Found  /  Origin Story

How Canned Food Went From Military Rations to Fancy Appetizers

This simple technology changed the world.

War Fare

The story goes something like this: In the late 18th century, the French government issued a challenge to European inventors. Whoever could come up with an efficient way of preserving food for the French army would win a cash prize. It took 15 years for anyone to succeed, but finally, a man named Nicolas Appert claimed 12,000 francs from Napoleon’s administration in 1809 by proving that heat-sealed containers could preserve meat, fruit, fish, and vegetables for an impressively long time. The upcoming Napoleon biopic is not likely to include the origin story of canned food. Yet the need for more nutritious military rations resulted in that can of chickpeas sitting in your cabinet.

What’s In a Name?

There’s something I’ve been pondering for years. Why is it called “home canning” when people make pickles or preserves in their kitchens, with glass jars instead of cans? “The canning word, and the reference to the can itself, is kind of secondary,” explains Anna Zeide. Zeide is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech and the author of Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry. In fact, she says, the process of hermetically sealing food and heating the containers to kill any bacteria was originally called “appertizing,”after Appert himself.

While Appert is known as the father of canned food, Zeide notes there’s a lot of research suggesting “that the method was not something he had started, that probably women in their homes had been doing something like it for a long time before him.” Not only that, but Appert didn’t use cans himself. Instead, says Zeide, he likely started out with ceramic containers sealed tightly with cork.

In 1817, William Underwood, a canner from England, immigrated to the United States. The William Underwood Company of Boston became prominent, supplying canned food to expeditions and Civil War combatants. Some sources consider Underwood to be the source of the word can, as well, claiming that the company’s bookkeepers began abbreviating the term tin canisters in 1839.

The Oxford English Dictionary points to an 1853 book called A Pictorial View of California: Including a Description of the Panama and Nicaragua Routes, with Information and Advice Interesting to All, Particularly Those who Intend to Visit the Golden Region as containing the first published use of the word can to describe a tin canister of meat.