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Packaging and Canning, History of


PACKAGING AND CANNING, HISTORY OF. In preindustrial society, packaging of food was far from being unknown. It was used for food storage at home and for transport from the production place, the farm, or workshop to the local or regional market. Examples are the transport of cereals or flour in bags, tea in wooden boxes or tinplate canisters, and oils in jars. At the household level, people salted meat and pickled vegetables and preserved them in jars. In groceries at the end of the nineteenth century, most commodities were still unpacked and sold in bulk. Products such as tea, coffee, sugar, flour, or dried fruits were weighed out in front of the customer and wrapped in paper or put into a bag. In major cities in the 1880s, the milkman came around with a dipper and can to deliver milk, which was often dirty.

Origin of Modern Packaging and Canning

Early methods of sealing jars included waxed paper, leather, or skin, followed by cork stoppers and wax sealers. The beginning of modern food technology started with the experiments of the French confectioner Nicolas Appert (17501841). In 1795, the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could find a way to preserve food because Napoléon Bonaparte needed to provide the military with a safe food supply. (The requirements of providing adequate food supplies for armies and navies have been of great significance in the history of modern packaging and food preservation.) After fourteen years of experimentation, Appert developed a method for preserving foods by heating. The food, meat, or vegetables, was first cooked in open kettles and placed in glass jars. After removing as much air as possible, the jars were carefully sealed with corks wired in place and then submersed in boiling water.

Appert chose glass for the container because he believed that it was air that caused the spoilageglass is a material least penetrated by air. It is of importance to note that, in Appert's time, it was not known that microorganisms caused food to spoil. The processes involved in food spoilage were not understood until the second half of the nineteenth century as a result of the work of scientists such as Louis Pasteur (18221895) on microorganisms (Thorne, 1986).

In 1810 Appert published his prize-winning essay on food preservation and the French emperor Napoléon awarded the 12,000-franc prize to him. Within a year, an English version appeared in London, and the new method of preserving food in glass spread quickly to other countries.


Two individuals in England are given credit for applying and improving Appert's invention, Bryan Donkin and Peter Durand. Bryan Donkin, an associate of John Hall's at his Dartford Iron Works, realized in 1811 that iron containers could be used instead of the fragile glass, and in 1812 the factory began to produce canned food such as meat. In 1810, Peter Durand patented the use of metal containers, which were easier to make and harder to break than glass jars. (The glass jars used by Appert frequently broke.) He covered iron cans, which were prone to rust, with a thin plating of tin (which is not adversely affected by water), and invented the "tin can." By 1813, Durand was selling canned meat to the Royal Navy. The British admiralty bought these foods as part of the medical stores for distribution to sick men as well as to supply expeditions.

By 1819 canning had arrived in the United States, but no one wanted canned food until the Civil War started. In 1821, the William Underwood Company in Boston introduced commercial canning in the United States. For a long time, people regarded canned foods with suspicion, and for good reasons. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the foods produced by the canning industry were as likely to spoil as not because of inadequate heating techniques (Morris, 1958). Then, beginning in 1868, first in the United States and later in Europe, handmade cans were replaced by machine-cut types. The new technology made it possible for giant meat-canning firms like P. D. Armour to emerge in Chicago and Cincinnati. The product, however, was packed in big, thick, clumsy red cans and was not very appetizing.

The American Gail Borden was a pioneer in food canning. In 1856 he successfully produced sweetened condensed milk in cans and was granted a patent on the process. With financial support, the New York Condensed Milk Company was established in 1857. The demand for condensed milk was at first limited, but during the American Civil War (18611865) it was introduced on a large scale. The Civil War contributed significantly to the popularization of canned foods in general (Clark, 1977). The army had to be fed and the government contracted with firms to supply food. Under difficult circumstances, people learned that canned foods such as condensed milk can be tasty and nourishing. The invention of practical can openers at the end of the nineteenth century made cans easier to open, making them even more convenient for consumers.

For many years, however, the flavor of most canned food left much to be desired. On the other hand, it should be realized that products such as canned peas and salmon were usually sold to people living on the American prairies or in the urban slums in Great Britain, most of whom had never eaten the fresh product. In addition, losses due to spoilage caused by microorganisms remained high. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that research carried out at Massachusetts Institute of Technology made a substantial contribution to improving the keeping quality, nutritional value, and taste of food products preserved in cans and glass.

In the early twentieth century, the heavy cans were replaced by those made of lighter materials, and manufacturers could stress that their products were hygienically processed and, therefore, safer to eat than the traditionally unpackaged products that had been sold in bulk. As food technology advanced, numerous chemical additives were developed to control or speed up food processing and to increase the keeping quality of canned foods.

