A Brief History of Home Canning

It all started back when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor…

…or so quite a lot of people seem to think. World War II may have been the historical high water mark for home canning, but preserving the harvest in jars is a tradition that goes quite a bit further back. As I mentioned, it was Nicholas Appert who invented canning for Napoleon in 1809. That, however was by no means the beginning of home canning. For a considerable time thereafter, canning was tantamount to a top secret military technology, created to feed the gigantic armies that the innovations of national conscription and industrial weapons production had made possible.

Indeed early canning was irrelevant to average folks, who went on preserving their harvests in traditional ways: drying, salting, brining and sugaring (if they could afford the sugar, that is). Meats were sometimes “potted”, i.e. cooked and immersed in fat to keep the air out (what the French refer to as a confit).

By the mid-1800’s canning was fairly widespread as a commercial industry, yet for average middle class people, canned food was little more than an expensive novelty. The technology of the day was a far cry from what we know now. Cans were heavy, stoppered with cork and often sealed with lead, which, as any member of the Franklin Expedition would have told you, was downright hazardous to your health. The interesting thing about canning in those days was that nobody knew how it actually worked. Sure people understood that in order to preserve food it was essential to keep air away from it, but they didn’t know why. No one had any concept of microbes then (Louis Pasteur had yet to undertake his groundbreaking research), and most people ascribed food spoilage to the theory of spontaneous generation (for more on that, see the post Sweaty Undershirts + Hay = Mice).

It wasn’t until about the time of the Civil War (the 1860’s) that true home canning came into being. The reason, because a tin smith from New York by the name of John L. Mason invented a glass jar with a threaded lip and a reusable metal lid: the Mason Jar. This miracle invention allowed people all over America (and Europe) to engage in the canning of fruit, pickles, relishes and sauces like ketchup. Widespread canning of low-acid vegetables and meat would come later, for it was still too dangerous.

The 1880’s saw two major developments in home canning: the all-glass (hence rust-proof) clamp-top “lightning” jar and the widespread adoption of the cast iron stove. These two developments, which happened to dovetail with a significant drop in the price of refined white sugar, led to a veritable explosion in the popularity of home jam making and canning.

Interestingly, it was mostly the wealthier residents of small towns and/or suburban dwellers who engaged in the canning arts. Farmers of the day, being quite poor as a rule, usually bartered with one another for what they needed day-to-day. Sure they had the produce, but cash, which was what was needed to buy the rather expensive jars, was usually in very short supply. Urbanites had the opposite problem: plenty of cash but no fresh produce. Thus suburbanites or small -town tradesmen and business people were the ones in the proverbial cat-bird seat.

Here it’s important to note that as widespread as canning was by about 1900, it wasn’t practiced as it is now. Home canners employed what we now call the “open kettle method” in which boiling jam (or brine in the case of pickles or relish) would be poured over a steaming hot jar to the point of overflowing. This had the effect of killing bacteria both inside the jar and on the lip. A lid, which itself was kept in simmering water, would then be popped on the top. The combined heat of the lid, jar and its contents was usually enough to kill off any critters in the air gap between the jam and the lid. It was a decent enough method, though not nearly good enough for non-acidic vegetables and meats, which unlike acidic and/or sweet preserves, can grow anaerobic botulinum bacteria if not heated thoroughly. Those types of foods would have to await the advent of the pressure canner.

Thus home canning was well established in America well before even Word War I broke out, the time Americans first began planting “Victory Gardens” and canning their harvest to conserve essential industries. People did the same in World War II of course, some towns even had their own community-run canning centers, which provided the equipment, supplies and expertise that allowed people to can mass quantities of food safely and efficiently.

Alas, those days were pretty much the end of home canning in America. As supermarkets proliferated and industrial goods got better (and cheaper), most people decided it wasn’t worth the time and effort to can their own food. Only a few very determined sticks-in-the-mud persevered.

15 thoughts on “A Brief History of Home Canning”

  1. In the 1950’s when we lived in Ft. Worth, people in my Texas family still canned. It was partly about saving free food. When the corn was ripe at my aunt and uncle’s place in the country, we took my mother’s pressure cooker and boxes of Mason jars, and went out there and picked and shucked corn, and the adults scraped it off the cob and canned it. But it was also cost effective with brought produce at certain times. When peaches, or green beans, or tomatoes were cheap by the bushel, my father, who worked downtown near the market, bought them for my mother to can. Believe me, if it hadn’t been cost- effective, he wouldn’t have done it. In other instances, canning may have been more about not wasting food, which those people, with their pioneer and agricultural history, had a visceral objection to. When figs or plums or pears were ripe on the trees in my grandmother’s yard in East Texas, she picked them and made preserves or jelly, and when she got too old to do the whole job, she picked all the plums she had strength for, cooked them into juice, and canned it for my mother to make jam out of later. Doing these things expressed an attitude about the use of things. All of these people were economically thriving, and would’ve said– though it wasn’t the whole truth, at all– that they thrived because they did things like that.

