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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.