Column – A French invention endures in rural America

Published 5:05 pm Tuesday, August 23, 2022

I ran across a note recently that was written by a Short Rows reader more than a decade ago. It was a summertime reflection on a summertime subject — canning — and it’s still a subject near and dear to most anyone who grew up in a rural environment during the 1950s.

This reader was a Sussex County native and grew up there during the 1930s and ’40s. He recalled vividly “the summer ritual of planting, tending, picking, shelling, stringing, snapping, slicing, etc. of things to be canned.”

In a passage dear to my heart, he wrote, “I also recall how things looked with the reds, greens, and other colors arranged on the shelves.”

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He didn’t say, but I would venture to guess that those shelves were most likely in a cellar room designated as the storage area for canned goods as well as potatoes, onions and other garden produce that would be eaten through the winter months. Nor did he mention the smell of those ubiquitous storage areas, where onions, potatoes and the earthy smell of the cellar itself blended to create a unique and not unpleasant aroma of its own.

This Short Rows fan had served in the military, as did most young men of draft age in the mid-20th century. The Army sent him to Germany, and there he lived with a German family. They talked about some shared rural customs, including food preservation, and he recalled that the Germans called the process “jarring” rather than “canning.” He thought — and I agree — that it’s hard to argue with that description of preserving food since it is jars, not cans, that are used in the process.

I had never thought about it before, but revisiting his note caused me to reflect on the choice of the term canning. There must be a reason that we “can” goods in jars, and there is.

We can thank Napoleon and the British for the process and the name. The Little General’s obsession with ruling the world required a big army, and a big army required a lot of food, so (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica) the French government looked to French inventor Nicolas Appert, who came up with a process of preserving food by tightly sealing it inside a jar, heating it to a certain temperature, and maintaining the heat for a certain period. It’s basically the process used to this day.

The British, who were determined not to be overrun by Napoleon, had the same need. They also had an emerging industrial system, and a year later, in 1810, Englishman Peter Durand patented the use of tin-coated iron cans to replace bottles. Hence “canned” food.

Neither Appert nor Durrand knew why food didn’t spoil when treated in this fashion, and an explanation wouldn’t come until about 50 years later when Louis Pasteur (another Frenchman) explained that heating the vegetables killed microorganisms in the food and sealing the jar or can kept other contaminants from entering the food until it was used.

Some canned food was available for federal troops during the American Civil War, but canning as a major American industry didn’t begin until the end of the 19th century and early 20th. By then, the science of canning was well understood.

Beginning during that period, one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s primary functions became the distribution of scientific information to farm communities whenever new information became available. To that end, the USDA began issuing a series of “Farmers Bulletins” that contained the latest agricultural scientific advances, and it wasn’t long before the topic of safe food preservation made its way into the information flow.

Bulletin 359, issued in 1909, discussed the benefits of “canning” food to prevent molds, yeasts and bacteria in food. It discussed the need to keep air out of the canned food container and explained sterilization.

Canning education became a major thrust among home economics educators, who were largely trained through Land Grant colleges and emerging Extension Service programs.

Today, the USDA continues to offer information for those who want to enjoy the fruits of their gardening year-round. There’s a terrific website at that has all you need to know to be a canner, or if you prefer, a “jarrer.”


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is