Cans again in high demand

2020-04-06

Due to the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, canned meat, vegetables and fruit, along with the sought-after toilet paper, are again a scarce resource. But how did we get to using canned food, and what does it have to do with a Polish town of Żyrardów?

Canned beef with a replacement label, produced in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL)

People have always searched ways to extend the life of foods and prevent their spoiling in order to save provisions for later.

The fundamentals of processing foods for preservation and canning were invented by a Parisian baker and cook Nicolas Appert (1749-1841). After many experiments, he concluded that the most effective method for long-term food preservation is to heat it up to the boiling temperature in an airtight container. In his pioneering work, Appert, as a true Frenchman born and bred in the Champagne region, used…glass champagne bottles. The inventor filled them with meat, vegetables, fruit, and soups.

Nicolas Appert and one of his bottles

Appert’s preservation method is universal. It allows for preservation of not only meat, fruit, and vegetabes, but also juice, liquids such as milk, or even beer, coffee and tea. His method is still in use; also home cooks use it for preserving food in jars.

One weak point of Appert’s method was the cork, which was not always airtight, any ventilation resulting in rotting. Another was the heavy and fragile glass used in containers.

Thus, the method required further development, which was undertaken by the French armed forces. At that time, French troops have been bravely conquering Europe, headed by Napoleon Bonaparte.

“An army marches on its stomach,” said the French emperor, with a good understanding of the role of wholesome and fresh food provisions in military operations.

Another pioneer was a French engineer and inventor, Philippe de Girard. Instead of glass containers, he used containers made of thin tin, that is – cans.

Girard’s memorial in Żyrardów

Girard is also a figure associated with Poland. For almost 20 years, he has been working for the Polish government in the Kingdom of Poland, developing its industry and particularly textiles. A textile town of Żyrardów, located between Warsaw and Łódź, took its name from the French inventor.

Girard used a British merchant Peter Durand as an agent to patent his idea in 1810.

The patent was then purchased for 1,000 pounds by British industrialists Bryan Donkin and John Hall. In 1813, they launched the world’s first factory of canned food to deliver it to the British navy and army.

A can from the world’s first can factory

Early tin cans were sealed with a lead alloy, which in unfortunate circumstances could result in lead poisoning. One example is a widely known tragic story of John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition that ended up with the crew’s death by lead poisoning.

Heinz’s can factory in 1909

Today, cans are hermetically sealed immediately after filling, by adequate bending of the rims. The can’s interior is coated with a protective plastic lining.

Correct and incorrect bending of the
rim

After sealing, cans are pasteurized or sterilized to ensure that they are properly airtight.

Interestingly, the first practical can opener was invented as much as 42 years after the cans. Until that time, cans were opened with a knife, a chisel, a hammer, or even with an axe.

Today it’s way easier. We can choose from a number of can opener types. Also, the cans often come with a convenient ring-pull system that does not require additional tools.