Though they were not as ubiquitous as they are today, some canned foods were available during the Regency, thanks, in part, to Napoleon Bonaparte. The French General did not invent the process himself, but it is due to him that it was originally discovered. As was common practice at the time, once the French version of the canning process was known, that process was enhanced and improved by a man in England, ironically, in large part for the benefit of the Royal Navy. Though canned foods were not widely available in Great Britain during the Regency, the process had been perfected there, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a few canned foods might turn up in a Regency romance.
Canned foods through the Regency . . .
Napoleon Bonaparte famously said that an army marches on its stomach. As he began to extend his grasp across the Continent, Bonaparte became increasingly concerned that he would not be able to adequately feed his troops as he invaded other countries. Many of those countries were either not inclined, or were unable, to provide food for the invading French army. Though the French soldiers were always willing to take what they wanted when they were on the march, there were a number of instances when there was nothing to take. Therefore, in 1800, Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a new and reliable method for preserving food over long periods, in such a way that it would be easy to transport. Unbeknownst to Bonaparte, a French chef and confectioner living in Paris had already spent some years experimenting with methods by which to solve the problem of dependable long-term food preservation.
Nicolas Appert was born in 1749, in the small French provincial town of Châlons-sur-Marne, near the Champagne region. He was the son of a brewer and inn-keeper. Nicolas did not have any formal schooling, but as a child, he helped in his family’s business, learning how to prepare and pickle various foods, brew beer and distill spirits. He later wrote that he was reared and trained in " . . . the pantries, the breweries, store-houses, and cellars of Champagne, as well as in the shops, manufactories, and warehouses of confectioners, distillers and grocers." As a young man, Nicolas became an apprentice chef at the Palais Royal Hotel in Chalons. When he completed his apprenticeship, having become a talented and skilled chef, Appert quickly found employment in the kitchens of a succession of wealthy aristocrats. However, he was an ambitious man, and by the age of thirty-one, he had set himself up in his own confectionary business in Paris. Many customers flocked to his shop, La Renommée (The Fame), in the Rue des Lombards, to enjoy his delicious pastries and sweetmeats.
Appert became fascinated by how sugar could be used to preserve various fruits and other sweetmeats. That led him to an even wider interest in the preservation of all kinds of foods. He was already aware of a number of other ways by which food could be preserved for long periods, including pickling, fermenting, salting, smoking and drying. However, the main drawback for most of those methods was that they seldom preserved the appearance and/or flavor of those foods. He wanted to find another method, which would not only reliably preserve all manner of foodstuffs for a long period, but preserve their appearance and flavor as well. Of course, at that time, he was not aware of the existence of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients which could be affected by certain food preservation methods. His main concern was to preserve food so that it would not decay or spoil and its general appearance, flavor and texture could be maintained over long periods.
Convinced that heat was the key, Appert spent more than a decade in trial-and-error experiments to find the best method to preserve food. Initially, he used champagne bottles, sturdy containers with which he had been familiar since his youth. He filled these bottles with fruits, vegetable or meat, then stood them in boiling water for some period of time. He stopped the bottles with corks, then wired them closed and sealed them with sealing wax. Finding the necks of the champagne bottles too limiting for the size of the foods he wished to preserve, Appert found wide-neck bottles made of glass which were as sturdy as champagne bottles. In 1803, he preserved soup, beans and peas and boiled beef in gravy in these wide-mouth glass bottles. He offered them to the French Navy as a test, assuring them that these foods would not only be preserved for long periods, but that they would help to prevent the scurvy which was still a serious health problem for French sailors. As part of the test, the bottled food provided by Appert was kept for three months in naval stores. Then, it was put on board several ships of the French Navy which were at sea off Brest, minding the ships of the British Royal Navy, which was blockading the French port. The report which came back from the fleet was that the broth with the boiled beef was a little weak, but the beef itself was not only edible, but quite tasty. The soups were all considered to be very good. The vegetables were also very well preserved, and were said to have looked and tasted nearly the same as fresh vegetables.
