Canning At The Indiana Historical Society

The museum of the Indiana Historical Society presents unique “living history” exhibits.

A canning society in “1947”

The Indiana Historical Society was founded on December 11, 1830—the 14thanniversary of Indiana’s statehood. It then languished for quite awhile until it was reorganized in 1886 and moved its office to the State Capitol building. By 1999 there were 10,000 members, and a bequest allowed the Society to obtain its own building in Indianapolis.

It became the Indiana History Center and opened a museum that was billed as “The Indiana Experience”. But instead of the usual displays of “old things under glass”, this museum focuses on “living history” presentations, with actors in period dress portraying people from several different time periods, from the Civil War through World War II to the Civil Rights Movement. The living history displays change from time to time, so there’s usually something different with each visit. During my visit there was a recreated post-Civil War pharmaceutical shop, a chapel from a WW2 camp that held Italian POWs, and a WW2-era canning society. A separate room displays some of the historical objects held by the museum, and the Conservation Room illustrates techniques for restoring and preserving them.

There is also a room dedicated to Indiana native Cole Porter, which features photos, records, and the Tony Award he won for  the Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate.  And there is a professional singer there who hands you a menu of Cole Porter songs and allows you to pick one for him to sing. (Me, being the smart-aleck that I am, chose “Anything Goes”–and asked if he could sing it in Chinese like Kate Capshaw did in the movie.)

I spent a long time with three charming ladies from “1947” who were busily canning vegetables (in real life, they are donated to a local food bank) and who explained to me how Victory Gardens and home-canning helped the United States win the Second World War. (Although rationing ended with the war, people were still encouraged to continue producing their own food.)

Although the United States was, in December 1941, the richest economy in the world, the Second World War was the most expensive war ever fought, and even the mighty American economy was hard-pressed. While most young men were drafted into the military, most of the economy was turned to wartime production of tanks, airplanes, ships, guns, ammunition and all the other materials needed for the war. Civilian industries like automobiles or home appliances, and even consumer goods like nylon stockings and gasoline, were slashed to the bone in order to free manpower and resources for the war effort.

One of the most vital war resources was food, which not only went to the US military, but was being sent in massive quantities to American allies in England and Russia, who were suffering from German attacks and who the US desperately needed to keep in the war at virtually any cost. As a result, foods like meat, cheese, sugar, eggs and coffee were all rationed.

To help make up for the food shortages, Americans were all encouraged to grow whatever vegetables they could in whatever plots of land were available—backyards, empty city lots, rooftop boxes. These were called “Victory Gardens”, and by most estimates there were at least 20 million of them in the United States, annually producing some 10 million tons of food like carrots, beets, beans, and peas.

Fresh vegetables spoiled quickly, however, so Victory Gardeners were also encouraged to can their vegetable yields so they would last longer without wastage (and to save commercially canned foods for the troops). Since pressure cookers and canning equipment were made with precious aluminum, however (which was vital for aircraft manufacturing), they too were rationed. As a result, instead of individuals each getting their own equipment, neighborhood women would get together and form “canning societies” that would pool their ration points and obtain canning equipment which they could all use together. Every so often they would meet in somebody’s kitchen and can all the food they had grown. It has been estimated that Americans were producing some 4 billion cans of food per year, at home. And the Indiana Historical Society museum had a group of living history re-enactors demonstrating how “canning” was done, in a re-created 1940s kitchen.

Most wartime canning wasn’t actually done with cans, since the tin and aluminum metals were needed for war production. Instead, most home canning was done with glass jars. Some of these had metal screw-on lids, but most were specially designed with airtight glass lids that closed tightly with wire clips, called Kilner Jars.

The first step was to clean the jars and lids. It was necessary to prevent any bacteria from contaminating the food, since this could cause salmonella food poisoning or even fatal botulin poisoning. So the jars were carefully cleaned to remove any debris or residue that might be lurking on them.