Originally, the nutritional value of food preserved by canning was not high, mainly due to the length of time required by the heating techniques. From the 1920s onward, however, the nutritional value of canned foods gradually approached that of the fresh product, thanks to modern food technology. Finally, in the 1960s, Reynolds and Alcoa companies succeeded in making all-aluminium cans out of one piece of metal, thereby solving the problem of the weight of the cans; only the lid needed to be attached (Clark, 1977). At the same time, the invention of the rip-off closure and the pop-top lid on aluminium cans made them even more convenient, and made can openers unnecessary. For consumers, the choice between fresh or canned food became largely a question of taste, convenience, and preference.


Despite its fragility and high production costs, glass had an advantage over cans: glass is chemically inert. In a metal can, iron, tin, and even lead may interact with the water of the preserved food due to chemical or galvanic reactions (although that problem had been solved when iron was replaced by lighter material). The problem of lead contamination had been removed in 1904 when the production system of the Sanitary Can Company in New York made soldering of the can unnecessary. Glass became a relatively cheap and convenient form of packaging in1903 when Michael J. Owen in Britain invented a semiautomatic machine for producing both jars and bottles. In the nineteenth century a major problem with glass containers had been finding a way to close a relatively expensive container without making the bottle or jar useless after it had been opened (Lief, 1965). Glass bottles could be closed with a cork, but closing bottles and jars that had wide mouths remained a problem.

Numerous ingenious inventions and innovations sought convenient ways to open and close glass containers (and cans as well). The breakthrough came with the invention of the zinc cap for the shoulder-seal jar. The most significant inventions were the Mason Jar in 1858 (named for its inventor, John Landis Mason), a glass jar with a thread at the neck that could be closed by screwing on a metal cap, and the Crown Cap for bottles, invented by William Painter in 1898.

In rural households in Europe from the 1890s until about the 1950s, food preservation in jars of glass and bottles by means of Appert techniques was common (Shephard, 2000), and small portable canning machines made it possible to use the new food preservation techniques in the 1930s and 1940s. As the technology of food preservation improved, however, homemade food preservation by means of salting and pickling in pots and jars of glass gradually decreased. With the invention of the home freezer, it largely disappeared.

Food Wrapping, Paper, Cartons, and Plastic

Paper and cardboard cartons emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as material for wrapping and packaging food. For a long time the price of materials for food packagingtinplate, glass, and, to a lesser extent, paperremained high and was often more costly than the food itself. Technological innovations made it possible to produce packaging material cheaply. Paper became important for wrapping food when it could be produced from wood pulp, but paper and cardboard cartons were not yet suitable for packaging fluids. In the 1880s in the United States, paper and cartons could be made impermeable to fat and fluid by coating them with a thin film of paraffin.

In the 1930s, cellophane became an important material for food packaging, but it was gradually replaced by the expanding possibilities of polyethylene and other forms of plastic (Borgstrom, 1967). Another breakthrough was the invention of the Tetra Pak in Sweden in 1952, which increased the capabilities of carton containers for packaging milk, fruit drinks, and other liquids. The carton container coated with polyethylene became a serious threat to the market for glass and cans.

In the 1940s, food packaging entered the era of fully disposable packaging. The convenience of the microwave was further enhanced in the 1980s with the development of special packaging materials. The demand for ready-to-eat fresh vegetables and fruits stimulated the development of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP).

Labels and Brand Names

Closely associated with the history of food packaging is the development of food labels and brands (Opie, 1987). In the first half of the nineteenth century, food manufacturers realized that their products would sell better if a brand name was attached to them, a name with prestige that potential customers could easily recognize. Initially, labels with information about the contents were put on glass containers or cans. Gradually, the label and the packaging as a whole became a means for promoting the food product. In most industrialized countries, legislation regulates the information that must be provided on packaging for consumers' protection.

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, food packaging has been closely associated with industrialization and urbanization. Originally, food packaging in glass and cans was primarily meant to preserve food, but convenience became the most significant aspect of food packaging in the twentieth century. The retail revolution, when supermarket chains supplanted family-owned grocery stores, made food packaging an indispensable part of urban food culture. On the other hand, it created problems of waste disposal, a much-discussed concern of critical consumers.

See also Food Safety ; Marketing of Food ; Microorganisms ; Military Rations ; Preserving ; Storage of Food .


Borgstrom, George. "Food Processing and Packaging." In Technology in Western Civilization, edited by Melvin Kranzberg and Caroll W. Pursell, vol. 2, pp. 386402. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Clark, Hylma M. The Tin Can Book: The Can as Collectible Art, Advertising Art, and High Art. New York: New American Library, 1977.

Lief, Alfred. A Close-Up of Closures: History and Progress. New York: Glass Container Manufacturers Institute, 1965.

Morris, T. N. "Management and Preservation of Food." In A History of Technology, edited by C. Singer et al., vol. 5, pp. 2652. Oxford: Clarendon, 1958.

Opie, Robert. The Art of the Label: Designs of the Times. Secaucus, N.J.: Chartwell, 1987.

Shephard, Sue. Pickled, Potted, and Canned: The Story of Food Preserving. London: Headline, 2000.

Thorne, Stuart. The History of Food Preservation. Kirby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England: Parthenon, 1986.

Adel P. den Hartog

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