FIVE FINDS--On the Road from Clay to China


FOOD is a daily need of man. The cave man had to have food to keep himself alive just as we of to-day need a constant supply of food to keep ourselves alive. Many of the most interesting stories of human life center about this great food business in which all mankind is so busily engaged all the time. Some of these stories belong with trade and commerce, others with exploration, with industry, and with the history of separate peoples.

At first man had to be always on the move to find his food. He ate berries, fruits, herbs, grains, and the roots of plants, and then moved on to fresh fields where he would find more. He stayed for a time in one hunting ground, then passed on to another.

Then came the wonderful day when he learned that if he planted a seed he would get a harvest. All over the world in those long-ago days there must have been among each of the peoples someone who watched the calendar of the months as the moon came and went, and who tried for the first time the experiment of putting in the ground one of the seeds which they had been eating for food to see if it would grow and bring forth a harvest. A Malay chief tells how in his tribe the people used to live on the fruits of the jungle. At first they ate the fruit in small shelters which were set up near the spot where it was gathered. But it was noticed that many fruit trees sprang up near these shelters. So they decided to carry the fruit a little distance before eating it. Every year, after they found out that fruit trees came up where the stones or seeds of fruit were dropped, they carried the seeds farther away and dropped them in different places, until at last they had fruit orchards all over the region where they lived.

When the secret of seedtime and harvest was discovered, then man could stop wandering up and down the earth and stay in one place and cultivate the land for food. Sooner or later most of the tribes found this out and settled down.

Man’s food needs are the occasion for his creation of pottery—of dishes to hold water, of dishes for cooking, of dishes for keeping food from meal to meal, and finally of dishes for serving food. With the interest in food service comes the change from heavy earthenware to thin, translucent china. Families sit about a common table and eat together, first out of a common dish and then with individual dishes.

Meanwhile there has been progress in another part of the food business. Man has compassed the earth with his railroads and ships. He can carry food from north to south and from east to west around the whole globe. But food to be carried over long distances or kept for long times must have more than a hand-to-mouth term of preservation. It must be kept sweet and sound and fresh. The sealed tin can meets that need. By its means the food cycle is completed.

At first man had to move frequently to find food; hence the great migrations. Then he learned to raise food at home; hence the great separate civilizations. Now he can carry food anywhere; hence our modern freedom of movement. The stories swing us around the whole circle. At first he had to move; then he could stay at home; now he can either move and take a variety of foods with him or sit at home and have the foods of all the world brought to his own table. In the stories of the Malay chief and his seeds, of the potter’s art and its effect on cooking and serving food, of the alchemist and his discovery, and of the French Scientist who won a prize we see how these things came about.

On the Road from Clay to China

There are some stories which might be told of every tribe on the face of the earth during those early days when man was learning about the wonderful world in which he lived and the treasures which awaited his finding them out. One such set of stories is of the earth beneath his feet.

The earliest cave man must have noticed that in some places the earth was dark and rich and fertile, in others rocky, and in others sandy. Somewhere in each locality where a tribe of men lived—perhaps on the bank of a river, perhaps in the dry bed of a stream or in a hollow near their dwellings—men took note of a sticky kind of earth in which footprints left a mark that hardened in the sun. It may have been a man or a woman, or a child making mud pies after the immemorial fashion of children at play, who first took wet clay and patted it into a flat disk or a chunk with a ho!low in it, and then came back to find that the disk or the hollow lump was no longer soft and sticky but had hardened into the shape which it had been given. Whatever the way in which this discovery was made, it came about that every tribe of which we have any knowledge made in early times its own rude vessels and solid bricks out of clay. Pottery, which is the art of shaping clay into useful and beautiful objects, is the oldest and most widespread of the arts.

The story of man’s increasing knowledge of this wonder-earth beneath his feet and of his increasing skill in the use of it lies in the story of five lucky finds, five discoveries which were made at some time in the history of each people by some member of the tribe. These finds may have been made in quick succession in some tribes; in others they would be made at intervals of one hundred, five hundred, or even a thousand years. But each discovery had to be made afresh in each tribe by some clever and industrious person, before it was put into common practice by all the workers in clay.

