One of the items featured in Granny’s Choice, this week, is the All American Can Sealer. While preparing the label for the special offer, I rediscovered the machine with fresh eyes.
Look at it. What beautiful engineering! It’s a museum piece, something people from all over the world might see on display hundreds of years from now, and there is a unique characteristic to this piece of equipment that is also found in many farming and kitchen devices: it is timeless. In many respects, its appearance has changed very little over the past two centuries and may very well remain the same for the next two.
Sure, we may change how we manufacture the components we use in the fabrication of can sealers, but the design and mechanics perform the desired task with precision and perfection, so why change something that works? This is not an assembly line device. It is shaped and configured to serve the needs of people like you and me who wish to preserve the harvest on their own terms.
There is a point, it seems, where we push technology to such ends that new products we create have lost the “presence” of their predecessors. By this I mean that we sometimes put function and modern style at the center of design, creating tools and appliances that lack elegance; that curve, shape or stature that reflects history.
History is close to the land. Perhaps it cannot be any other way. I think it is for this reason that it is mostly the tools we use in the process of feeding ourselves that tend to retain their roots in design. I had a friend who used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
We know a lot more now about food preservation than we did back when Napoleon offered a prize to anyone who could come up with a way to preserve food for his troops. As we have seen in a previous article, a French confectioner by the name of Nicolas Appert successfully devised a means to improve food preservation when he discovered that heating it to high temperatures inside sealed glass jars stopped it from spoiling.
It was later discovered that this process worked not only in glass jars, but also when tinned iron canisters were used. The combination of these materials provided distinct advantages: They were lighter and the risk of breakage was greatly reduced. Iron could not be used on its own since it rusts. The tin coating resolved this issue. Interestingly, no one quite understood why the use of heat could preserve food, but the consequences were far from negligible for soldiers and sea faring explorers.
The first cans were made by hand by a tinsmith who truly could only manufacture about ten cans a day. These were large and heavy and required a hammer and chisel for opening. Gradually, the production of cans became mechanized.
The first automated production lines could produce about six cans an hour. However, the American Can Company, founded in 1901, produced 90% of United States tin cans. By the 1920′s, canned food began to enter the public market and to be accepted as part of everyday food choices. At the same time, it gradually lost its association with the military image. Today, production lines can put out over 1,500 cans a minute.
Back in our kitchens, we re-enact a process that began centuries ago every time we stir soup with a wooden spoon, turn the handle of the sauce maker or activate the lever of a can sealer. We may not think about this at the time, but I suspect there is some little corner of our cellular memory that remembers. Preserving tradition is an act that is revived through action. It is a ritual of sorts. Repeating similar motions while using equipment that retains timeless design qualities, such as the can sealer, for example, connects us to our roots.