Sometime around 1796 a 27-year-old French chef and confectioner named Nicolas Appert began messing about with glass bottles and jars and various foodstuffs to see if foods could be stored for weeks or even months.
It took a while, but eventually he succeeded. In 1810, he won a prize for his method and also published a book – The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances.
Since my date-in-history site gives Oct. 23 as his birthdate, I did some research and learned immediately that his birthday is probably Nov. 17, but never mind. He’s actually quite interesting. One wonders first of all what prompted his experiments and, second, what kept him pursuing his goal for more than ten years. Bottles and jars, after all, had no lids when he started. Sealing the containers required sealing wax and corks.
And how did he guess that boiling the filled bottles in hot water would make the food safe for human consumption? Appert developed his method almost a century before Louis Pasteur proved that heat killed bacteria.
If it was trial and error, did he sample the contents himself or feed them to the dog and wait to see if it fell over?
Appert opened the first food-bottling factory in a suburb of Paris and made comestibles available in wide-mouth glass jars. He preserved vegetables, fruits, beef, eggs, chicken and even once a whole sheep.
The Institute of Food Technology presents the Nicolas Appert Award for achievement in food technology each year and while most of the winners work in fairly esoteric areas of food science, it seems appropriate the award in 1955 went to Karl F. Meyer for his work on botulism. When home canning became popular during WWI, quite a few housewives were turning out some pretty lethal product. Meyer convinced the canning industry to fund research into canning safety and he spent many years developing safe procedures for both home and commercial canning.
Appert’s method was so simple that Peter Durand tried it immediately with tin cans and had great success, but tin can production was slow to catch on. It took another 40 years – until the can opener was invented – for mass production of tin cans. Before that, cans had to be opened with a hammer and chisel, considerably reducing the convenience factor.