The first find would be that a certain kind of earth was really a clay, which was very soft when it was moist and very hard when it was dry, and that a mark made in it when it was soft would stay in it as it hardened in drying.

The second find would be that a dish could be made by laying strips of this clay one upon another, and leaving it in the sun to harden. The making of a dish was really a great moment in the life of a people, though they would not know it at first as such. A dish that would hold water and keep its shape when swung over a fire or buried in a fire pit made real cooking possible. No longer was it necessary to scorch meat over a hot fire by hanging it on sticks, or dry it by burying it in an oven. No longer was it needful to pound grain to a pulp so that it could be swallowed. The magic of fire could be turned to good use in the preparation of food, when once there was a fireproof dish or pot or kettle to hold the food.

The third find would probably be that if this clay was mixed with sand or some other substance it would harden more firmly. While this would be convenient in the making of dishes, it would be even more important in the making of bricks for house building. Do you remember in the story of Moses how the people of Israel complained that they could not make bricks without straw? Straw served the same purpose as sand in giving firmness to the clay brick. In Egypt, in Mexico, in the southern part of the United States, everywhere in the tropics where clay beds are to be found, there are huts or adobes made of sun-dried bricks. The first bricks are worth our notice as an important stage in man’s life, since they made possible so great a gain in the kind of house in which he dwelt.

After fire came into common use, it happened on some occasion that a roughly shaped dish or a crude brick was left near a fire. That dish or brick was found next day to be hardened as no sun-dried piece of clay had ever hardened. It was as firm and solid as a piece of rock. No water would soak through it; no pressure crumbled it. Fire-baked clay was the fourth great find in the history of pottery. It was a long time before people learned fully the arts of firing their dishes. They built kilns, which were ovens shaped often like beehives, into which they could put a fire which would burn slowly and steadily for hours or days. Then they experimented as to just how much heat was best for each kind of mixture, and how long each variety of clay should stay in the kiln. But this secret of fire-baked clay is at the basis of all pottery and brick making—of all china dishes, all beautiful vases, all brick and cement buildings, of thousands upon thousands of objects which make up our modern civilization.

The fifth find came very much later than these primitive discoveries of which we have been told. It was first made in China. The Chinese are a race with a very long history. Long before people in our parts of the world were enjoying the comforts of civilized life, the Chinese were making some of the greatest discoveries of the world. They were among the earliest potters and the most successful. While other peoples were making simple sun-dried vessels, the Chinese were experimenting with the firing of various kinds of clay. They first located and made use of the very pure white clay known by the Chinese name kaolin, which is used to-day in the making of fine porcelain, a clay which gives to the resulting earthenware a transparency or translucency not unlike that of glass. From this kaolin came the beautiful porcelain or china which gained its name from its first makers, the Chinese. Of the way in which this Oriental china was studied and copied in Europe in the Middle Ages we must have a separate story, for that is a true tale of an alchemist’s apprentice, of the search for gold, of life in a stone fortress, and of a powdered wig.

Before we come to this last story of china, there is an old story of the kindred art of glass making which is told by Pliny, a Roman writer who lived in the first century A. D. This is the story of a sailor’s find.

A Roman merchant ship was making its way across the Mediterranean Sea with a cargo of natron, which was a mineral powder in crystal form which the ancients used as a washing and bleaching powder. As they sailed along, some adverse wind or unexpected weather condition drove them ashore on a beach of fine white sand at the mouth of a river in Syria. The crew lighted a fire on the sand to cook their food and happened, in the absence of rocks, to use lumps of natron from the cargo to prop up their kettle. What was their surprise to find a stream of transparent molten glass running down from their camp fire to the water! The sailors had landed on a beach of sand powdered by wind and weather from some one of those minerals which are used in making glass. The heat of the fire and the addition of natron, making a mixture that melted at a low heat, had given the surprising result. We may well believe that the sailors took home some of that sand as an addition to their cargo.

