Canned produce: a history

From humble beginnings over 200 years ago to a burst of success and sustained popularity

Canned produce is part and parcel of everyday life – present on the shelves of stores, in our cupboards and adding bulk and brilliance to many favourite recipes. This is the story of how cans came to be such a reliable hero:

Glass act

At the start of the 18th century Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner, starts preserving food. His method is similar to modern canning: food is sealed in sterilised containers (in his case glass bottles) and heated (in makeshift baths of boiling water) to destroy microbes. In 1810 the French government, at Napoleon’s behest, pays Appert to detail his method in The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances.

Royal approval

News of Appert’s breakthrough spreads. Engineer Bryan Donkin purchases a patent for preserving food in containers and advances the technology to use tin cans. By 1813, he has set up the world’s inaugural canning factory, earned praise from royalty (with the Duke of Wellington writing that the canned beef is first rate) and lined the stomachs of legions of soldiers and Polar explorers with nutritious canned food.

Open for debate

Fortnum & Mason publishes a guide showing how to open cans with a knife. Within a decade, an Englishman and an American claim bragging rights for the creation of the first opener. In practice, neither instrument is much use and the can opener remains unpopular for decades. In the 1920s, the wheel-operated can opener gains a following, and in the 1930s electric can openers make their debut.

Compact cans

Nearly a century since creation, cans are still cumbersome brutes. This changes when Dr John T Dorrance, a chemist working for the Campbell Soup Company, nails the formula for condensed soup. His technique removes the water content from soup, and at once instigates the shrinking of cans (and production costs) and the general public’s thirst for cans that are increasingly convenient – and cheaper.

Clever bean

Spotting earlier than most that cans are the way forward, Henry Heinz has spent the last 20 years ensuring that his company leads the way for other brands to follow. By now, the company’s aggressive expansion plan means it already has nine state-of-the-art factories producing 200 product lines, including spaghetti, vegetables and the first cans of everyone’s favourite baked beans.

Record book

Poppy Cannon publishes The Can-Opener Cookbook. A well-known writer, Cannon has a ball with this new brand of cooking, writing that ‘the can opener is fast becoming a magic wand’. However, history, and modern tastes, won’t look on the effectiveness of her wand too fondly. Anyone for casserole à la King, a suspect pairing of canned chicken and macaroni in a cream cheese sauce?

Not always coca-cola

Already known as one of the savviest, most forward-looking companies, Coca-Cola arrives late to the canned drinks game. Since the 1930s, boardroom indecision over how canning technology might affect the drink’s flavour saw plenty of back and forth (with products sent to the Far East for testing) before they finally agreed that the drink is good enough to become publicly available in canned form.

Still growing

The decline of canning has been declared many times – when fridges boomed, when food started to be packaged in pouches. But the demise has never materialised. Canned goods are too convenient a commodity, too reliable, for them not to be of everyday use. Spinneys prides itself on its ever-growing range, which currently includes canned chick peas and beans and organic Italian tomatoes.