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Home canning
was not always that heavy-duty summer-time
activity we visualize when we think of women’s work in the past. Preserving? Yes, surely, but not canning. Foods were indeed put up in ceramic crocks—everything from meat (French confit or its English counterpart potted duck) to vinegared and salted vegetables. And those who could afford the sugar did some jellying and candying. One prevented spoilage by use of anti-bacterial salt, sugar, vinegar and spices. In the case of potted meats, baked morsels were shielded from the contaminating air by complete immersion in melted fat and a tied-on cloth or leather covering. But this was not canning.


Twentieth-century "Flexi-Seal Canner," pressure-canner, manufactured by Vischer Products Co., Chicago, Ill, USA. No date, possibly pre-WWII.

Flexible lid is secured and the steam gauge is placed over the steam port, where it releases steam to keep the kettle’s internal pressure constant. This canner comes with a wire rack to hold jars off the can bottom and allow for full circulation of steam, as well as to help raise and lower the jars within the kettle. Note that like many early canners, it also came with its own adjustable jar lifter.

Canning depends on sealed, airtight containers, whether they be tin cans or canning jars. While home canning processes have not always involved hermetical seals, they have usually made some attempt to thoroughly cook the contents, to clean the containers (the term sterilization would not have been used early), and to keep out air by means of a tight mechanical closure.

Actually it all started with Nicolas Appert in early 19th-century France. At the time, Napoleon, knowing that his army marched on its stomach, offered a handsome cash prize for anyone who could come up with an improved apparatus for preserving food. Appert won the competition with a system of precooking, air-tight sealing and final processing in a newly designed glass canning jar. His wide-mouthed pint "bottles" were filled with hot cooked foods, stoppered with hand-cut corks fitted to the irregularities of the blown glass, sealed with a compound made of lime and skim milk and then finished in a boiling water bath. Appert declared that the meats, vegetables, fruits, soups, and gravies thus prepared would last for at least a year in the same excellent state. And he thus inspired a new industry. 

Click on Picture for Larger viewjar1.gif (27675 bytes)
One-pint "Eureka" canning jar with iron strap closure that rotates into the jar neck molded threading, holding down the lid. No date on bottle.

For several decades thereafter, inventive minds experimented with container sizes and shapes, with glass, tin, wax and lead, and with various lid-clamping mechanisms. They focused on tin lids sealed with wax or composition materials, and eventually mold-blown glass jars threaded to accept a zinc screw top lid. By the time of the American Civil War two-piece lids made air-tight with disposable rubber rings or gaskets set between glass lid and jar were becoming popular. The Mason jar was on its way; air-tight home canning was about to become a domestic institution.jar2.gif (55406 bytes)

Click on Picture for Larger view.

One-half cup glass fruit jar, no labels or dates. 
snap closure of iron (tin?) that is secured
 into the
jar’s threaded neck.

Familiar forms of canning jars were then called glass cans or fruit jars, probably because fruits were canned most often, and because the whole process was an extension of earlier preservation in heavy sugars. By the 1880s, American women, taking advantage of the lowering cost of sugar and the back-saving woodstove, had launched the annual summer routine of putting up the wealth of orchard fruit, along with garden vegetables and even meats.  

jar3.gif (47822 bytes)Click on Picture for larger view.
One quart glass fruit jar.
"Whitall’s Patent June 18th 1861" molded on both jar and its glass lid. Iron screwdown closure on one-piece glass lid.

Instructions in period cookbooks directed that the
food be precooked and packed hot in the heated jars or tin cans, then filled to overflowing with heated syrups or brines and sealed quickly—what we now call the open kettle method. A subsequent improvement suggested packing the raw food in jars and cooking it (open) in a hot water bath, and then, as before, filling with hot liquids and sealing. With this method the jars and the food were hot enough and probably sterile when packed, but the air trapped at the top was not, and food spoilage occasionally resulted. Mrs. Rorer, in Canning and Preserving (1887) recommended regular inspection of the jars for bubbling—a sure sign of trouble—and immediate opening, in such cases, to prevent bursting. The terminal hot water bath—a final processing of the cooked and sealed jars which killed off any contaminants—was not to be instituted for several years to come.

In fact, most of the food was wholesome enough, even if somewhat overcooked by the process. There were means to healthful canning. If the jar’s contents were high in acid there was less danger, and many fruits, pickles, and vinegared ketchups and chutneys stored safely. Other foods were protected by sugar syrups and brines, as sugar and salt were both flavorings and preservatives. Perhaps this accounts in part for the popularity of homemade ketchups and chili sauces. It was the low-acid, unseasoned vegetables and meats that fared less well, even to the extreme of sometimes causing serious illness, but these were a far smaller part of the repertoire.