This is only one story of glass making, from many which might be told. It shows how in one part of the world and another the properties of different substances were being found out by one group of people here and one group there. If they had been in touch with one another, as all nations are to-day, and if they had trusted one another with their secrets, civilization might have come many hundred years earlier. But those were the days before the art of printing made the exchange of knowledge a simple matter, days of separate peoples shut off from one another by oceans crossed only by small sailing vessels, or deserts and mountains unspanned by railroads. They were the days when each country feared every other people. A great moment of discovery in science might come in one country, and might be held with the strictest secrecy from every other. So it was with the art of making china.


There was trouble in the royal palace in Saxony. The Elector, Augustus the Strong as they called him, was angry, and when Augustus was angry he did not keep it to himself. He let his ill temper be felt by all with whom he came in touch from the serving man who brought in his wooden trencher to the groom who held the stirrup of his horse. Nothing in the household was too small to escape the Elector’s vigilance, no slip too unimportant to incur his displeasure when he was in such a mood.

"When did it begin?" whispered Otto the serving man to Ulrich the esquire in waiting, as Augustus threw down his trencher and strode angrily from the dining hall declaring that the bounteous repast of boar’s meat, of which he had partaken heartily and with apparent relish, was not fit for the pigs in the courtyard. "All was well when he came back from Poland yester eve."

"Mayhap it is some matter of state," said Ulrich. "They say he will be King of Poland if matters go on there among the nobles as they are going now."

"He went into the secret workshop this morning," volunteered a page who was listening to their talk.

"Ah! is that it?" said Ulrich. "There is magic in that place. A visit thither bodes no good."

"What are they doing there?" asked the page curiously. "I see queer-shaped flasks and heavy jars being carried in, and none may ever ask what comes out, or so much as peer through the guarded doors to see what is going on there."

"Speak not so loud, my lad," said Ulrich sharply, "and cease to hang around the drawbridge that leads to that tower if you value your service here. Better to keep eyes and ears closed where the powers of darkness are at work."

"Nay, speak not so," said Otto, smiling at the frightened page. "What surer way to drive any lad of spirit straight to the devil himself than to tell him to go about with eyes and ears closed lest he see him? Herr Boettger is no prince of darkness to cast a spell on thee, boy. But his business is his own and that of Duke Augustus, and they do not desire curious or prying mischief-makers to be putting their noses into it."

"But they say Herr Boettger is a wizard," burst forth the lad in all excitement, "and that when he was an apothecary’s apprentice in Berlin, he studied under no less a master than the Greek monk Lascaris himself, the magician."

"There, Otto, you see what you get," said Ulrich. "The boy’s ears have been filled with tales already, and he knows full well that the wicked arts of alchemy are being practised in yon tower. Talk about it if you will, and if you dare; but as for me I believe that the very walls have ears where the powers of evil are concerned." And Ulrich strode off in disgust to be about his duties.

"But, Otto, kind, good Otto," cried the boy, "tell me more of this, for you know I am new to the castle, and you are so wise and have been here so long."

"Aye, lad, I was here when young Boettger came as a lad of sixteen to place himself under the protection of our noble Elector Augustus."

"But why did he flee, and whence came he?" questioned the lad.

"He fled from Berlin where he was indeed, as you say, an apothecary’s apprentice, but had happened on some secret in his study of alchemy with the great master Lascaris which put them all in danger. Some said they were on the point of finding the philosopher’s stone itself, and that the greedy duke under whose patronage they worked sought to imprison them all, lest they reveal the secret, when they found it, to another rather than to him."

"The philosopher’s stone," whispered the page, looking at Otto with eyes wide open with wonder; "the stone by which they may turn into gold anything they touch?"

"Aye, the very same," said Otto, "and right glad was our lord Augustus to harbor a brilliant young alchemist who might have or happen on that secret any day."

"And has he found it?"

