Every year toward the close of summer, gardens—after weeks of peacefully doodling along, sprouting lettuce leaves here and eggplants there—suddenly, explosively, start producing a lot of everything, all at once.
All this largesse can be overwhelming. What to do with bushels of tomatoes and wheelbarrow-loads of zucchini? It’s a problem that people have struggled with since the Stone Age when, once they finally bagged their mammoth, they were faced with spectacular surplus. Their choices: preserve it, waste it, or (a challenging prospect) eat it all at once.
The earliest form of food preservation was most likely drying, which dates, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, to at least 12,000 BCE. Prior to 1800, American colonists dried, smoked, salted, or pickled what produce they could—though not always wholly successfully. Dried food had a tendency to taste like cardboard—which may have been the inspiration for the anonymous poet who penned “I loathe, abhor, detest, despise/Abominate dried-apple pies.” Pickling, though tasty, wasn’t always reliable, depending on what was pickled. Colonial pickled oysters, for example, barely lasted a week.
The food preservation problem was at its worst in wartime, when pre-K-ration armies had to support themselves by foraging, often ineffectively, and always with disastrous results on the surrounding countryside. Malnutrition took such a toll on the military that leaders were desperate for solutions. In 1795, Napoleon—who reputedly coined the saying “An army marches on its stomach”—offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with an effective way of preserving food for provisioning soldiers far from home.
The prize was belatedly won in 1810 by Nicolas Appert, a multi-talented Parisian confectioner, vintner, chef, brewer, and pickle maker, who packed partially cooked foods into glass bottles, plugged the tops with corks, wire, and sealing wax, and then boiled the bottles for 12 hours or more in water. He passed on his bottles, variously packed with partridges, raspberries, peas, beans, broth, and gravy, to the French navy, which pronounced itself thrilled. Appert published a book on his process—The Book of All Households, or The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years—founded a bottling factory, and garnered publicity by impressively bottling a whole sheep. (He also went on to invent peppermint schnapps and the bouillon cube.) High equipment costs, however, apparently did him in; he is said to have died a pauper at the age of 91.
Appert’s heat-based food preservation process—then known lumpily as “appertization”—reached the United States by the 1820s, but only became popular around the time of the Civil War. A contributing factor to its increasing acceptance was the invention of a better jar. John Landis Mason, in 1858, patented a handy wide-mouthed jar with a zinc screw cap—a far easier proposition for home kitchens than Appert’s tricky mix of cork, wire, and wax.
1882 saw the introduction of the—possibly even handier—Lightning jar, brainchild of businessman Henry Putnam of Bennington, Vermont. The Lightning jar had a glass lid held in place with a wire clamp—quick and easy to snap on and off, hence the name “Lightning.” (One source suggests that the term “white lightning”—as in corn liquor or moonshine—comes from the mountaineers’ practice of bottling their product in Putnam’s Lightning jars, though others hold that the term comes from the un-aged whisky’s color—white—and subsequent effect, which was like being struck with a lightning bolt.)
Putnam’s Lightning jars made him a very rich man; and bottles made his stepson, Edward Everett, richer still. Everett began his career peddling Lightning jars for his stepdad; then invented a corrugated bottle top—of the sort that caps beer bottles today—that brought in so much cash that Everett was nicknamed the “Bottle-Top King.” Bottle tops—along with some savvy investments in oil wells and railroads—provided the funds for Everett’s palatial residence in Washington, D.C., (eventually it became the Turkish embassy) and 27-room “summer cottage” in Bennington, Vermont, furnished with sterling silver doorknobs, crystal chandeliers, mahogany panels, and tapestries. (Everett died a multi-millionaire in 1929, just months before the fatal stock market crush that ushered in the Great Depression.)
Jars were the container of choice for the food-preserving homemaker, but the 19th-century commercial industry depended on cans. The can—made of steel or iron, and plated with non-corrosive tin—was patented in 1811 by British merchant Peter Durand who, it now appears, snitched the idea from the French. Durand sold his patent to an engineer—Bryan Donkin—who built the world’s first commercial canning factory (known as the “Preservatory”) on the Thames, outside of London. By 1813, he was turning out cans of beef, mutton, carrots, and parsnips, most designated for the Royal Navy. Queen Charlotte, the Duke of Wellington, and Sir Joseph Banks all tasted them and pronounced the contents delicious.
The world’s oldest surviving tin can—once filled with veal—accompanied Sir William Parry on his 1819 voyage in search of the Northwest Passage. The can is now in the Science Museum, London.
Cans were tougher than glass jars—a plus for ship’s stores—but they also had their problems, the worst of which was that canned food was not always successfully preserved. Part of the problem was that at first no one really understood how and why the process worked: it was not until Louis Pasteur’s studies in the 1860s that it became clear that the heat treatment was necessary to destroy bacteria that caused food to spoil. The enormous cans favored by the Navy—some weighed up to twenty pounds—were often inadequately heated in the processing plant. The result was “masses of putrefaction.”
Then there was the problem of getting the can open. The can opener—an afterthought—lagged behind the can for decades. Early cans had to be sawed open with a knife or pounded open with a hammer and chisel. The first actual can opener finally came on the market in 1855—a claw-like device on a wooden handle with which users laboriously hacked their way around the top of the can, leaving a dangerous jagged edge. The most common household model today—with paired cutting and serrated wheels—only came along in 1925, over a century after the can.
Nowadays over 200 billion cans of food are produced worldwide every year.
In the United States, one out of every five families still preserves their harvest in Mason jars.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.
- Shepard, Sue. Pickled, Potted, and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World. Simon & Schuster, 2006.
- Valigra, Lori. The Father of Food Preservation. Food Quality and Safety, February/March 2011.