Canned Foods and the Growth of Cities

Image of canned food from a 1919 magazine
Source: Wilson & Co. Advertisement in American Cookery (January, 1919)

In 1919, people felt a bit smug about how easy it was to have sufficient food during the long, cold winter months; and, were thankful that they didn’t live back in the “old” days when it was often challenging for people to have access to sufficient food during the winter.

I recently came across an article in a 1919 magazine that went so far as to claim modern cities were able to develop as a result of the availability of canned foods.

With the enormous increase in size and number of cities, during the past century, the problem of winter sustenance has assumed tremendous proportions. It has been met by elevating to the first place of importance a method of food preservation that had always been of least value – exclusion of air.

The tin can and the glass jar are inventions which made this possible, and without them, modern city life, if not actually out of the question, would have been vastly more difficult. If one will but try to conceive what his mid-winter menu would be like, stripped of all the articles that come to him in glass or tin, he will hardly question any estimate which we may feel inclined to make as to the importance of canned foods in the civilization of today.

With all due allowance for their undoubted benefits, however, the tin can and the glass jar have not shown themselves altogether free from reproach. They must shoulder full responsibility for the growth of the factory system of food production, which, at its best, fall short of being an unqualified boon to the consumer.

American Cookery (January, 1919)

28 thoughts on “Canned Foods and the Growth of Cities

  1. I tend to agree, at least in part, with the last sentence: “the factory system of food production… [may not be] an unqualified boon to the consumer.” As much as I like canned foods on the shelves, they aren’t always as healthful as the fresh stuff, but dupe me into thinking they are. Just saying…

  2. I hadn’t considered canned goods or food preservation as being a factor in city growth. But it makes sense to me. Folks rarely has the space to grow their own foods in a city, so they would be more dependant on canned goods. Thanks for sharing this interesting post.

    1. Like you, until I saw the old magazine article about it, I’d never thought about how people in cities were more dependent on canned food than their rural counterparts, but it makes sense.

  3. I could understand the point about the development of cities being dependent on the food supply, but I would never have thought of it on my own. As I read your quote, I longed to show the writer our frozen goods in the supermarket. She might come to the same conclusion, that it might not be an unqualified boon to the consumer. It’s fun to think about, anyway.

  4. I never thought about it like this, but now I’m thinking of my city grandparents eating mostly store bought and most likely canned food. I hope they at least had a good garden.

    1. People back then believed that they were so modern, and didn’t have a clue about what the future would hold when it came to foods and cooking. A lot has changed over the past hundred years.

  5. That last sentence certainly resonates in today’s world what foresight that author had…It is also interesting how city dwellers needed to rely on canned goods, as a country girl we had winter crops and salted/ preserved foods for the winter plus what was poached…haha,,,I love these flashbacks, Don’t stop Sheryl 🙂 x

  6. I’m not sure I buy the argument the author is making–after all, there were many large cities well before canning was invented (London had over 600,00 in 1750). I think city markets allowed people to purchase fresh food. Canning certainly made things more convenient, though.

    1. hmm. . . you may be right. Your argument makes a lot of sense to me. There have been large cities for a very long time – as well as markets and traders.

  7. My husband’s grandmother would take a child’s wagon and walk to a farmer’s market and few times a week to buy produce to can. She would take half bushel baskets with her that fit in the wagon. She grew up in the city and lived there all her life. In 1919 she would have been 20 years old. She would also buy off of farm wagons that would come to her street. I remember her telling me that she could order bushels of produce from the farm wagon and they would bring it to her door in a few days. She said it was cheaper to can then to buy it tin cans. She also said it tasted better to do it yourself and nice to have on hand in the bitter cold winter with less walking trips to the market.

    They did a lot more of that then we do today. It was just part of home making to store food.

    1. I love the description of your grandmother with the half bushel baskets in the wagon. It is such a wonderful vivid, word picture. It makes a lot of sense that she would buy the produce, and then can it herself. People back then took cooking (and preserving food for winter) seriously.

  8. I like the convenience of bought canned goods like mushrooms,or black olives but what I don’t grow I like to get from local farmers.. another good thing that canned goods do is when there’s an emergency, or a needy family without refrigeration.

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