Once the vegetables have been pre-cooked for a few minutes in boiling water (this shrinks them and allows more food to be packed into a jar) and the jars have been cleaned, it’s time to start canning. For most vegetables, this was done quickly right after pre-cooking while the veggies were still hot—a process known as a “hot pack”. Canners would quickly fill up their Kilner jars with veggies and the water they were cooked in, stir them to remove any air bubbles (they could cause contamination), then carefully wipe any residue off the rim and position an o-ring gasket into place before tightening down the glass lid and sealing it with the wire clips.

Some types of vegetables were usually “cold-packed” instead, without pre-cooking. These were cleaned and sliced, then placed in the jar, covered with boiling water, and the lid closed.

Some foods, like cucumbers, onions, or eggs, could be pickled. This involved sealing the cooked food in vinegar, which had a high acid content and prevented the growth of any harmful bacteria. Some meats could be brined, or preserved by packing them in salt water.

Once sealed, the jars needed to be heated enough to kill any harmful bacteria which may have gotten in, remove the air from inside the jar, and form a good vacuum seal to keep any outside air and bacteria out. This was done by placing the sealed jars into a pressure canner, which consists of a metal container and valve that thoroughly cooks the contents of the jar to a high temperature and pressure.

To a war-era canning society, their pressure canner was a precious piece of equipment, made from scarce metal and difficult to replace if it was damaged or broken. Canners took extraordinary care with their pressure canners.

Once the jars cool, they can be tested for a good seal by carefully loosening the clips (if the seal is bad the lid will pop up; if the seal is good you can lift the jar by the lid without having it come off) and then reclosing the clips. The jars are then ready to be stored. If the seal is airtight, no bacteria will be able to enter, and the food is safe from spoilage for as long as half a year.

A special difficulty faced by wartime home canners was that of making jam or jelly from homegrown fruits like strawberries or blueberries. This process required large amounts of sugar, and sugar was heavily rationed. So canning societies would pool their ration cards together in order to obtain enough sugar for making jam. Canning societies were also allowed to apply to the Federal Government for an exemption which allowed them to obtain a much larger ration of sugar, provided they could show a specific plan for canning it.

During the war an enormous variety of foods were home-canned, ranging from carrots to potatoes to blackberries to corn to lima beans. If you could grow it at home (or pick it in the woods), there was probably a way to can or preserve it.

As the “1947 canners” explained the process to me, I got to try out some strawberry jam that was ready for canning.

4 thoughts on “Canning At The Indiana Historical Society”

  1. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was seen as something shocking. Now, heaven knows–anything goes!”

    –Cole Porter, 1934

    It seems that every generation makes this same complaint about the younger generation that follows it. We did it, cave men did it, and likely future Mars colonists will do it.

    1. Even educated fleas do it. 🙂
      But face it, the youth of today really is useless. 🙂

      When I was a kid we had lots of fruit trees, particularly peaches, and my mother home-canned lots of it, albeit in glass jars. These had a thin metal lid; the jar was filled right to the top, then the lid was placed on it so there were no air bubbles. As the contents cooled and shrank, it would pull the lid down, and eventually it would “pop” inwards like a clicker. You then knew it was properly sealed, and a screw top was then added.

      I seem to recall she also canned other stuff in this way. The food always had to be cooked first and canned while still hot, but it eliminated the need for special equipment beyond the glass jars.

      Ah, here’s a picture:

      I see Wikipedia refers to this kind of thing as Mason jars.

      Our neighbors were very old-fashioned and in many ways still lived in the 19th century, horse-drawn cart and all. They preserved meat in a way that would make a modern nutritionist’s hair stand on end: cooked meat was packed into a big bucket into layers of rendered lard from their pigs. This also excluded air, and meat could be preserved for many months in this way. This formed the bulk of their protein intake, and none of them ever suffered heart disease.

      As an aside, they also made their own soap from pig’s fat and caustic soda.

        1. The problem with drying fruit is that it tends to go black. It doesn’t really affect the taste; it’s just a layer of oxidation, but it looks less appetizing.

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