"Nay, methinks that is why our lord Augustus comes forth from the workshop angry. The Elector has done what he could. Fearing that no lad of sixteen years could master any such secret alone, he brought hither the wise Herr Walther von Tschirnhaus, a master in alchemy and all the lore of books, and together they worked for many years and brought out nothing from their workshop to show for their toil but some red clay dishes. At least, that was all that ever I saw. Pretty enough they were, if you cared for color in your dishes, and the master was so proud of them that he sent them down to the fair at Leipzig, where they made a great stir, I am told. But for a man that is seeking a magic that will turn all the baser metals into gold to bring forth nothing better than red dishes, when all the world knows that food is food whether it be eaten off wooden trenchers or common earthenware bowls or fancy red ones-no wonder the master is angry, I say."

"But where is this Herr Walther? I have never seen him," said the lad.

"Nay, he died these two months past," replied Otto, "and that is why it bodes ill for Herr Boettger if he find not some secret soon, as our master’s black looks on this very day would seem to show. But come, lad, we must be about our duties and not stand gossiping like two old wives. Yet I like not to have thee frightened by friend Ulrich, who thinks as do many in the castle that the very prince of devils dwells in the tower and comes forth at the call of our neighbor Boettger."

Otto went his way, but the troubles of that morning were not over, for no sooner had the young page swept out the dusty rushes on the floor than the door burst open and in rushed the master alchemist himself, Herr Boettger, who so rarely came out from his tower. Like the Elector an hour earlier, he was in a towering rage. He strode along waving the powdered wig which usually covered and gave dignity to his long, narrow head, and calling loudly for the valet who had powdered it.

"Could I take it to him, sir, if it is not right?" asked the page timidly.

"Take it?" shouted the man angrily, as he clutched the wig more tightly. "Do you suppose I would let you take it? Where is he? Where is the powder he used? I will not let it go out of my hands a minute till I find that wretched fellow and get his secret from him."

With the precious wig clutched in his hand, and his own locks in wild confusion from the haste in which he had pulled off the wig, he rushed out of the hall, leaving the lad to his sweeping.

"Truly I know not whether, it is Ulrich or Otto that is right," the lad murmured, crossing himself as he spoke. "Herr Boettger looked the madman at this moment, as if the powers of darkness were pursuing him—and all because he did not like the way his wig was powdered."

We who are permitted to cross the drawbridge and enter the workshop in the tower where all this mystery began will soon find out that it is not because Herr Boettger did not like the way his wig was powdered that he was searching madly for his valet, but because he liked it uncommon well. At the moment he wanted more than he had wanted anything for many a day some of the precious powder which he had found so unexpectedly in his wig.

Otto’s story was right as far as it went, but by his own admission he had never crossed that draw bridge or known except by hearsay of what went on there. Like all alchemists Boettger and his associate Walther von Tschirnhaus had sought the secret of the philosopher’s stone which should turn all metals into gold. But the Elector Augustus was more than a seeker after such a will-o’-the-wisp as that had proved to be. He was a practical man, as well as a man of culture. Living as he did in the period of exploration and travel around the year 1700, he was keenly interested in all that other far-off nations were doing in the practice of the arts. In his early life he had collected arms and armor from all the countries of Europe and the lands that bordered the Mediterranean Sea. His next enthusiasm had been for silverware and jewelry, of which he had a rare and beautiful collection. Both of these collections, or such of them as remain, may be seen to this day in the museums of Saxony, where they are among the chief treasures exhibited. About the time when Boettger fled to him for protection and patronage, he had become greatly interested in the beautiful chinaware that was being brought by Dutch traders to Europe from the distant lands of China and Japan.

In Europe in the year 1700 there was salt-glazed stoneware for common use, and there was also a pottery glazed with lead. For the tables of the rich there was a kind of ware which was coated with an enamel. But all these kinds of pottery were like the silver plate of to-day. They were of one ware underneath with a coating of another. If the coating wore off, as it did with time and wear, the paste or earthenware beneath was common and porous. A stain of greasy water that went through the enamel at a place where it was chipped would spread around the hole and make an ugly spot.

