Everything you didn’t know about the tin can

Sitting on shelves in every kitchen in the country, it’s easy to take the humble tin can for granted. However, the story of how the can was invented is a little more interesting that you might think.

In 1810, Britain and France were in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, battles that would claim millions of lives across Europe. Just as dangerous as the fighting, however, was the risk of malnutrition caused by the lack of fresh food available to soldiers and sailors, who dined mostly on dried salted meat. As such, the French Government offered a 12,000 franc incentive to anyone who could come up with a new method for preserving food.

A solution to supply issues

Nicolas Appert, a confectioner from Paris, claimed the reward by pioneering a technique of sealing food in glass jars and then boiling it, a precursor to modern-day canning. Although immediately popular with the French Navy, glass jars were neither practical nor robust. Brian Donkin, a Brit who was also inventor of the world’s first pen, took the process one step further by using tin-plated cans to store the food, rather than glass jars.

Early tin cans could weigh anything up to 10 kilogrammes, often more than the food they contained. Strangely, tin openers weren’t invented until almost 50 years later, meaning that early cans had to be smashed open using chisels or rocks.

Rethinking an old design

Despite the difficulties, tinned food quickly gained popularity. As well as sustaining war efforts, food stored in tins also became crucial in nourishing Arctic explorers, but the story of the tin can takes an unfortunate downturn with the 1847 expedition of Sir John Franklin to map the Arctic Circle.

Loaded with tinned food from England, the expedition disappeared and 129 men eventually perished. When they were found, almost all had elevated levels of lead in their bodies, leading many to believe they had been poisoned by the lead soldering on their tin cans. Unsurprisingly, public appetite for tinned food waned on the back of this news.

Return of the can

However, the invention of condensed milk in the 1850s, making milk much more easily available to people in cities, quickly re-established canning as the way forward for food. As tins became lighter, brands such as Heinz could ship goods from America to England, changing the face of world trade. Tin cans rapidly gained huge popularity, and even became art with the work of Andy Warhol, who famously painted tins of Campbell’s soup in the Pop Art style.

Today, 40 billion cans are used a year across the UK and US, and tinned food shows no sign of losing its popularity. So, next time you’re making beans on toast, have a think about one of the most amazing stories in your kitchen.

Posted by Peter
March 27, 2015

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