The Brief History of Canning Food

Home Canning, Preserving, Pickling Food Stored on Wooden Storage Shelves
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Canning is a relatively recent development in the long history of food preservation. Humans have dried, salted and fermented foods since before recorded history. But preserving food by heat-treating and then sealing it in airtight containers didn't come along until the late 18th century.

The History of Canning

In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte offered a reward for whoever could develop a safe, reliable food preservation method for his constantly traveling army. Nicholas Appert took on the challenge, and about 15 years later introduced a method that involved heat-processing food in glass jars reinforced with wire and sealing them with wax. That last technique is similar to the method some people still use sealing jelly jars with paraffin wax - a technique, FYI, that is no longer considered safe).

The First True Canning Method

The next breakthrough was the first true "canning" (as opposed to "bottling" or "jarring") method. By 1810, Englishman Peter Durand had introduced a method for sealing food in "unbreakable" tin cans. The first commercial canning establishment in the U.S. was started in 1912 by Thomas Kensett.

It wasn't until almost a century after Nicholas Appert took on Napoleon's food preservation challenge that Louis Pasteur was able to demonstrate how the growth of microorganisms causes food to spoil. Prior to that, people knew that canning methods worked, but not why.​​

Overlapping with those developments, by the time of the U.S. Civil War glass food preservation jars with metal clamps and replaceable rubber rings had been invented. These jars are still available today, although they are more commonly used now for storing dry goods than for canning.

In 1858, John Mason invented a glass container with a screw-on thread molded into its top and a lid with a rubber seal.

Wire-clamped jars such as Lightning and Atlas jars were in use from the late 19th century until 1964, and still, turn up in yard sales and thrift shops.

Leaders in the Industry

In the late 1800s, William Charles Ball and his brothers got into the food preservation jar business and began buying up smaller companies. They quickly became leaders in the industry.

Alexander Kerr invented the easy-to-fill wide-mouth canning jar in 1903 (an innovation that the Ball brothers quickly duplicated). Later, in 1915, Kerr developed the idea of a metal lid with a permanently attached gasket that a man named Julius Landsberger had invented. Kerr came up with a metal disk with a similar gasket, held in place by a threaded metal ring. The modern 2-piece canning lid was born.

Canning technology continues to develop. Brands such as Quattro Stagioni use single piece canning lids that work similarly to the older 2-piece canning lid design.