The sets of dishes from China were clear and beautiful. One could hold them up to the light and see that they were all of one material. They were thin and delicate, too. To a collector like Augustus they were a treasure to be bought at almost any price and appreciated for their beauty and fine workmanship. So fond of them did he become that he once turned over to the King of Prussia a company of his own soldiers, tall, well trained Saxon dragoons, in exchange for one hundred pieces of rare Oriental pottery which that king had collected.

At first Augustus was satisfied to collect pottery from abroad. But by the time Boettger was established in his laboratory at the castle, there had come to the Elector the ambition to have pottery like this made under his own patronage. Why should the Chinese be able to make this beautiful ware, while Europeans with their skilled artisans and alchemists produced only glazed or enameled. earthenware? He put the problem to his young alchemist, and the result had been in 1707 the red porcelain shown at the Leipzig fair, made from a clay which Von Tschirnhaus had found in the neighborhood of Dresden, a beautiful ware which was far in advance of anything that had been produced in Germany up to that time, but still not the translucent white pottery of China. Boettger had grown weary of his royal master’s demands after he had succeeded in making this red porcelain and had sought to escape from Saxony and set up a factory under some less exacting patron. But Augustus had brought him to the old castle where he himself dwelt and placed him in this tower where, though Otto and Ulrich knew it not, he was practically held prisoner until he should bring forth a pottery like the wonderful white ware from China. Such was the true state of affairs up to the day of our story.

Although they had sought far and wide, Boettger and his patron had been unable to find any clay from which a white porcelain could be produced. On this particular morning the alchemist had put on his wig absent-mindedly and gone about his work. But his head felt heavy and dull, and at last it occurred to him that his wig was heavier than usual. He took it off to see what the trouble was and found that a white mineral the like of which he had never seen had been substituted for the usual starch.

When Boettger had hunted down his valet and demanded the secret of the powder, the frightened servant told him that he had meant no harm in the change. A man by the name of Schnorr had found a bed of this clay-powder near the village of Aue and had sold it, claiming that it would give a purer white to the wigs with which it was powdered and would last longer than the usual starch. Boettger, as you will have guessed, had recognized that the powder was in all probability the long-sought kaolin of which travelers in China had brought back reports.

Following that morning’s discovery Boettger went to visit the clay bed and purchased it for the Elector. From its clay he was able to make as perfect a paste as that produced by the Chinese. In 1710 there were on view at the Leipzig fair, not only dishes of the red porcelain, but a few specimens of beautiful white porcelain "made by Johann Friedrich Boettger, under the patronage of Augustus First, Elector of Saxony."

The next year the Meissen porcelain works were set up at Meissen Castle near Aue and Dresden, and the making of the world-famous Dresden china was begun. Poor Boettger did not have a particularly happy time with his discovery. The Elector, who was by this time also King of Poland, was as secretive about his china making as he had been about his gold, or as the Chinese were with their wares. Workmen engaged in the work were imprisoned in the castle and sworn to keep the secrets of the craft "till the tomb should seal them." Boettger himself was virtually a prisoner while he supervised the factory and pursued, along with his studies in china making, the secret of gold making. By 1716 he had perfected the art of porcelain, so that his dishes were technically as perfect as those of the Chinese. In 1719 he died at the age of thirty-four. Lumps of his alchemist’s gold, which he would have considered his greatest labor, are shown to-day in the museums of Dresden alongside of his chinaware. One wonders whether he had any sense of the importance to the whole Western world of his discovery.

The later Middle Ages were transformed by these discoveries. Once for all Boettger solved the great problem of the making of a hard, white, translucent porcelain. His china stands to-day as the type from which all our china is produced. Kaolin beds were found in Limoges, France, by the similar accident of a woman’s finding a white powder clinging to the roots of plants pulled up in her garden; and the manufacture of china which continues to this day was begun there. From the setting up of these two centers date the changes which have come in the daily service of food, as the old wooden trenchers and earthenware or stone platters, into which all dipped their fingers for food, were replaced by individual china sets for service.