Based on the information he gained from these trials, Appert further perfected his technique. Meats, stews and soups were cooked until nearly done, vegetables were usually blanched, while fruits were typically made into preserves and jams. The prepared food was placed in glass bottles, then loosely stopped with a cork, before the bottle was immersed in boiling water. The bottle would usually remain in the hot water for an average of three to five hours, depending upon the contents and the size of the bottle. The bottles were then removed from the water, the corks were forced deep into the mouth of the bottle with a special vise, sealed with sealing wax, then reinforced with a strong wire. So long as the seal was not broken, the contents of the bottle would remain unspoiled and edible for long periods. At the Exposition des produits de l’industrie française, held in Paris, in 1806, Appert offered a selection of his bottled foods for consideration for the reward, but did not win. He refused to become discouraged and continued to perfect his food preservation method. He was eventually able to preserve not only soups, stews, meats, vegetables and fruit, but also juices, syrups, eggs, and even dairy products. Appert had no idea why his process worked, he only knew that it did, based on years of trial-and-error experiments. In the end, it would be a fellow Frenchman, Louis Pasteur, who would finally prove, several decades later, that heat killed the bacteria which caused the majority of food spoilage.
Finally, in 1810, with the support of various French government and naval officials, Nicolas Appert’s method was finally accepted by the French Minister of the Interior as having met the criteria required to win the reward. However, there was another condition he had to meet in order to collect his reward. Rather than patent his method and keep it to himself, Appert was required to make his process public so that many people would be able to produce canned foods. He agreed, and was granted the 12,000 francs. That same year, 1810, Appert published L’Art De Conserver, pendant plueieurs annes, Toutes les Substances Animales et Vegetales (The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years). This was the first book ever published on what would become our modern food canning process. Though only two hundred copies were printed, in French, that first year, within two years, Appert’s treatise was translated into English and published in London. It is likely that at least a few copies of that French first edition also made their way to Britain.
Though Nicolas Appert’s method of canning food was quite reliable, the containers which he used were not. Even the sturdiest glass bottles could be broken with enough force. It is believed that Appert did consider the use of metal containers, tin in particular. The main impediment to that plan was that French tin at that time was very inferior and could not be used to make truly air-tight containers. A fellow Frenchman, the engineer, Philippe de Girard, had also considered the use of tin cans for food preservation. He had even developed a method by which tin could be used, but again, his plan was not feasible with the current quality of French tin. However, Girard had a good friend who had emigrated to Britain, Peter Durand, to whom he sent his ideas, knowing that British tin was superior. Durand, a London merchant, was quick to patent this new food preservation process, noting in his application that the basic idea had been sent to him by a friend living aboad. The patent described a food preservation process similar to that of Appert, but Durand listed a number of different vessels, uncluding those made of glass or ceramics, as well as a selection of metals, particularly tin. Durand was granted his patent on 25 August 1810.
Though he had quickly filed for his patent, Durand was not initially convinced of the viability of the process. A naturally curious man, he spent some time experimenting with the preservation process, testing it by canning various foods, in various containers, and using a number of heating methods. He sealed stews, soups, meat and even milk, in glass, stoneware and tin-plated iron cans, subjecting them to heat with ovens, steam baths and boiling. He came to the conclusion that the most efficient method was to seal the food in tin cans and immerse them in boiling water. Though Appert and Girard had both developed their process using small amounts of food, typically enough to serve one or two people, Durand saw the value of this process for preserving significantly larger volumes of food. It is reported that Durand successfully preserved as much as thirty pounds of meat in one large can. The larger volume of the food he was preserving may have led Durand to focus on tin cans, since it would have been nearly impossible to produce glass or ceramic containers large enough, or strong enough, to hold such substantial volumes of food.
Durand saw the military as the primary market for canned foods, particularly the Royal Navy. He canned a selection of different foods in large cans and arranged for them to be taken to sea in a few Royal Navy ships, for between four to six months. When the ships returned to port, a committee made up of members of the Royal Institution and the Royal Society tested and analyzed the canned foods. All of the foods were found to have been perfectly perserved and safe to eat, with minimal loss of taste or appearance. Curioiusly, once these successful tests had proven the efficacy of Durand’s patented food preservation process, he chose not to set himself up as a food canner. Instead, in 1812, he sold his patent, for £1000, to an English inventor and engineer, John Hall, who ran an iron works in the town of Dartford, in Kent.