Although today’s modern, quart-sized canning jars are a glut on the yard-sale and flea markets, they must have been treasured and reused annually in their early days. I confess to being somewhat confused about who bought them first, and in what quantities. Farm women with abundant home-grown food and the need to preserve it also typically lacked the cash flow needed for the jars. Possibly they maintained the traditional practices of salting, drying and root-cellar storage for a longer period.

Carrie Hubbard Davis, for example, living on rural Long Island in 1881, noted in her diary that her mother had brought her [only] "2 fruit jars." On the other hand, city women who functioned in the cash economy because of their husbands’ salaries bought both the jars and the food to can in them. It would almost seem that American small town women, whose home economy was based on access to funds, were in the best position to get at both. Their back-yard kitchen gardens and those of their farming cousins and communities were awash in seasonal inexpensive food for "putting up," and their economics allowed for the jars. Their diaries refer regularly to the "cans" and "jars" with which they provided for winter. In any case, the jar prices came down and women built up their stock of reusable containers, entrenching home canning in rural settings.

It would seem that before long, with the growth of more elaborate marketing (groceries and chain stores), an increasing sector of American women turned away from the work of canning to the convenience of inexpensive commercial tinned staples. But national events provided the impetus for renewed interest in home canning. During World War I, for example, the government urged families to plant "victory gardens" and to can their surplus for later use, thereby allowing the re-distribution of commercial supplies to the army. Throughout the nation, home economists now gave classes in home canning to patriotic homemakers (suggesting that the process had not been in general use everywhere). Likewise, during the depression in the 1930s, land grant colleges promoted improved canning methods and nutrition in their new publications and home demonstration classes. World War II followed suit.

During the 1960s and 1970s young women immersed in the back-to- the-land movement rediscovered home canning, now facing a serious competitor in quantity freezing. I would guess that the next generations of women are far too busy working out of the home, and are, in many cases, far too removed from domesticity to find home canning either interesting or a valuable use of time.

And, in fact, by today’s standards of fresh and frozen produce, home-canned products do not often rate as high as they once did. Even considering their convenience and clear economy, assuming access to inexpensive local produce, those old-fashioned salads and desserts based on canned fruit have long since gone out of fashion.

Although I continue to put up small amounts of jams and jellies, the canning side of my kitchen has all but shut down. I would love to get rid of several dozen no-longer-used quart jars but I cannot bear to throw them away. Although recycling is a possibility, I hate to see them lost as canning equipment. I simply don’t want to see the tradition go. As home gardening becomes one of our nation’s favorite pastimes, and as organic gardening is on the rise, perhaps there is still a future for homemade tomato and chili sauces, gleaming on a pantry shelf, waiting for winter.

Let me then offer you the original recipe for chili sauce by Gesine Lemke, who wrote and ran cooking schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan, New York City, 100 years ago. The high acid content (both tomatoes and vinegar), sugars and spices make this one of the safe home-canning products. 

Gesine Lemcke’s Chili Sauce 
Preserving and Pickling ,1899

Twenty-four ripe tomatoes, 
15 green tomatoes,4 large onions and 3 green peppers, 
4 tablespoonfuls of salt, 2 tablespoonfuls sugar, 
1 quart vinegar, cloves, allspice, ginger and cinnamon,
of each 1/2 teaspoonful.
Scald and free the ripe tomatoes from their skin 
and cut them in
small pieces. 
Cut also the green tomatoes, the
peeled onions, 
and the green peppers; 
put all the ingredients in a kettle, boil slowly 1-1/2 hours...

Fill into jars or stone crock.

Although earlier cooks did not always process their sterilized jars after filling, you may wish to use a terminal hot-water bath.

This requires that you submerge the hot filled and sealed jars in boiling water (in a large canning kettle with a rack) for five minutes, according to the basic rules by Hertzberg, Vaughn, and Greene in their classic Putting Food By. Or you may wish to invest in the large pressure cooker-canners that were so popular after World War II.

The accompanying recipe for chili sauce offers a remedy to the problem of the too-abundant tomato at summer’s end, and has the benefit of using both ripe and unripe fruit together. Chili sauce may be used in any number of ways—as a relish accompanying meat, as an addition to the usual meat-and-beans chili, or mixed with mayonnaise as an interesting salad dressing. Feel free to play with the seasonings: for example, try grating in some fresh ginger to taste.


Immediately after the tomato mixture has finished cooking and thickening (you may be happy after one hour or less, depending on the kind of tomatoes you use), spoon the hot mixture into hot, sterilized canning jars, and cover with boiled two-piece lids. 

Place in a large canning kettle and fill with boiling water so that the bottles are completely immersed. Return to a boil and continue cooking for five minutes. 

Remove and cool slowly. Check the seal.

Store in a cool, dark place until needed—unheated dark basement rooms are perfect.



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Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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