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A quick lesson on airtights (canned goods)


Canned food was a common item in the time period we study, they were often a lifesaver and of course kept well, for use in emergencies. Dates here are general, patent dates don't always reflect when a product became common.

Our modern canned goods got their start in France about the time the short guy was in command.  Lack of food at times hurt his army as bad as a Russian Winter. So he offered a prize to develop a method of preserving food.  The method developed used glass jars and bottles sealed with asphalt.  The food was cooked in the glass and then sealed with the cork and asphalt.  These were heavy, fragile and expensive.

Along about the late 1820's the method of making steel cans that were tin-plated was developed in England.  These were less fragile but also expensive because the cans were made by hand by skilled tinsmiths.  These cans were made up and a large hole left in the top, the food was put in through the hole and a patch soldered on top to seal it.  The cans were then boiled it water for an hour or two to kill the microbes.  This caused two problems, one it was not really know that the microbe were what spoiled the food, so sometimes they were not processed enough. 

Also the lead based solder caused lead poisoning if you ate too much of the canned food.  This showed up a lot on Arctic explorations where canned food was the only food.

By the early 1840's machine made cans brought the cost down and the cans had less exposed lead in them, although this could sometimes be a problem.  (I have never been able to determine when the lead free solders took over, I would guess it was gradual.)  Poor processing was sometimes a problem, so there was still some risk to eating canned goods.

The more affordable canned goods though got a good boast when folks started heading to California and Oregon, Most folks carried some canned goods for emergencies, although the weight was still a problem.

The biggest boost to canned goods was our Civil War; the US government bought these goods by the millions for the Army and Navy for emergency rations.  Of course after the war, there were many canneries in place to provide canned goods and the mass production was well figured out.  Also by the late 1850's it was discovered that using steam under pressure made the canned goods much safer and quicker to process.  Steam under pressure if you remember from chemistry class allows a higher heat than boiling water.  There were still some problems along the way and it still crops up from time to time, but not often.

I will next post, some of the products one could get in the West, some might surprise you.  The cost, although lower, was still quite high, most canned goods cost from 10-25 cents a can in an era of dollar a day wages.

Gail Borden was said to be on a ship coming from Europe when the cow that provided the milk died.  With out milk several babies went hungry.  Determined not to let that happen again, he developed a vacuum evaporator to reduce the liquid to about half and then added sugar to it as an anti-microbe.  This was one product the US Government bought in mass amounts

Later in the 1870's they learned to can it with out the sugar.

However, he was not the first, at least one company, Aldens, was making what could only kindly be called "Preserved Milk" by the 1840's.  Boiling down milk to about 1/2 and adding 8 egg yolks and a pound of sugar to each 10 quarts of milk made this product.  This was hermetically sealed in cans and was said to stay good for 2 years.

The problem with this product was because it was boiled, it tasted scorched.  Despite that it was a common canned good on the overland trail and was carried by many of the explorers of the west, till the better Borden product caught on.  This is the closest I've seen to canned eggs.

How about butter it was also canned.  The butter was melted and the milk solid was removed, this is what causes butter to go rancid.  It was the packed in cans and sealed.  One note the clarified butter used in a lot of Indian cooking is called Ghee. It is has been used on the Sub-Continent for hundreds of years because it does not turn rancid.
One of the early canned goods was seafood, production started in mass quantities in France in the 1830's.  Oysters, sardines in olive oil and anchovies all found a ready market, both in Europe and in the US.  Seafood canneries started mass production in the eastern US by the 1840's adding lobster and salmon to the list of items.  In fact the canning of lobster and salmon increased the decline of these species.  Lobster seems to have been canned till perhaps the 1920's and may still be today, but I've never seen any.

The Atlantic salmon industry was in trouble because of over fishing and pollution by the 1860's, but by then the canneries in California, Oregon and Washington were producing much larger quantities of this product than the East ever did.  The salmon was more abundant and they also had the advantage of cheap Chinese labor.  In fact when a mechanical device was devolved to clean and cut up the salmon in the late 1880's it was nicknamed the "Iron Chink."

Shortly after turn of the century the salmon canneries on the west coast were in trouble also because of pollution and over fishing and most of the salmon canning moved to Alaska, where most is still done today.

The canneries on the west coast were able to keep going by shifting product, what they did can was tuna.  Surplus Liberty aircraft engines from WWI made affordable gasoline powered off shore fishing practical.  Also marketing and price made a once unwanted fish popular with consumers.

