Kick the can

April 1, 2019

Although we do not have any period tin cans in our collection, they were nevertheless very important to all Victorian homemakers.  Canned food was still somewhat of a novelty in the later decades of the 19th.  With the quality of most foods in question, the tin can provided some guarantee that what made it onto the Victorian table was safe to eat.  Although the Industrial Revolution did make production of tin cans more economical, they were actually in existence long before.


The tin can was first invented by the French shortly after 1795 when a prize was offered to anyone who could present a new and effective means of preserving food for long periods.  Nicholas Appert, a Parisian candy maker, chef, brewer, pickle maker, and vintner, had an idea for packing food in bottles like wine. After 15 years of work he finally arrived at a theory: If food is sealed in airtight containers and the air inside is expelled, and if it is sufficiently heated, the food will keep almost indefinitely.  In 1810, he published his theory in a treatise entitled, “The Act of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances.”  Inspired by Appert’s work, Peter Durand, an Englishman, was granted a patent for his idea of preserving food in “vessels of glass, pottery, tin, or other metals or fit materials” in the same year.


Durand’s patent would prove instrumental in establishing the world’s first tin cannery in 1812.  Located in Bermondsey, England, the cannery was established by Bryan Donkin and John Hall.  By 1813, the two were sending tin cans of food to the British army and navy authorities for trial.  All proved successful.


In 1819, the process of canning had reached America and by 1830, canned foods could be found most anywhere.  However, the foods were expensive and the cans a bit difficult to open.  The cans were filled with food through a small hole cut in the top of the can.  When the can was filled, a metal disc was placed over the hole and soldered into place.  Since the can opener had yet to be invented, directions on the cans for opening them read, “cut around the top near to the outer edge with a chisel and hammer.” Although this may seem a bit much to us today, keep in mind that these early cans were crude with sides sometimes up to a half inch thick and weighing nearly 7 pounds.  Try lugging that around in the grocery store!


Tin can production was slow at first.  Manufacture was entirely by hand with 10 cans a day being the maximum output of a single man.  An artisan cut from the tin sheet a rectangular body and two round ends.  The body was bent around a cylindrical mold, then the seam soldered together.  The ends were then attached, and a hole punched in one end so that the food could be placed inside.  Eventually, mechanical end seaming and other improvements were introduced meaning that a single man could make up to 60 cans a day.


Englishmen like Thomas Kensett, who immigrated to America, brought their newfound knowledge with them.  Kensett might be rightfully called the “father of the can manufacturing industry in the United States.”  He set up a small canning plant on the New York waterfront which canned the first hermetically sealed oysters, meats, fruits, and vegetables in the United States.  In the beginning, Kensett used glass jars, but glass was expensive and if mistreated would break easily.  Working with his father-in-law, Kensett applied for a patent for preserving food in “vessels of tin.” The patent was granted in 1825 by President James Monroe.


The California Gold Rush of 1849 and later the Civil War, were major factors in the widespread acceptance and use of canned foods.  Soldiers and fortune seekers needed reliable portable resources to sustain them on their journeys.


In the mid-19th century, the Shakers became well known for their canning abilities.  The Shakers were excellent tinsmiths and although they typically only made items for their own use, some surplus items were sold.  Because of their skill, the group was among the first to master canning as a means of preserving vegetables.  In addition, they were probably the first to use colored labels that depicted the contents of the can.  The Shakers often hired artists to design and create labels for use on the cans they manufactured.


In 1887, J.D. Cox of Bridgeton, NJ, introduced a hand-capper that fully opened the field to mechanization.  In a late 1880s’ issue of “The Canning Trade,” Cox is given credit for “being the man who lifted the canned foods industry out of hand work to the dignity of mechanical production.”


At first canners remained near the coast where they could process seafoods for part of the year and vegetables the rest of the year.  Baltimore, with factories appearing in the 1860s, became one of the first major canning centers.  Filling the demand for cans meant that new ways of producing them had to be found.  The introduction of the stamping machine, which stamped out the ends of cans, boosted production to 700 cans a day.  Hand soldering gave way to mechanized soldering and production increased to 1,300 cans a day.  By the 1990s, automated can-making took over the industry with continuous can-making production lines.


The ”sanitary” can was introduced in 1898.  Its ends were attached to the body using a double seam where the edges of the can walls and the edge of the end piece were folded together, then folded again to produce a strong airtight seal.  The double seam increased can production enormously and removed soldering from the production.


Presently, Americans use more than 200 million cans each day and we can thank Victorian ingenuity for the row upon row of canned goods that line the supermarket shelves today!


The Can Opener


In 1858, Ezra J. Warner of Waterbury, CT patented the first can opener.  A frightening combination of a bayonet and sickle, the opener was soon adopted by the US military and used extensively during the Civil War.  Later, in 1870, William W. Lyman invented the more familiar user-friendly can opener that we use today.  Finally, opening a can no longer meant risking bodily injury!