Canning Industry

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CANNING INDUSTRY. While societies have preserved foods through drying, smoking, sugaring, freezing, and salting for hundreds of years, the ability to safely store and ship food in glass and metal canisters dates only to the early 1800s. During a series of military campaigns, Napoleon realized his troops were falling victim to scurvy and other diseases that resulted from poor diets, and he needed to provide a broader array of foods to troops often engaged in distant battles. In 1795, the French government promised to pay 12,000 francs for a process that would deliver safe and healthful food to its soldiers.

Nicolas Appert, a Frenchman with a background in brewing, distilling, and confectionary, began a series of food preservation experiments in the late 1790s. He packed an assortment of foods—vegetables, fruits, meats—into glass bottles that he sealed with corks held in place by wire. He then heated the bottles in boiling water, varying the amount of time in the water according to the specific type of food, and carefully let them cool. In 1805, he provided some bottles of broth to a French naval officer, who reported that the broth was still good three months later. Appert published his findings in 1810 in L'Art de conserver,pendant plusiers années, toutes les substances animals et végé-tales (The Book of All Households; or, The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years). In recognition of his work, the French government awarded him the prize.

Appert's work quickly spread to other countries. Translated into English, his book was printed in London in 1811 and in the United States in 1812. Within the next few years, several British firms began preserving meats and vegetables in tin cans as well as bottles. Initially, these goods were quite expensive, and the main buyers were wealthy individuals and military leaders. A few British entrepreneurs brought this emerging technology to the United States, where they packaged and sold preserved foods. American bookkeepers began to abbreviate the word "canister" as "can," a shortcut that soon gave rise to the word "canning," which came to refer to the process by which food was heated and then stored in airtight metal or glass containers.

The Canning Industry in Nineteenth-Century America

The canning industry grew rapidly, and by the 1850s, commercial canneries operated in Maine, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Gail Borden developed a process to condense and seal milk and in 1856 opened the nation's first canned milk plant. While the range of canned products expanded, technical and economic concerns limited the overall size of the market. Although reasonably effective, Appert's method of sterilization was slow, cumbersome, and expensive. In 1860, Isaac Solomon, the manager of a tomato canning plant in Baltimore, introduced a New procedure for heating containers to a higher temperature, thus reducing the sterilization period from five or six hours to under an hour. Solomon's discovery led to higher production levels and lower prices, as factory output jumped from two thousand to three thousand cans a day to twenty thousand cans.

Solomon's innovation coincided with the beginning of the Civil War, which transformed the market for canned goods. Output rose from 5 million cans in 1860 to 30 million cans in 1865, a 600 percent increase. The federal government, recognizing the importance of canned foods, invested significant sums of money in canneries throughout the northern states. Equally important, however, was the change on the demand side of the equation. Until the 1860s, only the well-off could afford canned goods, but this quickly changed. The war greatly expanded the number of Americans who dined on canned meats, vegetables, and fruits, and cheaper production methods made them more widely available to consumers.

During the decades following the Civil War, a series of technological innovations, in concert with several broad social and cultural developments, led to a steadily increasing role for canned goods in American society. Two key technical advances stand out—the introduction of the pressure cooker and the invention of the sanitary can. In 1874, A. K. Shriver pioneered the retort, or pressure cooker, at a plant in Baltimore. By establishing consistent and measurable cooking times and temperatures for the wide range of products being canned, the pressure cooker provided faster and more uniform sterilization. The sanitary can, introduced around 1900, replaced the "hole and cap" can, an open-top container whose cover was soldered by hand after the container was filled. Unlike earlier containers, the sanitary can allowed firms to pack larger pieces of food with less damage. In addition, since a machine attached the lid, solder no longer came into contact with the food. By the 1920s, the sanitary can dominated the market for metal containers.

While these technical innovations spurred the supply side of the canning industry, demand also developed significantly. During the late nineteenth century, the United States underwent the dual transformations of urbanization and industrialization. Urban households had less space to grow fruits and vegetables and less time to preserve them, and, as a result, they bought increasing quantities of canned goods.