John Hall experimented with the canning process he had acquired from Durand, particularly focusing on the use of tin-coated iron cans. These experiments were conducted in collaboration with a fellow inventor and engineer, his brother-in-law and former apprentice, Bryan Donkin, who had been working with methods of tinning iron since at least 1808. Between the two of them, they were soon able to perfect the best container for the production of canned foods on a commercial scale. Along with one of Hall’s long-term business associates, John Gamble, they founded the first food cannery which used tinned containers. Established in 1812, this cannery, located in Blue Anchor Lane, in Bermondsey, was the very first food canning business in Great Britain, if not the world. Though they canned a selection of different foods, the bulk of the Bermondsey factory production was tinned meats. In the spring of 1813, the firm of Donkin, Hall and Gamble had begun recruiting a network of agents along the southern coast of England to sell their preserved foods to outbound ships departing for long voyages. Soon thereafter, the British Admiralty placed a large order for tinned meats with the firm. That same year, orders were also placed for canned foods by various regiments of the British Army as well.
In 1818, Peter Durand filed for a new patent on his canning process in the United States. Though Durand was granted a U.S. patent that year, as he had done in Great Britain some years before, he did not follow up by establishing a canning factory in the United States. The following year, in 1819, John Hall left the firm of Donkin, Hall and Gamble to concentrate on his other business interests, but the firm continued to produce canned foods in Blue Anchor Lane for many years. By 1820, canned food was considered a standard form of provisions in both Britain and France. In 1822, the a similar process was being used in the United States, possibly by someone who had acquired Peter Durand’s U.S. patent. Despite the fact that an efficient and reliable method of food canning had been developed early in the nineteenth century, the products of that method were used primarily by the military for several decades. Donkin, Hall and Gamble, along with other canning operations, produced canned foods in large volumes, best suited for use in providing meals to significant numbers of people. Even when canned foods began to be produced in smaller volumes, they were not widely popular with the majority of the population. That was due in part to the perception that canned foods were appropriate to the military and other large institutions. The other impediment to their widespread use until the middle of the nineteenth century was how difficult the cans were to open. It was typical to use a hammer and chisel to open those large, heavy cans. Canned foods would not become popular with the wider population until specialized devices for opening tin cans were introduced after 1850. The first patent for a specialized can opener was granted to Robert Yeats, a cutler and surgical instrument maker of Trafalgar Place West, Hackney Road, London, in 1855.
Though canned foods were not widely used among the general population during the Regency, they were certainly known. Before the Napoleonic Wars came to an end, many British soldiers and sailors enjoyed meals made from canned foods. In the majority of cases, they were probably glad to have them. They no doubt wrote to their family and friends about such meals, and probably shared stories about this new technology for preserving food when they returned home. A number of civilian ships from various nations which docked in British ports on the southern coast, after the spring of 1813, almost certainly purchased canned goods from the agents of the firm of Donkin, Hall and Gamble. It is also possible that public houses and other institutions, particularly in the greater London area or along the southern coast, which provided meals to large numbers of people, may well have purchased at least some canned foods to supplement their fresh provisions. Canned foods do not seem to have been widely used in private homes during the Regency, particularly the homes of the upper classes, who would have considered them quite unacceptable since they were primarily used to feed military men and the lower classes. It must be noted that Sir John Franklin took a large quantity of canned foods with him on his last expedition to find the Northwest Passage, in 1845. When some of the bodies of the members of that exhibition were found, more than a century after they died, it was discovered that some of them were suffering from lead poisoning. Initially, that poisoning was blamed on the solder used to seal the tins of canned food which they had taken with them. However, it has since been determined that those men were more likely poisoned by the water which ran though the lead pipes on their ships, rather than the canned foods which they ate.
Dear Regency Authors, might canned foods be served up in a future romance? Perhaps characters on board Royal Navy ships or in the British Army might be very glad to have meals made from canned foods while they are fighting Napoleon. Perhaps one of these characters, the owner of a large estate, develops a fondness for meals made from tinned meat. Might he then purchase canned foods from the firm of Donkin, Hall and Gamble, and require his cook to prepare meals from them? How will his family react? Or might one or more characters might invest in the Blue Anchor Lane canning factory in Bermondsey? While the war on the Continent raged, the firm of Donkin, Hall and Gamble did very well with their canning factory. But after Waterloo, once the war was over, military demand for canned foods dropped, for a time, though it did recover. How might that affect the fortunes of the characters who have invested in the firm? Then again, might one or more characters be working in the Bermondsey cannery? Will they be rank and file workers or someone in management? Could John Hall, Bryan Donkin and/or John Gamble make an appearance in a Regency romance as historical figures who have established the first food cannery in Great Britain? How else might canned foods or the factory in which they were produced serve the plot of a Regency romance?