Well, it is done. A full book chapter on the tin can. I for one never would have guessed going in to this project that I would end up, or even be able to, write so much about the humble tin can. I started my research out simply being interested in reading old cookbooks because I thought a lot of the remedies were very interesting (recipes for how to rejuvenate sour butter, and even recipes to “cure malaria” with basically just whiskey and an egg!).
I’m not even sure how I moved in to tin can territory, but I am glad I did. Very few people have apparently thought to delve into the history of this lil fella, but it is a surprisingly interesting story so I’m glad I’ve been able to add to the knowledge on the topic. I enjoyed watching how the canning industry strove to fight the stigma against its product, both in terms of the publics’ (not unfounded) fear of botulism and metal poisoning, and the perception that canned food was only fit for soldiers and explorers.
My favorite part of the research I did was either A) learning about how the Boss Canners (the men who performed the specialized labor of making and capping the cans) were able to ward off technological advancements that would have made the process of canning much more efficient for decades before they were finally replaced by machines or B) comparing and contrasting the can labels I was able to look at across the decades. Early on, labels were very elaborate and eye-catching, with little information on them besides a description of what to do with the food once you’ve opened the can; and mostly relied on picturesque fruits and landscapes to compel buyers. As they matured the label became much less elaborate, with a more realistic picture of the product inside and A LOT of information. They would provide various recipes to use the product in, and would tout things like “superior quality,” and “guaranteed 30 minutes from field to can,” and would make a point of pulling the consumers attention to their brand trademark as a guarantee of quality. They also often assured the buyer that no chemicals or additives had been used at all. If you look at can labels today the images are still pretty similar- a picture of a juicy vegetable, a brand trademark, buzzwords like “fresh cut!”. However today many cans also tout things like ” 50% less sodium!” It’s funny how by looking at the labels throughout the decades you can see how consumers’ desires evolve.
To end, I will leave you with this poem about the tin can, by Winthrop C. Adams, that I found in Douglas H. Rhoades lovely book “Labels, Leadville, and Lore: 1870′s- 1890′s History from a Tin Can.”
The Little Old Tin Can
Dedicated to the Commodore Daniel M. Heeken of Cincinnati
Regard the little old tin can,
That held some sort of food,
It may have been just beans or soup,
Or prunes that had been stewed,
Or caviar or mushrooms,
To delight the inner man,
And then the raging floods engulfed
That little old tin can.
Placid streams turned into torrents,
Swelled by rains o’er Man’s control,
Hurled ahead their mighty tonnage,
Tearing at the very soul,
Of helpless city, town, and hamlet,
Dealing death to beast and man,
Not a thing escaped destruction,
Save the little old tin can.
When the rivers calmed to normal,
And the wreckage cleared away,
Out of all the filthy debris,
Just one thing allowed to stay,
Quite unnamed and maybe dented,
Yet food wholly fit for man,
Safely sterilized and healthful,
In that little old tin can.
Just a scrub with soap and water,
Takes away the silt and mold,
A container and a label,
And it’s ready to be sold;
The floods of nineteen thirty-seven,
Threw terror into man,
Yet couldn’t harm the contents
Of that little old tin can.