Notes from the LReclusa: Larry Seth Steinberg
Dayton, Nevada
A Handy History of Canning for the Re-enactor;
or Cans in a Nut Shell for Nuts


We in the Desert West, as Jess Jennings called it, are fortunate that a lack of moisture has left us with numerous ("tins") cans littering historical sites that we examine. Archaeologists use these tins to help date the time period; that is great news in Nevada archaeology, for the first English-speaking expeditions didn't come through until John C. Fremont in 1844. Fremont, the map-maker & scout could have brought canned goods with him, if he wanted. Tins first started leaving Gt. Britain, in significant numbers, about 1835 and continued to be shipped into the United & Confederate States until domestic American production began to expand greatly circa 1890. [Encycl Britannica, Vol. 26]

As better and faster methods of can production emerged, the "new" replaced the earlier styles of cans (I use "tins" and "cans" interchangeably). The general methods for early canning was the same: the early styles of cans had a large hole in which the contents could be stuffed or poured, and a small hole that was sealed, at the end of the process, with a tiny dot of solder.

"The canister, which has been made either by the use of solder or by folding machinery only, is packed with the material to be preserved...the lid is secured by soldering or folding. Sterilization is effected by placing the tins in pressure chambers, which are heated by steam to 120C or more...Sometimes a small aperture is pierced through the lid, to allow the escape of the expanding air, such holes before cooling closed by means of a drop of solder." [Encyc Brit., Vol. 10]

One of the more famous of the earliest canned goods was Borden's Condensed Milk. The red/white can of today is little changed in size & contents from the Walcottsville, Conn., 1856 variety. The solder seal can was used 1856-1910; the sanitary can (folded seams only) replaced it in 1910 and continues today. You may be able to find an empty one on a back wall or ledge somewhere, examine it for a "dot of solder seal".

Time Line
c. 1810-1890s

Iron and tin cans were patented in England by de Heine and Durand. The "hole-in-the-top" can was cut from tin plated sheet metal by hand or foot powered shears.nThe body was formed around a cylindrical anvil and the seams soldered. The tops and bottoms were separate pieces that were hand soldered to the body. These earliest of cans may display solder at the seams in excess of 1/8 in height. The hole left in the top was for the contents to be added to the empty can. After the food stuffs were jammed in, a smaller metal cap, or disc, was set into the main opening and soldered into place. The construction left a tiny pinhole open in the center of this disc. The can was heated to temperature; when the contents let for steam the final pinhole was soldered shut by one final droplet of solder

1818 US

The US Patent Office grants a patent to Peter Durand for the tin plated canister.

1819 US

Daggett and Kensett start the canning of fish in NY. Underwood begins the canning of fruit and vegetables in Boston The cans display embossed label in the metal.

1825 US

An improved tin canister method is patented by Thomas Kensett, Sr. of NY for "preserving animal, vegetable, and other perishable foods."

1830s US

An embossed label tin box is used by the biscuit makers Huntley and Palmers to contain their merchandise. The Walker Co. begins the sale of their matches in tin containers to seal the matches from moisture contamination.

1834-1890s England-US

The "major" source of US tinned goods originate in England.


A major rise in glass prices, associated with the monetary panic of the time, makes the economy of "tins" more attractive. Daggett and Kensett change from glass to tins: Underwood also makes a large shift to can use.

1839-1841 US

Lobster meat is first packed in tin canisters in 1839; by 1841 the use of glass containers for lobster is virtually nil. "Tinned" lobster has supplanted glass-pack.

1839 US

Underhill and Kensett of Baltimore switch their shipping containers from glass to tinned sheet metal cans. In popularity, the items tinned in this time period are: oysters, lobster, and salmon.

1840 US-Canada

The first tin packing of coffee appears to have been started in 1840. Tristam Holliday of St. John, New Brunswick, canada, founds a lobster and salmon cannery at that location. Mssrs. Treat, Mitchell, and Noble establish a canning factory for lobster and salmon at Eastport, Maine.

1841 US

Hermetically sealed canisters are use to process oysters in Baltimore, Md.

1845 US

Canned meat begins to claim a portion of the "tinned goods" industry. In Boston, Underwood begins the canning of meat; Lewis & Co., Portland, Maine and Treat, Noble & Co. of Eastport, Maine add meat to their repertoire.

An Early Recipe for Reusing Tin Cans

This selection is taken from an old book which was found sans cover and title page in a number of volumes dated in the 1870s. I offer it up as a period method of, probably, reusing early tins. If the fruit mentioned in the recipe is prepared in a heavy sugar solution, or something similar, to preserve the contents, then an unheated canning might be possible. (From) Dr. Chase's Recipe's (Date and Publisher not known) 2. Cement for Tin Cans.-- Into a small saucepan-- block tin is best-- put 1 lb. of rosin, 1/4 lb. of gum-shellac and 2 oz. of beeswax. Melt this and mix well with an old spoon-- both spoon and saucepan must be devoted to the purpose, for they will be useless for all others. When the cans are ready for sealing, pour a fine stream of hot cement from the spoon into the groove as directed. It is better to fill it only half full, and when the cans are finished, give each one an additional coating. Stick labels on the can with this wax while it is hot. In opening them, crack the wax, and with a pair of scissors or claw, loosen a portion of it. Brush off the dust; pry up the lid, and the balance of the wax will come off easily. Be careful that none of it falls into the fruit. Put the scraps of wax into the saucepan, and it will help towards sealing next seasons cans.-- Mrs. L. V. M. A., Morrisonville, Ill. in Prairie Farm