Napoleon in cans.
1991 is the 150th anniversary of the death of Nicolas Appert, the Frenchman who is credited with the invention of the first successful way of preserving food. As France underwent the Revolution of 1789 and the ensuing years of tumult she found herself pitted against enemies all around her, so the military men realised that food for the large numbers of men under arms could no longer be garnered from villages overtaken by the tide of war; for the simple reason that there were too many men to feed. A prize was to be awarded to anyone who could find a method of preserving food. That prize was fixed at 12,000 francs and was awarded some years later in 1809 by the Emperor Napoleon to Nicolas Appert, from Versailles.
Appert had been a chef, a pickler, preserver, wine-maker, brewer and confectioner, and had previously provisioned armies. His method was simple; he merely sealed fresh or cooked meat, fish, fruit, eggs and vegetables in air-tight bottles, then immersed the bottles in boiling water for varying periods to keep the foods in an edible condition. He rapidly learned at some considerable expense that the boiling water was not always sufficient to "sterilize" his products and that his method had dangerous limitations, with considerable loss through spoilage. He did however lay the foundations of our modern canning industry. His text, The Book for All Households, or the Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years was published in 1810.
The English connection is Bryan Donkin, an apprentice of John Hall, an engineer in Dartford, whose company J. & E. Hall was later to become part of the APV Company. John Hall financed his former apprentice engineer in 1798 to the extent of 350 [pounds] to set up his own engineering works in Bermondsey. A later venture was the purchase for 1,000 [pounds] of the rights to "a process for preserving animal and vegetable foods" in 1811, assumed to be the process invented a few years earlier by Appert. In May 1812, there are numerous references in Bryan Donkin's diary of experiments in cooking and sealing foods and sealing milk, soups and meats. At first these were sealed in white jars, but later he concentrated on iron containers. Although a laborious process of actually making "cans", filling and sealing them, by 30th June 1817, Donkin was able to record that his factory had sold 3,000 [pounds] worth of canned meat in six months. In 1824, Admiral Parry took tinned beef and pea soup with him on his voyage to the Arctic, some were rediscovered in 1937, opened and found to be still in good edible condition! A tribute to the ingenuity of the early canners.
It was America where the canning industry really became a major force, after its introduction by an Englishman, William Underwood who arrived in New Orleans in 1817 from London, where he had been apprenticed in a pickle factory. Having read Appert's book, he also initially used wide mouthed jars for preservation, stopped with corks held in place by tightened wires. Others followed his lead until tin imported from Welsh and Cornish mines enabled the manufacture of tin canisters. Tin plated sheet iron was cut into 'bodies' by hand or foot powered scissors, bent round a cylindrical mould by the shere strength of the tinsmith; round tops and bottoms were cut and put together. The tinner's "copper" slowly applied hot solder along the side seam and end sections. A cap hole was left in the top through which the food could be forced, before soldering over. The output of the food containers was no more than sixty a day.
Nibbers, seamers, blanchers, layer pads, would be invented several decades later, revolutionising canning although its rapid growth both in America and elsewhere was again due to the need to feed hungry soldiers. From the idea of Nicolas Appert, the anniversary of whose death we celebrate this year, grew a great and expanding industry.