Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy



First Adviser

Smith, John K.

Other advisers/committee members

Cutcliffe, Stephen H.; Simon, Roger D.; McGrath, Maria


This project draws from the history of technology and business history to determine how the transformation of the can manufacturing industry was coupled with changes in the food processing industry. Ultimately, American social and cultural change occurring in the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century reshaped the contours of both food processing and can manufacturing. The tin can was the force that democratized food processing. The development of tin can manufacturing from a craft-based to a mass production industry between the years 1810 and 1930 occurred because of several important factors. The military use of tin cans during the American Civil War introduced and popularized the new food processing technology, but the price of canned food was beyond the reach of most Americans. It was a food source for the wealthy. The rapid development of can manufacturing technologies beginning in the 1870s through 1910s reduced the price of tin cans and made them affordable for most Americans. The deployment of technology, however, was non-uniform and canners and can manufacturers only adopted new machinery if it supported their overall business strategy. The consolidation of can-making began in the first few years of the twentieth century and by the 1920s resembled a duopoly. While consolidation and reorganization of the industry initially increased prices for canned food, competition and litigation by the federal government ensured price reductions and stability. In the early twentieth century canned food was becoming an increasingly large component of the American diet, and urbanization of American society generated additional demand. However, there was an undercurrent of suspicion associated with canned food among some consumers. The application of science, formation of a national trade association, and advertising all reassured American consumers about the safety of canned food and grew the market for these products. By the end of the 1920s, canned food was now a food processing technology demanded by Americans in ever increasing quantities and no longer the exclusive preserve of the wealthy. The ignoble and ubiquitous tin can was the technology which facilitated the growth of the food processing industry in nineteenth-century America. The development of the tin can as a container for food was regarded as nothing short of a revolutionary innovation in industrial America.

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