Economics and Business

Bonanza Farms

Why was the introduction of canning important?

The advent of canned foods not only created an industry, but it altered the average American diet, helped usher in the consumer age, and saved time. Canning, a process for preserving food (vegetables, fruits, meats, and fish) by heating and sealing it in airtight containers, was developed by French candymaker Nicolas-François Appert (c. 1750–1841) in 1809, though he did not understand why the process worked. Some 50 years later, the pioneering work of French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) explained that heating is necessary to the canning process since it kills bacteria (microorganisms) that would otherwise spoil the food. Canning was introduced to American consumers in stages. In 1821 the William Underwood Company began a canning operation in Boston, Massachusetts; in the 1840s oyster canning began in Baltimore, Maryland; in 1853 American inventor Gail Borden (1801–1874) developed a way to condense and preserve milk in a can, founding the Borden Company four years later; and in 1858 American inventor John Landis Mason (1832–1902) developed a glass jar and lid suited to home canning.

Though early commercial canning methods did not ensure a safe product and many American women avoided the convenience foods, the canning industry grew rapidly, at least in part due to the male market, which included cowboys in the West. Between 1860 and 1870 the U.S. canning industry increased output from 5 million to 30 million cans. Improvements in the process during the 1870s helped eliminate the chance that cans would burst (a problem early on). And though the canning process changes food flavor, color, and texture, the convenience and long shelf life of canned foods helped them catch on: By the end of the 1800s a wide variety of canned foods, which had also come down in price, were common to the urban American diet. Companies such as Franco-American advertised in women’s magazines, promoting their “delicacies in tins.” An outbreak of botulism in the 1920s prompted the American canning industry to make further improvements to its process.


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