The History of Home Canning
Where Canning Started
Food preservation in this day and age has become somewhat of a lost art. For most people it is no longer a necessity but rather a hobby now. Back in the 1950s, when I was a child, it was still a necessity for us. We grew many crops and spent the harvesting season “putting foods by”. We had lots of Kerr and Ball Mason Jars, many of them vintage jars today, and I learned to blanch and freeze, can, make pickles, saw how sausage was made, knew what would be in the root cellar and more.
As I worked to bring home canning and food preserving information to my friends I wondered about the history of some of this. Here is what my research shows.
It all started with Napoleon. During the wars of the Napoleonic Era the need for food was great; there were so many soldiers to feed. At this time they did not know how to preserve foods properly. Because of this the French government put out a reward of 12,000 francs, quite a sum at that time, to the person who could develop a way of preserving foods to deliver to the troops and for general use. In 1809 M. Nicolas Appert discovered the secret, no doubt after much trial and error. Somehow, even though he did not know the main causes of spoilage, he learned that if the air was removed the foods would be safe to eat. His technique was the beginning of our modern technology. He heated the food and immediately packed it into glass bottles which were then sealed with corks. Then he heated them in a boiling water bath and the corks made a nice, air tight seal. Thus came the beginning of our modern techniques and the start of the modern canning jar.
The work was taken up by Peter Durant in England. Working with Appert’s methods, he obtained a patent for preserving perishable foods in glass, pottery and tin containers.
It was Louis Pasteur who figured out why preserving foods this way worked with his pioneering work in bacteriology in the 1860s. He proved that the living micro-organisms, the molds, yeasts and bacteria in the air, water and soil, caused the spoilage when in contact with food. The proper sterilizing techniques such as those previously developed killed these organisms and took away the air they needed to live.
Not all of those original containers were ideal. First were the bottles that were corked and sealed with sealing wax. Then were tin cans that were soldered to be sealed. This was not a very convenient way of preserving foods in the average kitchen. In 1858 John L. Mason invented the glass jar (the Mason Jar) that made home canning possible and affordable. His patented jar had the threaded opening that allowed the cap to screw on. The rubber ring was used to create an airtight seal. This, however, was not always a consistent and safe way to accomplish the task. There was quite a bit of loss and spoilage due to bad seals.
The final step was developed by Alexander Kerr in 1903. He developed the Economy Jar (Kerr Mason Jar) which sealed with one piece—a self-sealing cap and a clamp. (I remember many of those jars on my grandmother’s food storage shelves.) He further perfected the method with the two-piece cap which allowed the air to escape when being heated and formed an air tight seal when it cooled. The revolution was complete. This is the very system of home canning jars we use today. Now we have systems for home canning that include all the items needed to make it a simple and safe process.