The tin can revolution: The humble invention that changed the way we live

Captain Scott took them to the South Pole. The Royal Navy relied on them and they even played a part in the emancipation of women

Samuel Muston
Friday 03 September 2010 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


There are certain objects which stay the course of changing fashion, outlast the generation that conceived them and become part of our landscape – both internal and external. The red postbox on the street corner, for example, or the Tower of London standing proud on the banks of the Thames – few would question the status of these objects in our collective consciousness. But what about the less august objects that make up our culture? What about, for instance, a tin of Heinz Tomato Soup?

A tin of soup may lack grandeur, but on a chilly winter's evening or after a long day at work, a postbox offers scant consolation to the world-weary. One hundred years ago this week, the American Henry Heinz began selling his cockle-warming fare in Britain and our relationship with this meal in a can blossomed.

Although Heinz perfected the process that eventually bought us spaghetti hoops and the other 56 varieties, the actual process of heat preservation has its roots in something more military than a peckish office worker: the territorial ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The threat of war with France loomed heavily during the early years of the 19th century, and so the British government set about the defence of the realm in the time-honoured fashion: by building new warships and pressing unsuspecting men into naval service.

Unfortunately for the jolly Jack Tars of Nelson's fleet, the provision of food failed to keep pace with the provision of cannon. Contemporary accounts abound with stories of sailors ravaged by scurvy and of food, as one unfortunate seaman put it, "which moved by its own internal impulse, occasioned by the myriad of insects that dwelt within". With as many men dying from malnutrition as from enemy grapeshot, the navies of Europe were desperate for a safe and efficient means to store provisions on long voyages.

Salvation came in the form of a chef-cum-chemist called Nicolas Appert. "The Frenchman came to prominence in the last decade of the 18th century, when he appeared in Paris with champagne bottles in which he had successfully preserved cooked beef in gravy," explains Sue Shephard, the author of Pickled, Potted and Canned. "It changed everything."

Appert's old champagne bottles were in fact the antecedents of today's tinned cans. By empirical study and with a judicious amount of good luck, he had succeeded where everyone from Egyptian priests to Sir Francis Bacon (who met his end from pneumonia as a result of trying to preserve a chicken carcass with snow) had failed. For the first time, food could be preserved without obliterating its texture and destroying its taste.

The press were eulogistic ("In each bottle, and at small expense, is a glorious sweetness that recalls the month of May in the depths of winter," wrote the gastronomic scribe Alexandre Grimod de la Reynière) and the French government enthusiastic. The French state asked the cash-strapped Appert to publish the secret of his technique in exchange for "un encouragement" of 12,000 francs.

Enter stage left a British merchant by the name of Peter Durand, a man for whom the term "perfidious Albion" may have been invented. Having acquired Appert's book, he patented the Frenchman's invention, merrily recording on the patent certificate that the process was "communicated to him by certain foreigners".

As so often before and since, the inventor lost out to the entrepreneur. The first commercial canning factory opened in June 1813, not in Paris but in Bermondsey. After only a few months of operation, and after shrewdly gifting a quantity of canned turkey to the Duke of Kent, Durand's partners came into the first prize in the canning lottery: a contract to supply the Royal Navy.

"Although early cans wouldn't have had anything like the shelf-life of their modern counterparts, they still presaged a revolution in human mobility," says Dr Jeya Henry, a professor of nutrition at Oxford Brookes University. "For the first time, you have ships going on long voyages of discovery or on campaigns to far-from-home ports without the ever-present fear of malnutrition; from this point onwards, the incidence of scurvy begins to fall."

It wasn't just in the field of combat that the new invention began to make itself felt. Soon, mountain trails and river basins the world over were littered with tin cans and ring pulls, as explorers increasingly took advantage of the opportunities offered by Appert's discovery.

Indeed, Captain Scott was so enamoured with the tins of golden syrup he took on his expedition to the South Pole that he felt moved to write a eulogising letter to the board of Tate & Lyle. "Your Golden Syrup has been in daily use," he wrote, "and is a most desirous addition to necessary food for a polar expedition." Unfortunately for Captain Scott, its health benefits proved insufficient and he perished of malnutrition and exhaustion some six months later.

A panacea for polar explorers and sailors the can may have proved, but tinned food was neither sufficiently cheap nor palatable to find its way on to the average British dinner table. "Housewives wanted recognisable cuts of meat free of dubious smells and without the telltale signs of over-cooking," Shephard says. "And the rich had ready access to fresh produce anyway, so canned goods were not an instant domestic success".

It wasn't until the turn of the 20th century, and the arrival of a certain Henry Heinz, that things began to change. The first decade of the 20th century saw his company outgrow the suitcase which he had first used to carry his produce across the Atlantic in 1886. In the space of 25 years, Heinz Company had grown into a global behemoth. A well-tuned advertising campaign and a vast selection of new products ensured that the tin can soon found its way into the hearts and cupboards of the British public.

"The tin can's move from the battlefield to the kitchen was a revolution," says Andrew F Smith, the author of Souper Tomatoes: The Story of America's Favourite Food. "Not only did it mean that for the first time, the working classes had access to a wide variety of nutritious foods, it actually changed the dynamic of family life itself.

"No longer did housewives have to spend hours slaving over a hot stove; they could just open a tin and they had a meal for their family. The average time spent preparing meals halved. The can was a welcome presence in the kitchen; it was the first flickering of a trend towards the emancipation of women."

The innovative urge, however, sometimes took a turn towards the absurd. In 1943, under the headline "It has all the vitamins", the Evening News reported that a team of chemists in Kansas City had started the process of canning dried "Palain grass". The wonder product was said to "contain all vitamins except D" and would change the life of the housewife. Alas, this particular culinary revolution never came to pass, and wartime cooks had to make do with the more common pleasures of Spam.

The 1950s saw the refrigerator burst on to the scene, and the beau monde embrace the pleasures of the frozen meal. The age of the tin-opener looked as though it was drawing to its conclusion; the age of frozen dinner had begun.

Yet despite the rise of the ready-meal, the can lingers on. Supermarket shelves and cupboards still groan under the combined weight of tinned salmon and sponge puddings, and sales figures for corned beef still continue to surpass all understanding, or at least the understanding of this writer.

Why should this be so? Why has it not gone the way of the wooden sailing ship, the steam engine or the British Empire? It would appear that the tin can no longer endures for its practical utility, but for the reassuring taste of the bounty within. How else to explain the sales of Heinz soup, which topped 53.7 million in the month of January alone, more than any other month since the tinned soup reached British shores. Or the popularity of spaghetti hoops among British expatriates in Italy.

Once reviled as malodorous servants' food, canned goods have risen above the wave of opprobrium that initially looked set to overwhelm them; like rice pudding and chicken korma, they have become part of our cultural heritage. They are the staples we rush to buy in times of emergency and the first thing we reach for when laid low with illness.

British tinned foods may lack the glamour of the French croissant or artisan speciality of the Spanish chorizo, but they define us no less definitely. If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, then Britain could do much worse than a tin of steaming hot cream of tomato soup.

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