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CONVENIENCE IN A CAN


By Dawn Kehrer, Assistant Historian at Colvin Run Mill

As you open that can of olives from Greece, black beans from Mexico or even a can of soup from Michigan, you can thank Napoleon Bonaparte.

That Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor whose military victories are legend. In 1809 he awarded a monetary prize to one Nicolas Appert for finding a method to preserve food for his troops. Napoleon knew well the old adage, "The military moves on its stomach," and having food that could move with them gave his armies a distinct advantage.

Appert’s method was to seal partially cooked food in glass bottles with cork stoppers and then immerse the bottles in boiling water. His theory was, "If the food is sealed in an airtight container and the air inside is expelled and if it is sufficiently heated, the food will keep." He sent bottles of sterilized partridges, vegetables and gravy to sea with sailors for four months and ten days. All the food retained its freshness.

In England Peter Durand patented the idea of preserving food in "vessels of glass, pottery, tin or other metals or fit materials." Durand chose tin plate cans, made of iron coated with tin to prevent rust-ing and corrosion, because they were more durable than glass. By 1813 British army and navy leaders began using tins of canned food and explorers on extended voyages were taking them as well.

However, there were some bad results. One group of explorers, their ships trapped in the Arctic ice, finally left the ship and tried unsuccessfully to walk to safety. In 1984 scientists exhumed their bodies and discovered that they had died of acute lead poisoning from the melted lead and tin solder used to seal the food cans.

Thomas Kensett brought canning ideas with him from England when he immigrated to America. In 1812 he set up a small plant on the New York waterfront to can the first hermetically sealed oysters, meats, fruits and vegetables in the United States.

Kensett used glass jars at first but they were expensive, break-able and difficult to pack. By the mid-1800s, Kensett’s son set up a small cannery for oysters and vegetables at the foot of Federal Hill in Baltimore. The city’s position near the Chesapeake Bay and mid-way along the East Coast helped it become the "world’s greatest food-canning center," a distinction it held until the 20th century.

Canned foods made survival possible when fresh food was not available. Foods such as salmon, vegetables and meat were carried by the miners of the 1849 Gold Rush and packed in wagons by pioneers opening up new territory in the west.

In the Civil War soldiers, especially those in the north, relied on canned rations. Soldiers carried milk canned by Gail Borden with them. Borden made pure, fresh milk available in a condensed form. Back on the farm, the ability to can milk allowed dairy farmers to expand their operations and reach far-away markets.

Even though the tin can was invented in the early 1800s, a can opener was not available until 1858. The earliest cans were cut around the top near the outer edge with a hammer and chisel. The first opener looked like a bent bayonet.

In the home, 19th century women were "putting food by" in glass jars. In 1858, John Landis Mason developed and patented a shoulder-seal jar with a zinc screw cap that made a better seal. In the modern home, food is still usually canned in glass jars.

Since their inception, canned and pre-served foods have added to the reach of mankind. Two centuries ago, canned food aided the survival of global powers. In America, the tin can helped frontiersmen and families open the west. Then in the 20th century, canned rations went to war with American soldiers. Cans continue to be critically important in transporting nu-trition to Third World countries and to areas of catastrophe.

Today Americans use 130 billion cans each year creating an 8-billion-dollar industry, according to the Can Manufac-turers Institute. This "unsung hero of contemporary living" brings to our homes an incredible array of household products, out-of-season fruits and vegetables and exotic goods from other cultures that enhance our knowledge and appreciation of other cultures.


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