And the beginning of it all was with an alchemist’s apprentice who was seeking for gold and with a wig that was sprinkled with a new kind of powder.


A humble servant of mankind is the tin can. We destroy it in the opening and cast it aside without a look of respect or a thought of gratitude for its services. Yet the great Napoleon was so eager for an article which should perform in some slight measure the services it renders that he and the French Government offered in the year 1800 or thereabouts a prize of 12,000 francs to the man who should invent a successful container for preserving foods in wartime.

The process of seedtime and harvest, which our earliest forefathers learned to recognize, is one of the great benefits to mankind; but it also puts on him certain duties and cares. Man as he lives in the temperate zones does not have, with his best efforts at agriculture, a perpetual table spread before him. He must have daily bread; but the fruits and grains and other products of the earth come only at certain seasons. As the squirrel stores away nuts in the hollow of a tree, in forecast of the time when there will be no food at hand, so man must preserve the products of the season of plenty for his use in the lean seasons of the year.

The oldest method of food preservation is drying. Our own ancestors in this country found the Indians practising the age-long customs of drying corn, fish, fruit, and meat to keep them from decay. Another means of keeping food is to chill it, a method which can be practised only in climates where food can be kept cold in water, by ice, or in shafts sunk deep in the earth. The opposite method of food preservation is by heat. When the earliest cooks found that cooked meat kept longer than the same meat when left raw, they had made the first of the chain of discoveries which leads us to the omnipresent tin can of to-day.

The secret of the success of the tin can is that the food in it is tightly sealed. The advantage of sealing food is not a recent discovery. On the island of Crete, in the Mediterranean Sea, there are ruins of an ancient palace, dating from 1500 to 2000 B. C., in the cool underground galleries of which are found great earthenware jars where food was stored and sealed from the air. But for skill and success in the canning and sealing of food, so that it will keep for long periods, we must wait till the period of the Napoleonic wars in France when even the government—and a government is always slow to risk money on inventions of uncertain public benefit—thought it worth while to offer a prize for a successful method of preserving foodstuffs by canning.

Twelve thousand francs was a large sum in those days of the turn of the century. The confectioners and brewers and distillers went to work with all haste and diligence to see if they could win it. The prize went after a dozen or fifteen years to François Appert, a confectioner, who had worked all his life on this problem.

Perhaps it was the rumor of Appert’s successes which set Napoleon and his councillors to thinking about the worth of such a scheme if it could be made successful. At any rate, the prize was offered, and Appert kept on with his patient work until he could offer the proof of his success and gain in the year 1810 the reward. Even then he turned the money right back into his invention, still testing and experimenting for better ways, until for all the twelve thousand francs which had seemed so large a sum when it was offered he died in poverty and discouragement a few years later.

Fortunately for us who are interested in his successes, the French Government published for him at the time of the award a book setting forth in detail his experiments and results, so that we are able to know more than we sometimes do of this early process. It proves to be exactly the same process which is used in our gigantic twentieth-century enterprise of canning goods to be carried all around the world and to be kept if need be for months and years without danger of change or decay.

François Appert did not have the convenient tin can in which to seal his goods. He packed all sorts of food in glass or china containers, poured in sufficient water to cover them, corked and sealed them and then placed them in a bath of water which was gradually heated to the boiling point, keeping them in this bath for varying lengths of time. Perhaps you are saying that there is nothing new or surprising about that, for which any reward should be offered. It is probably done in your own kitchen every fall when the fresh fruits come in and are canned for the winter. No, it is not new or surprising now; it is the common and accepted method. But this is the twentieth century, and our French scientist was working in his laboratory in 1800. It is because Appert worked out this process so patiently and thoroughly in his workroom that we of to-day can do it so easily and naturally in our kitchens. The tests took a long time, for different temperatures and methods had to be worked out. Then the jars must be left closed for months or years to prove the success or failure of each separate method. But by the time a dozen years had passed Appert had learned the best ways and was able to show many kinds of food which had been put away long before and yet came out as sweet and good as when they were placed in the jar.

