W. Edwin Kee
Research Education Center, University of Delaware Cooperative Extension Service
W. Edwin Kee is a vegetable crops specialist for the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension Service and an instructor in UD’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. A sixth-generation Delawarean, he was the last executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Food Processors before that group disbanded. His 2006 book Saving Our Harvest: The Story of the Mid-Atlantic Region’s Canning and Freezing Industry charts the progress of the canning industry from its inception in Baltimore to the present. Kee has been with the University of Delaware’s Cooperative Extension system since 1978 and has served as the Kent County agricultural agent. He serves on the Delaware Heritage Commission, the board of the Delaware Agriculture Museum, the Delaware Commission on Banking and the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association.
The American canning industry, which got its start in Baltimore and spread throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, is a story about land, labor, capital, transportation and technology. It is a story about farmers who saw new opportunities in canned products, workers many of whom were immigrants and African-Americans who found work in the canneries and an increasingly urban society that benefited from their efforts.
Canning is the process of putting food in hermetically sealed containers and heating it to kill the micro-organisms and prevent spoilage. The sealed cans then prevent micro-organisms from re-entering. It was invented in 1809 by Frenchman Nicholas Appert who was searching for a way to preserve food for Napoleon’s armies. Appert had no idea why canning worked. It wasn’t until decades later that Louis Pasteur would discover micro-organisms and heat’s effects on them. In 1818, William Underwood became the first American canner when he began canning produce and seafood on a dock in Boston. In the 1830’s canning sprang up in Baltimore and that city became the center for canning. This was due in large part to the plentiful supply of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay which could be canned during winter and the proximity of nearby produce which was canned in summer.
Baltimore also saw great waves of immigration which provided a steady supply of labor for the canneries. The associated industries such as can and equipment makers also sprung up in Baltimore, helping solidify its status as the center of U.S. canning from the 1830s to the 1950s. At its height, Baltimore had 110 canneries. The Civil War provided a great impetus for preserved foods and canned pork and beans became standard issue. As a result of the Civil War, the American public came to accept canned goods. Prior to that, they were a specialty item.
Using calcium chloride to raise the boiling point of water, thereby reducing the cooking time required and the invention of the commercial retort for cooking under pressure were two early improvements to canning. Microbiologists investigating why canned food spoiled developed canning into a well-defined science, promulgating recommendations for sanitation and specific cooking times and temperatures. The “best practices” for canning were spread throughout the nation by Cooperative Extension Service.
Early on, canning was a broad-based industry. By 1919 the three states of Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey had 585 canneries. Ninety-three percent of those were canning tomatoes. Virtually all of the canneries at that time were family businesses. They were often started by farmers who produced the crops, by businessmen in town and by tinsmiths who made the cans. Tomatoes were a good crop to can because the labor to fill a basket was less than for crops like peas, making it economic to can them. Still, there was a tremendous amount of work involved in tomatoes — from propagating to hand transplanting to controlling pests by hand and picking, packing and canning. A great deal of artistic effort went into designing distinctive canning labels. Since small canners often couldn’t afford advertising, they built brand identity through their labels. Today, there is great interest in collecting old labels.
In Philadelphia, the P. J. Ritter Company was a prominent canner from the Civil War until the 1920’s when the company moved to Bridgeton, New Jersey. They were large tomato canners and nation’s largest packer of asparagus in jars. The spread of fusarium wilt in New Jersey’s asparagus beds in the 1970s contributed to the demise of this company. The Campbell Soup Company traces its roots to a Philadelphia tinsmith named Abraham Anderson and a fruit merchant, Joseph A. Campbell, who set up shop in Camden. Soup didn’t become the dominant product for the company until John T. Dorrance, a chemist, figured out how to produce condensed soups that eliminated the inefficiencies of canning so much water. A key part of Campbell’s success was the company’s belief in sophisticated, wide-reaching advertising campaigns.
Seabrook Farms in Upper Deerfield Township, New Jersey was one of the largest freezers of vegetable products. By 1940, the company was packing the produce from 40,000 acres, 20,000 of which the family owned. In 1957, the founder, Charles F. Seabrook, sold the company for $3 million to a group from New York. Mr. Seabrook’s sons were unaware of the deal until after the fact. The company never returned to its former prominence. Seabrook’s grandson started another successful company, Seabrook Brothers and sons, in 1977. During World War II, Charles Seabrook made arrangements through the American Friends Society to bring interned Japanese-American families to New Jersey to work in the factory and on the farm. More than 600 families did so.
Today, we have 13 vegetable processors in the same states that had 585 in 1919. The majority of those processors are freezers and there are two canners and two pickle companies. While that’s a huge reduction in numbers, those processors pack the produce from 75,000 acres of land. Much has changed. The majority of the farmers contract to the processors at a predetermined price, quantity and quality. Most of these crops are mechanically harvested with specialized equipment.
The rise of California agriculture brought change to the Mid-Atlantic industry, particularly in tomatoes. Two tomato canners remain here. Genetic developments in the tomato made it well adapted to mechanical harvest and irrigated agriculture in the fertile, relatively disease-free San Joaquin Valley. With California’s arid climate, producers enjoy the ability to harvest virtually every day. In the east, a two-inch rain keeps harvesters out of the field for days and when they do return, the tomatoes are often cracked and split. Today, 95 percent of our processed tomato products come from California.
Many of the canners in the Mid-Atlantic region lacked a succession plan and so new generations of these family businesses did not stay in the business. Others were reluctant to make the large investments it took to grow and make the changes required to comply with environmental and workplace regulations. Many were acquired by larger companies — not for their facilities but for their labels and the market following they enjoyed.
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.