UN-canning the Importance of the Tin Can

I was only alive for six months before my great grandfather, Philip Williams, died at age 79. Born the third of five children in 1914 in Nashville, Tennessee, Philip inherited a keen mind for business from his father, John Philip, a physician before entering the coal brokerage industry with his brother-in-law. However, his intuition may also have been due to living with a big family on his grandfather May Overton’s farm. Or, it might have been his name: my great-grandfather, Philip Williams had only two names because he was not the first Philip. Three years prior to birth, Philip had an older sibling named John Philip Williams Jr., named for their father. However, when John Philip–or ‘Little John’–was still a child, he contracted rabies from the family dog and died. When my great-grandfather was born, his parents, John and Harriet, chose to preserve the name Philip and the earlier child’s memory. Thus, Philip quickly learned the importance of saving and preserving. After college, Philp entered the canning industry, hired as a sales associate and office personnel at Continental Can Company in 1935.

The Continental Can Company (CCC) was created in 1904 by Edwin Norton. Prior to the Depression, Continental was a lead canning company, rapidly acquiring over 20 competing companies across the nation by the late 1920s. Though the company suffered to rivals, like American Can Co., in the early years of the Great Depression, the company reportedly never recorded a year of losses and continued to employ men and women in the major cities around the country, and even Canada and Cuba. By the 1934, Continental Can Company would be readily recovering, supplying two-thirds of the millions of cans produced nation-wide.

The tin-canning industry was a solid bet. In 1809, Nicolas Appert invented canning for the French army to store provisions. The following year Peter Durand, an English merchant, patented the design under King George III. Yet, some historians believe the Great Depression permanently altered the family dinner through the canning industry. With the nation in turmoil, for one to feed a family meant the primary focus must be less on flavor and taste and more on nourishment and nutrition. Large “bland” dishes like casseroles, stews and soups were a staple for feeding a large group of hungry mouths, ingredients largely involving canned vegetables -if a family had the funds or ability to eat at all. Some of the foods one could expect to be canned include corned beef, peas, beans, corn, fruits, etc. Yet, my canned food memories still consist of cold Chef Boyardee -which one should not be misread as an insult to the innovative “chef.”

The move was a wise one on Philip’s behalf because at a time when a tin can was a common household item in that you could store canned items for a long time without having to worry about it going bad. Canning was an important innovation to help with poor food storage and avoid the lack of ability to refrigerate food properly, as nearly 30% of homes lacked the ability.

A pile of tin cans and glass bottles near an agricultural day-labor camp in Oklahoma, Sequoyah County

Therefore, if a kid wanted to play with something, an empty can was always an option. If there were many kids, then a group only needed one can to play kick the can. If you had two cans -and fewer participants- a child could get creative and make a tin can “walkie talkie” with a long line strung tightly between the bottoms of either can. If a child was alone, he or she could take those two cans and some string and use the cans as stilts. Finally, if one had the ability to save their cans, one could construct a pyramid and toss baseballs at it, like that of a game at the county fair. And if kids were feeling creative, they could convert their cans into customized push cars, also called “sidewalk racers.”

The tin can is a handy invention, especially for the Great Depression. Not only was it a good way for a business to preserve food, but it also allowed for easier shipping and for customers to purchase and store food for extended times before consuming them. On top of that, not only were tin cans essential to Philip Williams employment, but the industry also adjusted the “family dinner” dynamic. And finally, if one sought excitement, or even escape, during the Depression these household items provided a great means of fun and creative potential for kids, from games like kick the can to creations like tin can stilts. Nevertheless, whenever I see those easy-to-open cans of Chef Boyardee spaghetti, I will think of good ole’ Philip Williams.

Lou Amberson, a tramp, uses a tin can to cook over a campfire. (Photo By Alan Fisher. The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2001696794/)

Works Cited:

“CanCentral: Everything you need to know about cans.” History of the Can – Can Manufacturers Institute | Washington, DC, www.cancentral.com/can-stats/history-of-the-can.

“Creamed, Canned And Frozen: How The Great Depression Revamped U.S. Diets.” NPR, NPR, 15 Aug. 2016, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/08/15/489991111/creamed-canned-and-frozen-how-the-great-depression-changed-u-s-diets.

“Continental Can Co., Inc.” International Directory of Company Histories, Encyclopedia.com, www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/continental-can-co-inc.