Appert saw that the success of his results depended on the complete shutting out of air. He reasoned, as did all scientists of his time, that air must cause the decay of fruits and vegetables. His process was right; but it was fifty years before the famous French scientist, Louis Pasteur, made his remarkable and epoch-making discovery that it was not the air which made the trouble but the tiny living organisms which lived in the air. Appert had done the thing in the right and only way, but he had explained it wrongly. The result was the same so far as the success of the canning went, for the food was preserved. But the greater scientist, Pasteur, in explaining the laws that governed the growth of bacteria and germs, revolutionized medical science and brought in a new era of intelligent and scientific food preservation, for which Appert with his clever methods was the forerunner. There is probably no greater day in human history than the one when Pasteur showed that changes which took place in foodstuffs when they were exposed to the air were due to the action of tiny forms of life. If these were removed by heat, and if air was shut out at the same time, the food would not decay until it was opened to the air and they were thus let in again. Pasteur was given a prize for this discovery in France in 1860. Yet it is only now that we are beginning to realize what a tremendous change his contributions made to the sum of human knowledge and to the methods of human life, from the pasteurizing of milk to the sterilizing of the surgeon’s instruments.

It is always interesting to see how two inventions each of which will help the other come along often at about the same time. While Appert was working with his glass and china jars, a mechanic by the name of Peter Durand was making the first tin containers across the Channel in England. His first tin can was shown in 1807. It was a crude affair, heavy, made by hand, and with a method of putting on the head which was both clumsy and unsanitary. But it was a tin can!

Appert’s process was patented by an Englishman within a year of its announcement in France. It was in England that our first American manufacturers learned the art of canning, and probably became acquainted at the same time with Durand’s tin can. They brought both promptly back to the United States. In 1819 Ezra Dagget and Thomas Kensett, both trained in England in their trade, began to can salmon, lobsters, and oysters in New York. In the following year two other men, Underwood and Mitchell, were canning fruits in Boston, and in their advertisements is found the first use of the word "canister" describing the sealed container in which the products could be purchased. This was shortly abbreviated with American speed to the name "can," and the enormous canning industry of the United States was launched. It is an industry which today involves millions of dollars and in which America leads the world.

It is not, however, because of the size of the industry or even because of the money in it that we pay our tribute to the tin can and its contents as worthy of a place in our list of important discoveries. The effect on the life of man has been far-reaching and epoch-making. So long as man depended on local and seasonal food, he was limited in his movements. He could dwell only in regions where there was a fairly constant supply of all the varieties of food needful for his continued health. He could travel and explore for only such distances as were permitted by his food supply. His cities could be only so large as was permitted by the capacity of the surrounding country for their feeding. All these conditions exist and have a considerable effect on man’s life to-day. But with the knowledge contributed by Pasteur and the practical method of applying it invented by Appert, both supplemented by American mechanical skill in turning out huge quantities of tin cans at low cost and of preparing foods in quantity, man’s freedom of movement has been vastly extended.

It is no accident that in our day a war has been fought across the ocean, hundreds of miles from the base of supplies. Napoleon would have thought himself able to conquer and hold indefinitely the control of the world if he could have been sure that his armies could be fed at a distance from their native fields of supply. Columbus was limited in the range of his voyages by the amount of food he could carry in the hold of his vessel. The great explorers were hampered in their early expeditions by the way their men fell sick if they did not have fresh food. Read the story of early voyages and see how men died of scurvy. Peary, Amundsen, and Scott have been able to fulfill the dream of centuries and reach the poles of the earth because they could carry in the tin can sealed and condensed foods which would sustain them to their journey’s end. "Canning," it has been said, "more than any other invention since the discovery of steam, has made possible the building up of towns and communities beyond the bounds of varied production."

Will you not join in paying tribute to that humble servant of mankind, the tin can with its varied contents?


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© 2001, by Lynn Waterman