Tasteful Inventions: Nicolas Appert: Father of Canning

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Nicolas Appert: Father of Canning

Two hundred and forty eight years ago today, a boy, who is now said to be the "Father of Canning," was born near Paris, France. Nicolas François Appert, was a son of an inn-keeper whose roots were firmly planted in farming. Nicolas had a uncanny sense of discovery. As a young boy, his family's farm provided the natural exploration he craved. Like their ancestors before them, Nicolas Appert and his eight siblings new life on the farm meant hard work. It also had its rewards, which young Nicolas learned quickly to preserve. Sadly, there isn't much information available about Appert's young life. I did find the following information at the French version of wikipedia which has been translated to English.

Nicolas Appert was familiar from his youth with the trades of cook and confectioner, and patterns of food storage. After spending 10 years in Germany, Karlsberg Castle of Christian IV of Deux-Ponts-Birkenfeld, he moved to Paris in 1784 and opened at 47 rue des Lombards, a boutique confectioner called Fame. As a store retailer, after a few years, Appert becomes wholesaler, employs six staff and correspondents in Rouen and Marseille. After engaging in revolutionary action (from 1789 until 1794 (when he spent 3 months in prison), he focused his work on solutions to conserve wine. Taking into account several criteria (change in taste, cost and nutritional value,) in 1795 he developed the process which made possible the art of Appertizing, or preserving food sterilized by heat in a hermetically sealed containers, canning which is also called tinning.

“if it works for wine, why not foods?”

Perhaps, we should reflect on how canning influences our daily lives. I don't take canned foods for granted. Do you? First thing in the morning I reach for a canned pound of coffee. How many times have you sat down to a quick lunch of tomato soup and a tuna fish sandwich? If you chose to whip up a batch of "home made" tomato soup, I bet there's a slew of canned vegetables in the pantry, canned tomatoes included. I don't know about you but, when I have such an inviting lunch before me, I need a glass of milk. Anyone for some chocolate milk. Hershey's comes to my mind, canned. I'm sure, like me, you don't give much thought to opening a can whether it be with a a rotary opener or the more modern day electric can opener (which also has a fascinating history. see below:) So, what is "the art of canning?" Where does it belong in the timeline of the Historical Origins of Food Preservation?

...Canning is the process in which foods are placed in jars or cans and heated to a temperature that destroys microorganisms and inactivates enzymes. This heating and later cooling forms a vacuum seal. The vacuum seal prevents other microorganisms from recontaminating the food within the jar or can. Canning was the newest of the food preservations methods being pioneered in the 1790s when a French confectioner, Nicolas Appert, discovered that the application of heat to food in sealed glass bottles preserved the food from deterioration. He theorized “if it works for wine, why not foods?” In about 1806 Appert's principles were successfully trialed by the French Navy on a wide range of foods including meat, vegetables, fruit and even milk...

It is my belief, if it weren't for the fact the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs for a method of preserving food, Appert's memory may have faded into canning oblivion. “An army marches on its stomach,” it was because of Nicolas Appert's dedication to finding a way to keep the French Army and Navy bellies fed that he experimented by trial and error with the container sterilization of food. Feeding the servicemen safely was very important to Napoleon Bonaparte. It took Appert approximately 14 years to perfect his method. According to food author Jane Grigson, as reported in the British newspaper The Observer, "François Appert (Nicolas) grew his own tiny peas to be sure of their perfect freshness when he processed them." It was a long time ago so no one is firm on the exact date but, it is said he was awarded the prize of 12,000 francs from the now Emperor Napoleon around 1810...

Nicholas Appert’s invention was tremendous; however, he did not fully understand it. Although, Appert was the first to successfully can meats, fruits, and vegetables it wasn't until another Frenchman by the name of Louis Pasteur unfolded the secret of food spoilage that it was fully understood others.

By the mid-1800's canning was fairly widespread as a commercial industry, yet for average middle class people, canned food was little more than an expensive novelty. The technology of the day was a far cry from what we know now. Cans were heavy, stoppered with cork and often sealed with lead, which, as any member of the Franklin Expedition would have told you, was downright hazardous to your health. The interesting thing about canning in those days was that nobody knew how it actually worked. Sure people understood that in order to preserve food it was essential to keep air away from it, but they didn't know why. No one had any concept of microbes then (Louis Pasteur had yet to undertake his groundbreaking research), and most people ascribed food spoilage to the theory of spontaneous generation. source
It was 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/illness did it become clearer. Just prior to Pasteur’s discovery Raymond Chevalier-Appert patented the pressure retort (canner) in 1851 to can at temperatures higher than 212ºF. However, not until the 1920’s was the significance of this method known in relation to Clostridium botulinum. source

Nicolas Appert never actually reaped the full benefits of his methods. Yes, with his prize money he opened the first commercial cannery in the world and his system of sealing food in glass bottles and subjecting it to heat, was described in a book published, with Charles Appert, in 1810, L'Art de conserver les substances animales et végétales. In 1920, The Book for All Households; Or, The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable substances for Many Years was translated into English by K. G. Bitting, M.S. Bacteriologist, at the Glass Container Association of America. The full text is available at google books online.

The art of Appertizing, or preserving food sterilized by heat in a hermetically sealed container, was conceived a little more than a hundred years ago as a war measure to provision the French forces upon the sea. It played a most important part in provisioning the armies in the recent war and in providing succor for the millions of starving civilians. But this role is far less beneficent than is the furnishing of good, wholesome, palatable, nutritious food at all times and at any place under peace conditions.

"Until the 1920’s, canned foods remained primarily for military usage. It was during WWI that the American government campaigned citizens to grow and can food at home so more supplies would be available to the armed forces fighting overseas. From this came the slogan, “Back up the cannon with the canner.* If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, then, the timeline of commercial canning must include Emperor Napoleon and his army. Today, we must be careful when scouring grocery shelves not to tumble the stacks into the aisles. From soups to canned fruits, dog food and Spam, canned food is as much a part of our American culture as Andy Warhol's tomato soup posters. So the next time you reach for a can of anything, remember, you have Nicolas Appert to thank. As a matter of fact, each year on October 23, Canned Food Day and National Canning Day are celebrated in tribute to young Nicolas François Appert, who became the "Father of Canning."  Maybe he isn't forgotten...

FYI: The first tin cans, invented in 1810, were heavy-weight containers that required ingenuity to open, the directions on the can read, "Cut round the top near the edge with knives, a chisel and hammer or even rocks!" Not until 1858, when canners started using thinner metal, did Ezra Warner invent an instrument dedicated to opening cans, the can-opener. Yes, dear reader, cans were invented before the can-opener!


  • 1. Can Can: History of Cans
  • 2. Forgotten Inventors: the can opener
  • 3. What Can a Can Be Besides a Can?
  • 4. The Observer article
  • 5. Nicolas Appert
  • 6. Canny Cooks


Sortin'ItAllOut said...

Hi Louise,
I commented over on your kettledrum site, but I just had to say that I am so glad you are doing these historical blogs. They are very educational and I just love learning about "practical history".


Anonymous said...

nicola Appert n'est pas né le 23 octobre 1752 mais le 17 novembre 1749 à Châlons en Champagne, voir acte de baptême sur le site http://www.appert-aina.com


président de l'associaiton internationale Nicolas Appert

~~louise~~ said...

I used an online translator to interpret anons comment and here it is...
Nicolas Appert was not born on 23 October 1752 but on 17 November 1749 to Chalons en Champagne, Baptismal see on the site...

Merci beaucoup pour cette information:)