Culinary History (Part 37): Tin Cans

Nicolas Appert (1749-1841) was a French brewer who worked first as a steward, and then (during the Napoléonic era) as a confectioner.  He was cheerful, bald, and had very thick black eyebrows.  His sweet shop was on the rue des Lombards in Paris, and although he knew how to preserve & candy many fruits in sugar, he wasn’t happy with this method, feeling that there should be a more “natural” way of doing it.  None of the preservation methods were right.  Drying took away the food’s texture; salt made it “acerbic” (sour/bitter); sugar covered up its true flavour.

Nicolas Appert (1841).

The French Revolutionary Wars lasted from 1792-1802 (a result of the French Revolution).  In 1795, France was at war with Britain, and they wanted a better way of feeding their troops.  Napoléon offered a prize of 12,000 francs to whoever could come up with a better method of food preservation.

Appert experimented with perserving fruits, vegetables, and meat stews in champagne bottles, which he heated in baths of hot water. The champagne bottles were replaced with wider-necked bottles, and he eventually felt confident enough to send a few botttles to the French Navy.  They were pleased – the French Navy Minister remarked that the beans and peas had “all the freshness and flavour of freshly-picked vegetables”.  The Courier de L'Europe said that “M. Appert has found a way to fix the seasons.”  He received the 12,000 franc prize.

Appert canning jar.

In 1810, Appert published a book explaining his method.  While he preserved exotic foods in his corked bottles (such as apricots, artichokes, asparagus, chestnuts, grape must, newly-laid eggs, redcurrants, truffles, young partridges, and the soup of julienned vegetables), the basic process could be used for pretty much anything, and still is today.

But Appert gave up the chance of patenting his invention by accepting the prize.  A few months after his book came out, Peter Durant (an English broker) rushed out a patent for a food preservation method that was very similar to Appert’s.  It was bought by Bryan Donkin (an engineer) for £1,000.

In 1813, Donkin opened a factory called the “Preservatory” in Bermondsey, with his business partners Mr. Gamble and Mr. Hall.  The Preservatory produced foods preserved with Appert’s methods, heating the containers in boiling watter for up to 6hrs.  They switched the glass bottles for tin-coated iron cans (tin cans) because glass was too fragile.

But there were problems at the start.  In 1852, thousands of cans of meat for the British Navy were inspected and found to be disgusting, “their contents being masses of putrefecation”.  It was thought that “air has penetrated into the canister, or was not originally entirely exhausted,” but this was not the reason.  With Pasteur, it was found that there is a class of microbes that can live without air, and need to be killed through heating.  The original cans were about 1-2kg (today, they’re about 125-800g), and the navy cans were about 5kg, but the length of heating time hadn’t been increased for them.

By the 1870’s, canned food quality had increased greatly, and it was being sold internationally.  A person in Britain could eat Fray Bentos corned beef from Uruguay; someone in China could eat tinned ham from Bermondsey.  One canning historian noted that an American family could now pick from “a kitchen garden where all good things grow”.

However, this wasn’t quite true, because canning makes some foods taste a bit weird.  Spinach is sludgy and metallic.  Pineapple and peaches are fine, but raspberries turn to mush.

Cans are used more for drinks than food these days.  Globally, about 75 billion units of canned food are sold, as opposed to 320 billion units of canned drinks.

The Can Opener

The first can opener wasn’t invented until 50yrs after Appert’s invention.  Until the 1860’s, cans came with the instruction “cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer”.

The first can opener was invented by Robert Yeates (a British maker of surgical instruments & cutler) in 1855.  It was a claw-like lever attached to a wooden handle: you gouged the lever into the top of the can, and then forcefully cut around it, leaving a jagged edge. It was very difficult to use.

Yeates can opener.

Many strange designs followed.  The Warner (used during the American Civil War) had a sharp sickle on the end, which was rather dangerous. In 1868, cans with keys to roll a strip of the top metal off were produced: these worked well for sardine cans, but not for the normal cylindrical tins, because it only opened a part of the lid.  Electric openers appeared in the 1930’s, but they just made the job more complicated.

A drawing from Ezra Warner’s patent.

The side-opening can opener we have today was invented in the 1980’s. It has two wheels which work together (one rotates, the other serrates): they remove the lid in one piece without leaving a sharp/jagged edge.  Nowadays, the food industry is moving towards self-opening cans.

