by Neomi Ngo
Canned foods are a staple in every household. Almost every grocery store has an aisle, or even more, of just canned foods. It seems as though you can put almost anything into a can, from fruits to meats. Canning started hundreds of years ago, primarily in France, but did not reach its peak until World War II.
Canning Began in France
During the French Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815), the French government offered a hefty cash award of 12,000 francs to any inventor who could create a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food. In 1809, Nicolas Appert developed the method of sealing food in glass jars, but the Napoleonic Wars ended before his process was perfected.
Canning Moved to the UK and Europe
In 1811, Bryan Donkin developed the process of packaging food in sealed airtight cans made of tinned wrought iron, whereas previously, the process was done with glass jars. Unfortunately, without modern machinery, it was a long and hard process to develop. Additionally, it was an expensive process. Thus, in the mid-19th century, canned foods became a status symbol for the middle to upper class throughout Europe. Later on, with the increasing mechanization of the canning process, coupled with the huge increase in urban populations across Europe, there was a rising demand for canned foods.
Canning Introduced to the United States
Large scale wars in the 19th century, such as the Crimean War, the American Civil War, and the Franco-Prussian War, introduced an increasing number of American working class men to canned foods.
In World War I, the demand for canned foods increased as military commanders needed quantities of cheap, high-calorie food to feed their millions of soldiers. The federal government also emphasized canning as patriotic ventures. Numerous posters were produced emphasizing the correlation between canning and allied victory. During the Great Depression, the canning center movement was accelerated by widespread decreases in farm income, and widespread increases in unemployment across the country.
Canning’s Peak in WW2
In addition to meeting civilian needs, US farms also had to feed the military and the Allies. However, an agricultural labor shortage due to the draft and the internment of Japanese-Americans strained the system. Reducing civilian usage of processed fruit and vegetable products through rationing would help reduce the strain. As a result, there was a mass shortage of food, and people were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens to reduce the amount of processed food needed. Newspapers and magazines published how-to articles, and gardens became popular in backyards, vacant lots, big-city window-boxes, and even on community property. By the end of 1943, Victory Gardens supplied 40 percent of civilian needs for fruits and vegetables.
Throughout World War II, canning became a major focus of the US government. Because Victory Gardens had become such an effective system, women were also encouraged to can the produce grown in their own garden, for preservations’ sake. Canning, like gardening, was presented in official propaganda as a patriotic and unifying act, linking soldiers’ activities to women’s roles in the kitchen. Because of the rise of victory gardens and the Women’s Land Army, both of which promoted and lead women to spend their energy on agriculture, the relationship between victory gardens and canning ensured that just as victory garden yields reached their peak in 1943, so too did canning levels. A poll in January 1944 found that 75 percent of housewives canned, and those women canned an average of 165 jars per year. The USDA estimates that approximately 4 billion cans and jars of food were produced that year.
Along with the introduction of canning in homes, community canning centers were built throughout the states to further promote and cultivate canning. Canning centers proved effective, and in 1945, the USDA stated that 6,000 canning centers were in operation throughout the United States. The government-sponsored and financially backed these centers, and allowed the USDA to provide instructional and educational supervision. The government released convenient bulletins outlining the canning process, including the use of water baths and low-acid food pressure cookers. It also gave guidance on cooking times and temperatures to preserve various foods, making it easy to follow.
A home demonstrator from the Extension Services or a locally skilled person was on hand inspecting and instructing customers in canning methods within the facilities. Individuals brought their raw food to the center, paying a small fee or donating a small amount of their preserved food in return for materials use.