Celebrating the can: 200 years of history preserved

A Schlitz “Tall Boy” can from the 1960s, dug from Smithsonian storage by Peter Liebhold, dwarfs a modern can of Coca-Cola. Wednesday is the 200th birthday of the humble can, which revolutionized the way we eat.

A Schlitz “Tall Boy” can from the 1960s, dug from Smithsonian storage by Peter Liebhold, dwarfs a modern can of Coca-Cola. Wednesday is the 200th birthday of the humble can, which revolutionized the way we eat.

The march of Western civilization and the prosperity of the United States have partly hinged on the quiet little object behind those boxes of pricey whole-grain rotini pasta on the third shelf of your cupboard.

The object is cylindrical and silver and wrapped in a paper label. It is dusty. Its expiration date has passed.

“You think it’s still good?”

“I dunno. Open it. No, wait, don’t.”

Or do. Several years ago, on the 50th anniversary of his marriage, an Englishman in Denton ate a can of cooked chicken he received as a wedding present. His only complaint? It was “a little bit salty.”

Such is the power, the longevity, the simplicity, the overwhelming ordinariness of the can. Until food can be bought, cooked and consumed via iPhone, we will remain a container society, a canned civilization, preserved, pickled, hermetically sealed against the ravages of time.

This year marks the can’s 200th birthday.


Great moments in cans:

  1. A Frenchman named Nicolas Appert discovers a way to preserve soups, produce and dairy products in glass bottles using boiling water to force out air, and sealing the contents with cork, wire and wax. Other inventors soon adapt the process to tin cans, which are lighter, cheaper and more durable.
  2. A Delta Tau Chi fraternity brother named John Blutarsky methodically crushes several cans of beer on his forehead during the movie “Animal House,” causing generations of macho collegians to wound their brows (and pride) in copycat attempts.

Kick the can. Shoot it off a fence post with a BB gun. Put it under the grill to collect dripping grease. Construct a string telephone with it. Get 60 percent of your daily value of sodium from it. Get 5 cents for it (in NY, CA, ME, CT and VT). Puncture a hole in it and shotgun the beer. Make a purse out of pop tops.


Is there a sundry item more stackable, more actual, more sturdy and comforting and collectible and quintessentially consumerist?

Ho ho ho, Green Giant.

Anesthetize yourself with the implacable geometry of an aisle of cans in a grocery store, row after row of tin-plated plenty, peas and peaches and tamales and tuna and beans and beef. Curse quietly as a can tears through the dampened bottom of a paper bag just before you reach home.

The homeless man’s currency. The campfire companion. The makeshift ashtray. The symbol for an entire artistic movement: Campbell’s soup cans, repeated over and over in a red-and-white binary code of commercialism. Tomato. Chicken noodle. Consomme. The building blocks of American life for centuries now.

“People have been predicting the end of the can for years,” says Allan Sayers, founder and publisher of the Canmaker, a British-based magazine. “But if we’re talking about sustainability and green issues, the can wins hands down in all forms of packaging. I think the egg is the only thing that beats it.”


Fact: 130 billion cans are produced every year in the United States, a metal army rattling down conveyor belts, tumbling down vending machines, fueling football fans, littering riverfronts.

One imagines an extraterrestrial explorer picking over our decimated planet years from now, after we’ve vaporized one another, and slowly turning in its spindly claw a faded can of SpaghettiOs, which might still be perfectly delicious, if the alien visitor could only get the dang thing open.

Washington, of course, has a can lobbyist, and his name is Robert Budway. He’s president of the Can Manufacturers Institute. On his bookshelf is a squat can of Fray Bentos Chicken and Mushroom Pie that he bought in Europe because he liked the look of it. It expired in December 2006. He thinks it might still be good, but he’s not about to open it.

“I think it’s deep,” says Budway, of the allure of the can. “It’s an appreciation of where the technology has come from, and from what a can meant to people generations ago who drank from that container. It’s about heritage.”


On shelves near the break room are antique and novelty cans (Sioux City sarsaparilla, resealable seltzer) and industry periodicals (Aluminum Now, Waste News). Hanging on a lamp is the industry mascot, named Al the Can.

“Al” for aluminum. Get it?

“He has a little bit of edge to his personality,” says Jenny Day, the institute’s director of recycling, who dons the blue felt mascot costume for special events. “He’s dying to run with the presidents at the ballpark.”

The Smithsonian has a cache of antique cans locked away on an upper floor of the National Museum of American History. On a recent morning Peter Liebhold, chairman of the museum’s division of work and industry, slaps on blue latex gloves and hunts through the collection, divining evidence of a changing society can by can.

Buying a tin of W.H. Baker cocoa in 19th-century Winchester would’ve been a cheap way for members of the lower class to increase their caloric intake and, therefore, their health and energy. A can of California apricots by Bennett Sloan & Co. represents the rise of the American monoculture, in which canning and shipping allowed farmers to specialize rather than diversify.

“A can tells you so much for so many different reasons,” Liebhold says. “It allows us to look at ourselves as a consumer society — what are people buying when? When was the transition of eating certain fresh foods to certain packaged foods? How about aluminum versus steel? The transition from skilled labor to machinery? How are people being enticed by can designing to buy more?”

He finds a Schlitz “Tall Boy” from the 1960s, tucked in the back of the highest shelf, and his eyes light up.

“There’s no reason to have a beer this big other than to cop a buzz,” he says, admiring the purity of its design.

What if the can had never been invented?

What if gold prospectors relied solely on foraging on their treks out West? What if tinsmiths didn’t handcraft 35,000 cans a day for meats and condensed milk during the Civil War? What if Chef Boyardee and Hormel Spam didn’t nourish Patton’s armies, whose soldiers wore can openers around their necks in communion with their jangling dog tags? What if canned food had never freed the American homemaker from time-consuming dinner duties?

What if we had never gone from hunter-gatherers to farmers to shoppers?

Where would we be?

“We would be in really bad shape,” says John Floros, head of the department of food science at Pennsylvania State University. “You could argue that without food processing we wouldn’t have the advanced civilization we have today. In that context, the invention of the can and canning has truly helped society resolve major issues of hunger and diseases connected directly to lack of food or nutrients.”


You eat the contents of 85 cans of food a year and you don’t even know it.

Soon it will be chilly again, and you will get home from work late, and there will somehow be a can of soup on the third shelf of your cupboard, and you will be passively thankful as its contents plop into a pot — noodles, broth, chicken, vegetables, all ready to go, thanks to its packaging. It’s a small miracle, really, if you think about it too much.


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