1 am study rant

So I’m taking American history post civil war right now (riveting stuff 😔) and I can’t help but think of the proverb “until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” It’s amazing how one sided the American curriculum teaches “general” history. It’s almost as if for one to get the full view of the picture, you would have to go and specialize or seek out a special history class whereas general history is basically an incomplete rhetoric. It’s no wonder so many Americans are oblivious to the misdoings of their ancestors. Even when covering gross injustices, my professor simply says “in hindsight, it’s a shame that’s the way *insert instance of indignation* had to happen.” My last lecture in particular, I was rather frustrated when he began speaking about Thomas Edison and painting him in the brightest of lights (pun intended) without even the mention of how he stole most of his parents and basically drive Nikola Tesla out of business 😒

Ok rant over 😂 time to sleep so I can confirm for this exam🙃

John Tyler, the 10th President of the United States, was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives in his post-presidency. Tyler never served. He died before the first session began. He was then buried under a confederate flag, since he and his family considered the Confederacy his nation at the time of his death – making John Tyler the only president to be buried under a foreign flag.

Fun Fact: In 1863 at the American Civil War Battle of Chickamauga Union soldier Jacob Miller was shot right between the eyes. He managed to find his way to a hospital tent but surgeons refused to operate believing the wound to be fatal. It wasn’t. Miller survived and lived another half century with pieces of lead occasionally falling out of his wound.



These books were pulled from the stock because they’re in English and we don’t sell English.. BUT–! They’re also really kinda cool: They’re nothing but British women’s fashion plates from 1828-9 and 1843-4.

The question all of you out there is whether it be helpful or interesting for anyone for there to be a side-blog to post a bunch of these plates? 

(These kinda-crappy photos are just from a phone camera but I can easily take better photos with a better camera.)

I think people from these fandoms might be interested? : les mis, jane austen, american civil war (maaaybe if it’s a figure’s youthhood or something)

…There’re probably other fandoms from ~1820 to ~1850 that I don’t know about too.

Anyway, just checking for interest. Might do it anyway, but wanted to see what other people had to think first.



February 20th 1862: William Lincoln dies

On this day in 1862, William Wallace Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, died aged eleven. Known as ‘Willie’, he died due to illness which was most likely typhoid fever. His brother Tad also became ill, but later recovered, though the illness greatly troubled his family, who feared they would lose another son. Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd were deeply affected by Willie’s death, with President Lincoln not returning to work for three weeks and Mary Todd being so distraught that her husband feared for her sanity. His son’s death occurred in the midst of Lincoln’s presidency, and in the second year of the American Civil War that was prompted by the election of the anti-slavery Republican Lincoln. Despite these personal setbacks, Lincoln successfully oversaw the Union’s victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery - leading to him being known as the ‘great emancipator’.

“My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!”
- Lincoln upon his son’s death


The Confederate Double Barrel Cannon,

The double barrel cannon is not a new idea, going back at least to the mid 17th century. The idea behind a double barrel cannon was not a weapon to fire solid shot, but to fire chain shot, a pair of cannon balls connected together by a chain. Each cannon ball was loaded into a separate barrel, and when fired in theory the two balls should rotate around a central axis, mowing down anything in it’s path like a weedwacker mowing down grass.  The trick was firing both barrels simultaneously.  Any flaw in timing, uneven combustion of gunpowder, or flaws in the barrel could cause the chain shot to careen out of control. It was nigh impossible to fire a chain shot cannon with any semblance of accuracy, hence why chain shot cannon were relatively rare.

In 1862 during the American Civil War, a Georgia dentist named John Gilleland attempted to design and build his own double barrel chain shot cannon for used by the Confederate Army. Gilleland’s cannon was caste in one piece at a cost of $350, and featured two 6 inch caliber barrels. The barrels diverge three degrees so that when fired the cannonballs would diverge and the chain would be drawn taught.

On April 22nd, 1862 Gilleland’s cannon went through official ordnance testing. Testing consisted of firing at two poles in a field. On the first shot the cannonballs wildly struck the ground, tearing up over an acre of the field but nowhere near the intended target. On the second shot the chain shot flew over the poles, taking out a grove of trees far behind the target. On the third shot the chain broke, with one cannonball veering to the right and taking out a chimney on a nearby cabin, while the other flew to the left and killed a cow.

Despite the failure Gilleland continued to advertise his cannon for military use. The Confederate Army said “thanks but no thanks” and refused to adopt the cannon. Today the cannon is on display on the front lawn of the City Hall of Athens, Georgia.