I have found no references to any canned meats other than seafood till shortly after the Civil War, they may have been there and if anyone runs across any, let me know.

The first canned meat I have discovered was deviled ham.  In fact the brand was Underwood a common brand today.  The Red Devil trademark is said to be the oldest still in use.  Around 1867 seems to be the time frame of it coming on the market.  Many brands followed, it was a good way for the meat packers to use up odds and ends.   

There are many references to adulteration in deviled ham, many were using tripe and coloring it instead of using ham.  As the Pure Food and Drug Laws loomed, a new product was introduce, called potted meat product, about 1904-1905.  This is still sold in the canned meat sections of grocery stores today.  I keep a can of it on hand as reference when doing lectures on food.  My can is buried in my gear right now, but the modern product if my memory serves me right is "Tripe, Mechanically Separated Chicken and Defatted Beef Fat Tissue."

The other main meat product in cans of the period is corned beef, corned beef is just salted beef.  The salted beef was ground and packed into cans starting about 1870.  Shortly after that the tapered can still in use today was developed, this allows it to be removed in one chunk.  The key opener was added about the same time, depending on the company. 

There was problems with the corned beef though, most of the seafood were in flat cans, this allowed the heat through to kill any microbes.  Salmon was loose packed and this allowed the heat to got through in most cases.  Even the deviled ham was in small cans and loose so this was not a problem.

The corned beef though was packed tight.  Also some of the cans were up to 4-5 pounds in weight, sometimes the heat did not reach full temperature in the center causing spoilage.  This caused some problems with food poisoning.  Also often the meat used in this product was less than the best, allowing diseased meat into the mix.  This sometimes gave the less than desirable nickname "embalmed beef."  Despite the problems it was a common item, because it carried well, it was very popular in mining country.

Three things came to a head in just a few years time.  First millions of cans of hastily canned corned beef was sent to the army in the Spanish American War.  Tens of thousands of cans were left in the sun on the docks in Cuba.  The tropical sun speeded up spoilage and it is said this killed more men in Cuba than Spanish Bullets.

Also in I believe it was 1902, Upton Sinclair wrote a very popular book called "The Jungle" that exposed many of these practices to the public, this is often credited to the push for Pure Food and Drug Laws, the third thing.  By the time of WWI, American canned corn beef was prized by the Allies and it is said that late in the war, German troops raided American trenches, not to gain ground but to gain corned beef.

the earliest reference I've seen to the canned Vienna Sausage is around the 1920's but I still research for items.  Spam is a product of the 1930's and was used heavily in WWII.

Fruits and tomatoes were some of the first canned goods along with seafood.  These can well with the early primitive methods in use with out spoilage.  The acids in them and the sugar added to these fruits prevented microbe growth.  In Pre-Civil war times I have seen listed on grocery lists or in written accounts: Peaches, apricots, cherries and tomatoes, all are items that don't keep long after being picked.

Also canned pork and beans came out under the Van DeCamp name in the late 1850's and were also bought by the Millions during the Civil War as troop rations.  The tomato sauce added acid that also prevented these from spoilage.

Jam, jellies, preserves, marmalade and apple butter were also canned by the late 1840's.  Many travelers on the Oregon trail added a can or two of these to supplies to be opened on a special occasion such as the 4th of July, often near Independence Rock.

In the post war era, we start to see, peas, sweet corn and green beans added to the lists.  I also found an 1877 grocery ad from Sidney Nebraska that had asparagus and mushrooms listed.  Fancy items to be sold to miners coming down from the Black Hills were carried in the local stores.

Not all foods were suitable to be put up in tin plated cans, highly acid things like pickles tended to eat away the can.  But mass production also came to the jar and bottle industry in the middle of the 19th century. 

Bottles were still sealed with a cork till around the late 1890's when the crown cap came into use for some items.

Glass jars are mostly of two types, the one using a zinc lid with a glass top inside and sealed with a rubber ring and the one we most often think of the so called Lightning Jar. These are the ones that the glass lid seals with a rubber ring and a wire bail puts pressure on the glass lid to hold it shut.

The glass jar also made home canning possible, but most of it was limited to acid type foods and ones with a lot of sugar in them to prevent microbe growth.  The affordable home pressure canner did not become common till into the 1890's and often they were bought by a group of people and passed around or used at a central point.


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