‘Tis the season for tropical days in the kitchen, tending to the rolling boil of one canning recipe or another, the accumulated learnings of many a generation. And a sublime and domestic scene it is! The cozy aroma of Uncle Harry’s harvest apples steaming in the food mill, Great Aunt Beatrice’s bubbling salsa, Papa’s eye-watering pickle brine. Heaps of cuttings and peelings occupy the counters. Ranks of sterilized mason jars stand at the ready.
Well now, war is not usually the first thing you think of when canning, but it may surprise you (and then upon further reflection not surprise you at all), that war was the primary force behind its development. In the early 19th century, Napolean was in his prime, exploiting and causing all sorts of political upheaval in Europe. The wars of that time saw a major shift in scale, going from field armies of no more than a few tens of thousands of men, to battles that involved upward of 500,000 individuals. The industrial revolution, just getting under way, enabled much of this shift, allowing nations to produce armaments at previously unimaginable rates. But the changes also brought new problems.
Here’s one: how do you feed an army of 250,000 men? You’ve got to be innovative, and one way to drive innovation is to offer cash prizes. Twelve thousand francs, say, if you’re the French military in 1795, for anyone who could invent a cheap way to preserve large quantities of food. That’s anywhere between $80,000 and $250,000 of today’s Canadian dollar, depending how you count. In any case, the potential reward was enough to pique the interest of one Nicolas Appert, a confectioner in France at the time.
Monsieur Appert had observed that some food, when cooked in a sealed glass jar, did not spoil until the seal was broken. It took him nearly 15 years to perfect his process and learn its features and limitations, but in 1810 he was awarded the prize. It took the French military another several years to work out how to scale up production of canned goods, but by this time the Napoleonic wars were coming to an end and the canning factory that Appert had built with his winnings had been razed by France’s enemies. Alas!
Nonetheless, canning had proven a valuable method of preserving food.
The tin can was invented by another Frenchman, Philippe de Girard, at much the same time as Appert was developing his process. Girard’s patent was eventually bought by a Brit named Bryan Donkin who, with his business partners, built the world’s first cannery. Tin cans were much more practical for military purposes than fragile glass jars, but again it took some time for production to reach the scale necessary. Initially, tin cans were handmade, making them prohibitively expensive as a consumer good, and so canned goods were for a time purchased only by governments, or by the wealthy as a status symbol.
By the mid 1800s, a clever compromise between the glass jar and the tin can had been developed that made home canning a safe and reliable option for more people: a glass jar with a discardable seal and reusable seal fastener. We here in North America are most familiar with the Mason jar, but there are many similar and wonderfully named contraptions invented at around the same time.
It was Word War 1 that finally brought canned goods to the plebeian commodity we know today, and that brought home canning into national consciences as a valuable activity. Once again, the scale of military operations increased by an order of magnitude, and now the powers in play were dealing with armies in the millions. Industry followed demand. In fact, many of the nations involved were thrown into total war, in which every facet of society was directed toward supporting the war. Thus, the farmers and civilians who weren’t already on active duty were encouraged not to purchase canned food so that production could be redirected to the military; instead, they were asked to plant “Victory” gardens, grow vegetables to give to the war effort, and then can their own rations. Those were desperate times.
And so now look at your ranks of sterilized mason jars, filled and ready for the cellar, and remember not to take the cozy feelings of preservation for granted.