appert in early 19th-century France. At the time, Napoleon, knowing that his army marched on its stomach, offered a handsome cash prize for anyone who could come up with an improved apparatus for preserving food. Appert won the competition with a system of precooking, air-tight sealing and final processing in a newly designed glass canning jar. His wide-mouthed pint "bottles" were filled with hot cooked foods, stoppered with hand-cut corks fitted to the irregularities of the blown glass, sealed with a compound made of lime and skim milk and then finished in a boiling water bath. Appert declared that the meats, vegetables, fruits, soups, and gravies thus prepared would last for at least a year in the same excellent state. And he thus inspired a new industry. 

Canning Jars

For several decades thereafter, inventive minds experimented with container sizes and shapes, with glass, tin, wax and lead, and with various lid-clamping mechanisms. They focused on tin lids sealed with wax or composition materials, and eventually mold-blown glass jars threaded to accept a zinc screw top lid. By the time of the American Civil War two-piece lids made air-tight with disposable rubber rings or gaskets set between glass lid and jar were becoming popular. The Mason jar was on its way; air-tight home canning was about to become a domestic institution.

Familiar forms of canning jars were then called glass cans or fruit jars, probably because fruits were canned most often, and because the whole process was an extension of earlier preservation in heavy sugars. By the 1880s, American women, taking advantage of the lowering cost of sugar and the back-saving woodstove, had launched the annual summer routine of putting up the wealth of orchard fruit, along with garden vegetables and even meats.  

Instructions in period cookbooks directed that the food be precooked and packed hot in the heated jars or tin cans, then filled to overflowing with heated syrups or brines and sealed quickly—what we now call the open kettle method. A subsequent improvement suggested packing the raw food in jars and cooking it (open) in a hot water bath, and then, as before, filling with hot liquids and sealing. With this method the jars and the food were hot enough and probably sterile when packed, but the air trapped at the top was not, and food spoilage occasionally resulted. Mrs. Rorer, in Canning and Preserving (1887) recommended regular inspection of the jars for bubbling—a sure sign of trouble—and immediate opening, in such cases, to prevent bursting. The terminal hot water bath—a final processing of the cooked and sealed jars which killed off any contaminants—was not to be instituted for several years to come.

In fact, most of the food was wholesome enough, even if somewhat overcooked by the process. There were means to healthful canning. If the jars contents were high in acid there was less danger, and many fruits, pickles, and vinegared ketchups and chutneys stored safely. Other foods were protected by sugar syrups and brines, as sugar and salt were both flavorings and preservatives. Perhaps this accounts in part for the popularity of homemade ketchups and chili sauces. It was the low-acid, unseasoned vegetables and meats that fared less well, even to the extreme of sometimes causing serious illness, but these were a far smaller part of the repertoire.

Although today’s modern, quart-sized canning jars are a glut on the yard-sale and flea markets, they must have been treasured and reused annually in their early days. I confess to being somewhat confused about who bought them first, and in what quantities. Farm women with abundant home-grown food and the need to preserve it also typically lacked the cash flow needed for the jars. Possibly they maintained the traditional practices of salting, drying and root-cellar storage for a longer period.

Carrie Hubbard Davis lived on rural Long Island in 1881, and noted in her diary that her mother had only brought her "2 fruit jars." On the other hand, city women who functioned in the cash economy because of their husbands’ salaries bought both the jars and the food to can in them. It would almost seem that American small town women, whose home economy was based on access to funds, were in the best position to get at both. Their backyard gardens and those of their farming cousins were full of seasonal produce for "putting up," and their economics allowed for the jars. Their diaries refer regularly to the "cans" and "jars" with which they provided for winter. In any case, the jar prices came down and women built up their stock of reusable containers, entrenching home canning in rural settings.

It would seem that before long, with the growth of more elaborate marketing (groceries and chain stores), an increasing sector of American women turned away from the work of canning to the convenience of inexpensive commercial tinned staples. But national events provided the impetus for renewed interest in home canning. During World War I, for example, the government urged families to plant "victory gardens" and to can their surplus for later use, thereby allowing the re-distribution of commercial supplies to the army. Throughout the nation, home economists now gave classes in home canning to patriotic homemakers (suggesting that the process had not been in general use everywhere). Likewise, during the depression in the 1930s, land grant colleges promoted improved canning methods and nutrition in their new publications and home demonstration classes. World War II followed suit.

During the 1960s and 1970s young women immersed in the back-to- the-land movement rediscovered home canning, now facing a serious competitor in quantity freezing. I would guess that the next generations of women are far too busy working out of the home, and are, in many cases, far too removed from domesticity to find home canning either interesting or a valuable use of time.