Stories Inside the Can

Food fascinates me not only in a recreational and personal context, but also in a historical and professional context. Although I haven't spent a lot of time writing about it here (what does that suggest about how I view my work and this blog?!), my dissertation (i.e. my full-time job) is a historical analysis of canned food in twentieth-century America.

To begin the tale of why I chose this topic, let me share several photos with you. Take some time to study each one carefully, to think about what kinds of questions and stories emerge from a close look at these compelling artifacts and an attention to their dates and captions.

Dolores Harris, daughter of FSA (Farm Security Administration) client George Harris, with canned food prepared by her mother. Dameron, Maryland. August 1940:

Mrs. Watkins (project family) in her smokehouse showing canned foods and cured meat. Coffee, Alabama. April 1939:

"In a fish cannery, Los Angeles, Cal." From The Chinese in California, 1850-1925 collection:

Mama & Papa Woodruff. [between 1895 and 1900?].  Interior view of Woodruff general merchandise store in Gillett, Colorado includes Mr. and Mrs. Woodruff in the aisle between shelves of canned and boxed food. A scale sits atop the glass display cabinet with boxes of cigars, wooden crate of brooms and stacks of gunny sacks:

Patrick Sheehan looking to his right, holding a jar of food, standing behind a counter in his grocery store in Chicago, Illinois. Shelves full of cans of food are visible in the background. Chicago Daily News, Inc., 1928:

When I study these images, the kinds of questions that pop up in my head are:
  • What does the date range of these photos (roughly 1895-1940) tell us about when canned food was prominent in our country? 
  • Why might more women be present in these photos than men? 
  • How does race play into food history (as with the African American Dolores Harris and the Chinese women cannery workers)? 
  • Who might have been buying the canned foods pictured here--and how might that have differed between the Woodruffs' store in Colorado and Patrick Sheehan's store in Chicago? 
  • What role did canned food play in the expansion of the American West, as suggested by the Colorado general store at the turn of the century?  
  • Why might the Farm Security Administration have been interested in canned food store rooms? 
  • Why were both the industrial tin cans and the home-filled glass jars called "canned food"? 
  • What's inside all those jars and cans, anyway?  
  • Where did those foods come from, and who produced them in their raw forms?
  • How did these foods taste? 
  • How might these families and workers and merchants used canned foods in their own lives? 
  • What did these people think of this newfangled food product?
Trying to address all these questions and more in my dissertation is a bit of  Sisyphean task, but on good days, I think that answering these kinds of questions can help us understand the place of food (and processed food) in our own lives, can help us unpack the choices that were made to get us where we are today, and to help us think about how things might have been otherwise.

What kinds of questions came to your minds?

*All images from The Library of Congress, American Memory collection, keyword search "canned food"


  1. Nice post, Anna. I'm always interested to hear more about how your "scholarly" work is going. I'm heartened though that there really isn't such a distinction in your life between "scholarly" work and happy-work! :)
    It's just one big project of self-discovery and exploration!

  2. The Woodruffs are my Grandparents.


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