By MM Pack
Photo courtesy of TAMU Cushing Memorial Library and Archives
For thousands of years, humankind has preserved foods. Via dehydration, heating, cooling, freezing, fermenting, smoking, pickling and preserving with salt or sugar, people around the world figured out how to make foods last from summer growing seasons through lean winters, from bountiful harvest years through years of drought, want and war. And along the way, we’ve come to appreciate the varieties and transformations of flavor, texture and aroma that food preservation creates.
Preservation by canning is a rather late development. Things really got started in 1795 when the French government offered a prize for improved methods of preserving food. Nicolas Appert developed a system of boiling and sealing food in containers with no air—allowing food to be stored at room temperature without spoiling. His seals were wired-on cork stoppers.
A succession of developments followed, like tedious tin canning and glass jars with lids sealed with wax. In 1858, John L. Mason in New Jersey patented a reusable glass jar with a threaded zinc lid and a rubber gasket to seal out air—the mason jar. This inexpensive and relatively foolproof invention made putting up produce accessible and practical for home canners.
In 1882, Henry Putnam of Vermont filed a patent that married the all-glass construction of wax-sealed containers with the gasket seal of mason jars. Called “lightning jars,” Putnam’s invention used simple wire closures and kept food from touching metal. Brothers Frank C. and Edmund B. Ball launched their fruit-jar empire in 1880, and Alexander Kerr, in addition to manufacturing the first wide-mouth jars in 1903, also invented the two-part lid in 1915, which remains the style most widely used today.
In the first half of the 20th century, there were long-standing, concentrated efforts by both federal and state governments to encourage women—especially women in rural areas—to can and preserve at home and collectively in community canning kitchens.
The United States Cooperative Extension began working in Texas in 1903, with farmers’ institutes and boys clubs. This evolved into the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, primarily an educational institution intended to increase agricultural productivity. Each county extension agent’s job was to provide practical and scientific information to farming families and teach them to use it.
In 1912, Edna Trigg became the state’s first woman extension agent. In rural Milam County, she organized girls aged 10 to 18 into what were known as “tomato clubs.” Each girl cultivated one-tenth of an acre of tomatoes, sold part of her harvest and canned the rest. Agent Trigg traveled the county by horse and buggy teaching canning methods and other homemaking skills to the girls clubs.
This pilot program proved so popular and effective that more women were appointed county agents across the state, and by 1917, it wasn’t just for girls anymore. Extension agents expanded their services and performed home demonstrations for farmwives on all aspects of domestic economy, including food preservation, nutrition and sanitation.
In 1915, the Texas Agricultural Extension Service introduced the concept of community canning centers, which enabled farm women to share facilities for efficient and cost-effective food preservation for their families and for a source of income. Under the leadership of extension agent Mary Evelyn Hunter, isolated rural communities built 267 home canning centers over the next 10 years.
Agent Hunter, in her Steps in Canning program, explained that most farm families had access to fresh garden produce only four months a year, leaving 240 days without vegetables. She encouraged each family to “put up 240 cans of vegetables, so they would have at least one can for each day of the year not supplied by the garden.”
During World War I, preserving produce (along with planting victory gardens) was a way that both rural and urban women could contribute to the war effort. In Austin, a community canning center was set up at the University Methodist Church on Guadalupe Street. According to a 1918 newsletter from the Housewives’ League, the canning station had a gas stove and two steam canners, and local women organized to put up surplus fruit and vegetables. The newsletter proclaimed, “If anything goes to waste in Austin this year, it will NOT be the fault of the Housewives’ League.”
Reproduction of painting by Bail Franck courtesy of Library of Congress. Copyright by Brony & Co.
Community canning efforts in Texas continued through the Great Depression and World War II, when high food prices and rationing encouraged renewed interest in victory gardens and putting up produce. Preserving food at home reached an all-time high in the 1940s, but diminished after the war as commercially processed food became cheap and readily available, home refrigeration proliferated and more women entered the workforce. Two decades later, though, as part of the back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s and ’70s, there was a resurgence in gardening, healthy eating and home food preservation.
Following the economic excesses and rampant consumerism of the ’80s and ’90s, the wheel has turned again, the zeitgeist is right and home food preservation is enjoying another renaissance. As part of a larger interest in mindful eating, local sourcing, pride of accomplishment and looking after ourselves, people are again practicing the craft of making preserves and putting up food. We may call it artisanal this time around, but it’s good to remember that it’s really the latest manifestation of a long and honorable tradition.