Henry rifle

Designed by Benjamin T. Henry c.1857-60 based on the Volition and Volcanic repeating rifles, manufactured by New Haven Arms Co. c.1860-66 - serial number 3645.
.44RF Henry 16-round tubular magazine, lever action repeater, brass frame.

This is one of the few surviving example of an US ordinance Henry rifle purchased to arm the 1st D.C. Cavalry regiment. Most Henry rifles of the war were private purchases ; although expensive, its front-loaded magazine had an unmatched capacity for the time, earning him the reputation of being “a gun you load on Sunday and shoot all week long”.



So last year, I had APUSH. If you don’t know what that stands for, it stands for Advanced Placement United Stated History. Advanced Placement, or AP for short, is a fancy term for a class that is considered college level.

I had a bunch of friends in that class, and on top of all that, I also had an amazing teacher. Probably one of the best teachers I have ever had. Her name was Mrs. Lamountain, and we are very similar in a lot of ways.

This includes our love for the Civil War.

I saw these Abraham Lincoln bandages here on Tumblr one day, and I’m like “These can’t be real. They probably don’t exist.” I told my teacher about them, and she told me jokingly, “If you ever find these, you need to tell me where to find them, because I want them really bad now!”

Time goes by, and I was with my friend oldfashionedlizard, and we’re at this store about 25 minutes away from where I live. He was looking at the books or the DVDs or some shit like that, and I’m just looking at the food because let’s face it, food is my lifetime friend.

I’m walking by the novelty items when I look down and see a container. I pick it up. Sure enough…it’s the Abraham Lincoln bandages.

I kinda lost my shit in the middle of the store, and I rush to the counter to buy all that they had left (two packages, one for me, and one for my teacher).

The next day, I walk into class and coincidentally, my teacher gets a paper cut. I walk up to her, and in the smoothest way possible, hand her the package, and say “I will heal your wounds as I healed a nation.”

To this day, she still has them.


March 20th 1852: Uncle Tom’s Cabin published

On this day in 1852, American author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. Previously published as a serial in the anti-slavery periodical the National Era, Uncle Tom’s Cabin tells the story of a black slave and recounts the harsh reality of his enslavement. Stowe was an ardent advocate of the abolition of slavery, and wrote the novel in response to the passage of the controversial 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which was part of the Compromise of 1850. The Act ordered Northern citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves from the South, thus forcing the generally anti-slavery North to become complicit in the continuance of the ‘peculiar institution’. The popular discontent over the slavery issue helped make Uncle Tom’s Cabin the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and saw its translation into sixty languages. The novel helped keep the flames of anti-slavery sentiment alive, and is therefore sometimes attributed with helping start the American Civil War. While still hailed as a great anti-slavery work of its day, the novel falls short of modern expectations with its stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans.

“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war”
- what, according to legend, Abraham Lincoln said upon meeting Stowe in 1862

One widely publicized incident during the American Civil War was is attributed to a Union soldier as related to Brig. Gen. A. L. Long of the Confederacy and Brigadier General Marcus Wright of the Federal Army,

I was at the Battle of Gettysburg myself, and an incident occurred there which largely changed my views of the Southern people. I had been a most bitter anti-South man, and fought and cursed the Confederacy desperately. I could see nothing good in any of them. The lost day of the fight I was badly wounded. A ball shattered my left leg. I lay on the ground not far from Cemetery Ridge, and as Gen. Lee ordered his retreat he and his officers rode near me.

As they came along I recognized him, and, though faint from exposure and loss of blood, I raised up my hands, looked Lee in the face, and shouted as loud as I could, ‘Hurrah for the Union!’ The general heard me, looked, stopped his horse, dismounted, and came toward me. I must confess that I at first thought he mean’t to kill me. But as he came up he looked at me with such a sad expression on his face that all fear left me, and I wondered what he was about. He extended his hand to me, grasping mine firmly, and looking right into my eyes said, ‘My son, I hope you will soon be well.’

If I live a thousand years I shall never forget the expression on Lee’s face. There he was defeated, retiring from the field that had cost him and his cause almost their last hope, and yet he stopped to say words like those to a wounded soldier of the opposition who had taunted him as he passed by! As soon as the general had left me I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground.”

Source: My Brother’s Keeper; Union and Confederate Acts of Mercy During the Civil War.