Remember This?: Can You Open This?

by Brad Dison

For centuries, humans have looked for ways to preserve food. Common methods for preserving meat included salting, drying and smoking, which made it easy to store or transport. Preserving other food varieties proved more difficult.

Warring parties struggled to keep their armies fed. Battles were usually fought in the summer and early fall when food was easily replenished. Both sides understood that winter battles were rare because of the lack of food. In many cases, soldiers returned to their homes for the winter and regrouped in the spring. Napoleon Bonaparte was largely responsible for changing that aspect of warfare.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Napoleon’s French Army and its allies fought in what is referred to as the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). One of Napoleon’s main difficulties was keeping his quarter of a million soldiers fed. It was Napoleon who said, “An army marches on its stomach,” which means that to be effective an army needs a constant supply of good food. If Napoleon could find a way to keep his soldiers fed, they could continue to fight year-round. This tactic would give Napoleon the advantage.

In the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could devise an inexpensive method for the preservation of large amounts of food. In 1809, French confectioner Nicolas Appert displayed bottles of fruits and vegetables preserved in sealed glass bottles. The food only spoiled if the seal was broken. Appert, who is considered the father of canning, won the prize on the condition that he would share his process with the public. The process was slow, expensive, and the bottles were easily broken. The Napoleonic Wars ended before the canning process was perfected.

In 1810, British merchant Peter Durand patented the first process to seal food in cans rather than in glass bottles. In 1811, a Londoner named Bryan Donkin bought Durand’s patent, developed Appert’s process further, and packaged food in sealed air-tight cans made from tinned wrought iron. The process was still expensive as each can was made one at a time by hand at a rate of about six per hour. Eating the expensive canned foods became a status symbol for the upper-crust to flaunt their wealth. Although canned food was too expensive for ordinary citizens, the British Army and Royal Navy provided canned food for its men. Wars remained the main demand for canned food.

Hungry people used varying methods to get into the cans with varying success. The cans were so tough that manufacturers printed instructions on each can explaining the method to open them with a hammer and chisel. Soldiers on the battlefield often cut their hands and fingers as they struggled with their bayonets and knives to open the cans. Another common method was to smash the cans with whatever was handy, which usually resulted in spillage of most of the can’s contents.

In the early 1850s, manufacturers began using steel rather than wrought iron in their cans. The steel cans were thinner, lighter, and easier to open. As the thinner cans became more common, clerks in grocery stores opened cans for customers to take home.

In 1858, Ezra J. Warner patented the first practical can opener, which was little more than a blade that cut into the lid. The user repeated the cuts all the way around the can in a sawing fashion until the lid was able to be opened enough to get the contents out. It’s hard to believe that the first can opener was invented almost 50 years after the invention of the tin can. The standard toothed-wheel can opener, the one found in most homes today, was invented in 1926, over 110 years after the tin can was first patented.


  1. Eschner, Kat. “Why the Can Opener Wasn’t Invented Until Almost 50 Years After the Can.” Smithsonian Magazine. August 24, 2017.
  2. Wisdom Biscuits. “How Did People Open Cans Before Can Openers Were Invented?.” Accessed September 18, 2021.

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