A number of businesspeople anticipated the opportunities these changes offered and enthusiastically entered the growing market. Henry Heinz, who grew up in Pittsburgh during the 1850s and 1860s, believed many households were going to begin buying foods they had traditionally prepared at home. He went into business selling cans of vegetables and fruits, along with jars of pickles, ketchup, and horseradish sauce. In 1888, he formed H. J. Heinz Company, a vertically integrated firm that packaged, distributed, and marketed its products throughout the nation. Heinz was one of the first American entrepreneurs to transform canning from a regional business into a national enterprise. His company sales rose from just under $45,000 in 1876 to over $12 million in 1914 and over $37 million in 1925.

While Heinz made his mark preparing a range of canned goods, other firms focused their energies more narrowly. Americans had made their own soups for generations, but the same trends leading households to replace home canning with store-bought foodstuffs were also leading them to substitute canned soup for homemade soup. Joseph Campbell worked for the Anderson Preserving Company for several years before leaving in 1876 to set up the Joseph Campbell Company. Initially, Campbell's company canned a wide range of goods, including peas and asparagus. In the 1890s, under the guidance of John Dorrance, a nephew of one of Campbell's partners, the firm began to produce concentrated soups. Removing the water, they reduced the size of the can and lowered their shipping and distribution costs. Their canned soups proved wildly popular. Sales rose from 500,000 cans in 1900 to 18 million by the early 1920s, and within a few years, the company spawned a number of competitors in the burgeoning market for soup.

The Canning Industry in Twentieth-Century America

The rapid achievements of Heinz, Campbell, and others marketing canned goods reflected the growing public acceptance of and dependence on packaged foodstuffs. Total production of canned vegetables rose from 4 million cases in 1870 to 29 million in 1904 and 66 million in 1919. Canned fruit production also rose rapidly during these years, increasing from 5 million cases in 1904 to 24 million in 1919. However, this very popularity generated concerns as well. In his novel The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair argued that the best meat was shipped in refrigerated railroad cars, while lower-quality and diseased meat often ended up being canned. Consumers could not readily evaluate canned foods as they could fresh produce, and reports of poisoning and adulteration, the practice of substituting filler goods, led state and local governments to pass labeling laws that required canners to specify their products' ingredients. In 1906, the federal government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which was intended, among other goals, to prevent the manufacture and sale of adulterated foods, drugs, and liquors.

Not coincidentally, canneries formed their first national trade association, the National Canners Association (NCA), in 1907. The NCA became the liaison between individual firms and government regulatory officials and agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration. In 1978, the NCA became part of the National Food Processors Association (NFPA).

From the early 1900s through the end of the twentieth century, the canning industry grew tremendously. Part of the stimulus came from government contracts during World War I and World War II. The military bought large amounts of the industry's total production during the wars, and in the second war canned foods accounted for 70 percent of all the foodstuffs eaten by American troops. Yet consumer demand rose during peacetime as well, with significant increases in the overall production and consumption of canned juices, meats, vegetables, fruits, and soups. By the end of the twentieth century, canning had become a multibillion-dollar industry, with plants in nearly every state and tens of thousands of employees.


Koehn, Nancy F. Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers' Trust from Wedgwood to Dell. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001.

May, Earl Chapin. The Canning Clan: A Pageant of Pioneering Americans. New York: Macmillan, 1937.

National Canners Association, Communications Services. The Canning Industry: Its History, Importance, Organization, Methods, and the Public Service Values of Its Products. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: National Canners Association, 1971.

Sim, Mary B. Commercial Canning in New Jersey: History and Early Development. Trenton: New Jersey Agricultural Society, 1951.

Smith, Andrew F. Souper Tomatoes: The Story of America's Favorite Food. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Martin H.Stack

See alsoFood and Cuisine ; Food and Drug Administration ; Food Preservation .