    1. Wonderful reminiscence, Elizabeth. I think most of us wish we had this sort of time, talent and access to produce! I knew a couple much like this back home in Illinois, they were amazing…canned everything. They still do and I live for their canned peaches!

      Thanks for the memory,

      – Joe

  2. Excellent article!! Thank Joe!

    My family and most of the people I know have always canned. Not because of economics, but because when you can, you know what you are getting… And canned green beans are just far superior to the store bought ones. And home canned peaches just taste so much better than anything you can buy in a tin can. Pickles, beans, jam, jelly, plums, tuna, corn, tomatoes, apples, applesauce, relish, roast beef from your own beef.

    Sadly, I didn’t help much at all as a kid, except to eat it of course… 😀 But started out canning as a young adult jam and tuna (because I live on the coast) and have never looked back. I can many things my mom doesn’t can. I look through the Ball Canning Book and try out many of the recipes…. But haven’t tried squirriel or some of the old recipes.. 😀

    It is so awesome to just go and get a jar of pickles or salsa out of cupboard! It gives you so much satisfaction! And variety.

    I just started using Tattler lids… My first attempt. I don’t think I will start replacing the regular metal lids though.

    My canner is from the 50’s! When I can afford it, I will be getting an All American Canner which is the Canner’s Dream Canner!

    Excited to see how my green beans do this year, my cucumbers and tomatoes! 🙂

    1. Whoa, you are into it, Leigh! Good for you!

      Canned squirrel…hm…not my curiosity is piqued. I’m also with you big time on the peaches. Cold home-canned peached out of the fridge are my favorite sweet in the world!

      Cheers and thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  3. Hello!

    I’m wondering when and how people canned food with the glass bottles and glass inserts with rubber in between and a zinc band? I see those bottles around and cannot find a history about when they were used?


    1. Hi Tina!

      That style of zinc-banded canning lid was invented in the late 1800’s by a fellow named Samuel B. Rowley. The rubber ring was certainly a later addition to the original concept. Not all of those sorts of lids are very old, however. The basic design was used as recently as the late 50’s according to a U.S. manufacturing census document I found. Maybe even later, but I can’t find any documentation. Hope that helps!

      – Joe

  4. Hi Joe! Thank you for this concise and detailed article! I reading an excellent book (All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr), in which a girl, in France 1944, opens tin cans of home-canned beans. It is such a beautiful book full of wonderful facts; I am very much hoping that people really did preserve food at home in tin cans in France at this time?? I’ve never hears of tin for home canning. Any chance you know about this? A quick Google search yielded your article, so I thought I’d drop you a quick line.

    That do you think? Thanks!! And best wishes!


    1. Hello Shannon!

      I looked around in all my sources and couldn’t find any reference to home canning in tins. I’ve never heard of anything like that to be honest. I can’t imagine the sort of home equipment you’d need for that.

      One thing that strikes me as a possibility is a community canning center. Those were common in America during the war years, they basically gave housewives access to industrial pressure-canning equipment for large canning projects. I don’t think any canning centers in the US offered tin canning services, but perhaps in France they did. Or maybe they had a relative that worked in a cannery, another possibility.

      Anyway, thanks for a very interesting question!


      – Joe

      1. Thanks for the nice historical write-up, Joe; very informative!

        In regards to home canning using actual metal cans, it’s indeed feasible, although a bit more involved than using Ball jars; also, the seam-sealing machines required aren’t exactly cheap. Lehman’s in Ohio (http://www.lehmans.com), who cater to the Amish, at one time used to sell both cans and sealing equipment, but I don’t know if they still carry them. Canning Pantry (http://www.canningpantry.com/all-american-can-sealers.html) still has all the goods, and there are others, as well.

        Incidentally, I believe that the Mormons, who are very big on putting food by, have or had canning kitchens in every state of the union for the use of their membership; it’s my understanding that these are/were equipped to use primarily metal cans.

        1. Very interesting, Fred! I greatly you stopping by with this information. And I had no idea about Mormons and canning. Fascinating!


          – Joe

    2. Shannon, I am reading this book now and having the same reaction (which is actually how I landed on this page!). The book is well done in so many ways, it is truly disappointing that nobody among the editors or early readers caught this significant error. Her interaction with the canned goods is so crucial to the story, you would think someone would have verified this before publication.

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