The History of Food in Cans

SPAM is celebrating its 75th birthday today. Love it or hate it we’ve all had it at some time in our lives and it would not have happened without Nicholas Appert an 18th-century confectioner and chef from Paris.

In 1795, Nicholas Appert began experimenting with ways to preserve foodstuffs, succeeding with soups, vegetables, juices, dairy products, jellies, jams, and syrups. He placed the food in glass jars, not cans and sealed them with cork and sealing wax. The food was preserved by boiling the sealed bottles in boiling water.

In 1795 the French military offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs for a new method to preserve food. After some 14 or 15 years of experiment, Appert submitted his invention and won the prize in January 1810 on condition that he made the method public. The same year, Appert published L’Art de conserver les substances animales et végétales (or The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances). This was the first cookbook of its kind on modern food preservation methods.

La Maison Appert, in the town of Massy, near Paris, became the first food bottling factory in the world. This was years before Louis Pasteur proved that heat killed bacteria. In honour of Appert, canning is sometimes called “appertisation.” Appert’s method was so simple and workable that it quickly conquered the world. The French public and press were loud in their praises – “Appert has found a way to fix the seasons” said one paper. The French Navy was quick to use his method, but it was in England that Appert’s idea was fully exploited and improved.

English Canned Foods

In 1810, British inventor and merchant Peter Durand patented his own method, but this time in a tin can, so creating the modern-day process of canning foods. Tin was already used as a non-corrosive coating on steel and iron, especially for household utensils, but Durand’s patent is the first documented evidence of food being heated and sterilised within a sealed tin container. His method was to place the food in the container, seal it, place in cold water and gradually bring to the boil, open the lid slightly and then seal it again. In some quarters, he is hailed as the “inventor” of the tin can, but a closer look at the patent, held at the National Archives in London, reveals that it was “an invention communicated to him”. Norman Cowell, a retired lecturer at the department of food science and technology at Reading University, had shown that another Frenchman hitherto uncredited by history, an inventor called Philippe de Girard, came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent his own idea. It seems Girard had been making regular visits to the Royal Society to test his canned foods on its members. Girard was forced to come to London because of French red tape, says Cowell, and he couldn’t have taken out the patent in England at a time when the two countries were at war so he sold his idea to Durand for £1000 and disappeared from history. In England, there was an entrepreneurial spirit and venture capital to kick-start enterprise. People were prepared to take a risk on new ideas whereas in France if someone had a good idea they took it to the Academie Francaise and if the members of the Academie thought it was a good idea they might offer a ‘pourboire’ a small amount of money to develop it.

In 1812 Englishmen Bryan Donkin and John Hall purchased both patents and began producing preserves. Between 1814 and 1821, the Admiralty’s orders for canned foods increased from around 3000 pounds to 9000. Donkin’s role in changing history is rarely acknowledged. Standing on the spot of Donkin’s factory today is a school car park on Southwark Park Road, there is little evidence of the industry which, 200 years ago, was about to spread around the globe.

American Canned Foods

Canning arrived in the US in the 1820 but was not common until the beginning of the 20th century, partly because a hammer and chisel were needed to open the cans until the invention of a can opener by an Englishman named Yates in 1855. Canned food changed the world; it improved the nutrition of the masses, feed armies and explorers, transformed the work of women in the kitchen; Andy Warhol even made cans into art. Today, households in Europe and the US alone get through 40 billion cans of food a year, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute in Washington DC.

Of course, America is the home of SPAM. SPAM) is a brand of canned cooked meat made by Hormel Foods Corporation. It was first introduced in 1937 and gained popularity worldwide after its use during World War II. By 2003, Spam was sold in 41 countries on six continents and trademarked in over 100 countries (not including the Middle East and North Africa).

According to its label, Spam’s basic ingredients are pork, with ham meat added, salt, water, modified potato starch as a binder, sugar, and sodium nitrite as a preservative. Natural gelatin is formed during cooking in its tins on the production line. Many have raised concerns over Spam’s nutritional attributes, in large part due to its high content of fat, sodium, and preservatives.

By the early 1970s the name “Spam” became a genericized trademark, used to describe any canned meat product containing pork, such as pork luncheon meat. With expansion in communications technology, it became the subject of urban legends about mystery meat and other appearances in pop culture. Most notable was a Monty Python sketch which led to its name being borrowed for unsolicited electronic messages, especially spam email

Since 1942, each year the Chicago Section of the Institute of Food Technologists awards the Nicholas Appert Award, recognising lifetime achievement in food technology. In 1991, a monumental statue of Appert, a work in bronze was erected in Châlons-en-Champagne.

Sources:, Wikipedia

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42  Also available on:

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