The history of preserving food at home

Understanding how home food preservation came to be provides foundations still in place today.

Photo: Flickr/Colorado State University.

Preserving food at home continues to be a very popular area of interest. Educators and home food preservers witnessed this enormous interest in home food preservation in 2020, when the lack of canning supplies like jar lids and canners became a reality. As more consumers preserve food at home, let’s look back at the origins of home food preservation.

According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation: “Food begins to spoil the moment it is harvested. To survive, our early ancestors had to find a way to make that food last through the cold months. In frozen climates, they froze meat on the ice; in tropical climates, they dried foods in the sun. These early methods of food preservation enabled ancient man to put down roots and form communities. They no longer had to consume the kill or harvest immediately but could preserve some for later.”

Preserving food by freezing was a method that worked in cold areas with freezing temperatures. Eventually the creation of icehouses to store ice and food occurred and then transformed into iceboxes. Further advancements in freezing food occurred in the late 1800s, when Clarence Birdseye discovered that frozen meats and vegetables tasted better when frozen quickly at very low temperatures.

Canning is the newest of the home food preservations methods. When processing foods by canning, a vacuum seal is created in the canning jar after proper processing with high temperatures and cooling afterward. The goal of a home canning method is to both destroys microorganisms and inactivates enzymes present in the food. When foods are properly canned, the vacuum seal prevents microorganisms from entering the jar and potentially contaminating the food inside.

The National Center for Home Food Preservation also explains that “Canning was pioneered in the 1790s by the Frenchman Nicolas Appert. He discovered that the application of heat to food in sealed glass bottles preserved the food from spoilage. In 1795, Napoleon offered an award of 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a new method for food preservation. Appert won the award in 1809. Appert had found a new and successful method to preserve foods, but he did not fully understand it. He thought that the exclusion of air was responsible for the preservations. It was not until 1864 when Louis Pasteur discovered the relationship between microorganisms and food spoilage that it became clear. Just prior to Pasteur’s discovery, Raymond Chevalier-Appert patented the pressure retort (canner) to can at temperatures higher than 212 [degrees Fahrenheit]. However, not until the 1920s was the significance of this method known in relation to the prevention of botulism in low-acid foods.”

Other notable achievements which pushed home food preservation forward and are documented by the United States Department of Agriculture were in 1812 when Robert Ayars opened the first American cannery and in 1858 when John L. Mason patents the Mason jar.  These two achievements led the way for other inventions for the home food preserver, such as the manufacture of glass jars for home canning (1884 by Ball) and a home canning supply business (1903). The patent of the two-piece disposable metal canning lid by Alexander H. Kerr in 1915 was a significant step in home canning processes still used today.

The popularity of home food preservation continues, yet the risks of botulism remain the same today as years ago if unsafe methods are being used. Now is the perfect time to learn more about safely preserving food at home, from the comfort of your own home. Join MSU Extension for free online home food preservation classes.  Whether you are a new or experienced home food preserver or somewhere in between, our classes provide valuable, current research-based information allowing you to prepare safe, home-preserved food for you and your family.

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