Ancestral Lifehack #1: Canning

Posted October 23, 2015

lifehack. /ˈlīfˌhak/ informal noun. A strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one’s time and daily activities in a more efficient way.1

In today's society, a new buzz word seems to pop up every five minutes. And unless you've been living under a rock for the last few years, you've probably heard the term "lifehack." It's what ALL the kids are talking about these days. And with good reason. Modern lifehacks make living easier. But if you think lifehacking is a twenty-first century trend, think again! Since the invention of fire, our ancestors have been lifehacking their way out of the cave. Innumerable generations who came before us have labored toward progress so that we might today enjoy shopping for clothes on instead of weaving cloth on a loom. And so it is to our intrepid and clever ancestors I dedicate Heritage Research's new Ancestral Lifehack Series. Each post will pay tribute to a life-changing discovery our fearless forebearers gifted us with.

In America 2015, convenience is everywhere. It wasn't always that way, though, as our parents and grandparents love to tell us. Walking to school, uphill both ways in the snow is tough indeed, but they still had amenities earlier generations lacked. By the Baby Boomers' time, Americans were accustomed to the process of canning. Even if they didn't live on a farm, Grandma's tomato sauce or Aunt Agnes' jam was a treat, not particularly a necessity. Jams and tomato sauces were readily available in supermarkets. You'd have to go back to the late 18th century to find the dilemma canning was designed to solve.

In 1790's France, there was an urgent need to find a way to more efficiently preserve food for an extended amount time. The reasons were mainly military - to feed far-flung armies and sailors at sea.2 In 1795, the French government offered a 12,000 franc reward for anybody who could invent a process to preserve food.3 Pastry chef Nicolas Appert pioneered the canning process, but did not perfect it until 1810 when he claimed the monetary prize.4 Before this process, the only other ways to preserve food were smoking, curing or drying. Not only were these processes difficult and time consuming, they transformed the texture, flavor and nutritional content of the food.5

Appert's invention unleashed a whole new industry. Some who expanded upon the canning process became household names in America. Gail Borden, upon hearing the sad news of the Donner Party tragedy, began creating an array of foods designed to sustain long-distance travelers. The most famous was her condensed milk, bringing the beverage from the farms to the burgeoning metropolises.6 You can still find Borden's condensed milk at your local supermarket today.

Though Appert's choice of canning vessel was glass (he initially used champagne bottles6), Englishman Peter Durand, shortly followed with the invention of the metal can. This gave rise to the first canning factory and in 1813, canned food became available to the public.7

Though an amazing invention, the metal cans were difficult to open. Hammers and chisels were required to open the thick lids. Though it is often said, necessity is the mother of invention, it wasn't until 1858 that American Ezra J. Warner invented the first can opener.8

The development of the canning process was definitely a life-saving breakthrough around the world; a certified lifehack. We thank Appert, Borden, Durand, et al. for their spirit of invention...and for tinned pork and beans!! Stay tuned for more Ancestral Lifehacks.

1 lifehack. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. ( (accessed October 23, 2015).

2 Lisa Couture, “The History of Canned Food,” Johnson & Wales University-Providence (2010): accessed 23 October 2015. (

3 "Nicolas Appert," Wikipedia, last modified  29 August 2015,





8, “The First US Can Opener – Today in History: January 5,”Connecticut Humanities (2012): accessed 23 October 2015. ( 2015. (

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