History of steel packaging

The origins of tinplate

Tinplate, the type of steel used to produce this type of packaging material, started being produced in the late 1200s and early 1300s in Wunsiedel, a town in Upper Franconia, which was granted the right to melt tin, to mark it with its own brand and to control its trade.
However, this raw material for packaging became truly widespread in more recent times, precisely between the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s, when the technique for preserving canned foods was studied and developed. At the time, the Englishman Bryan Donkin – inspired by Nicolas Appert’s treatise, which explained how to successfully conserve food in glass bottles by boiling in bain-marie for a long time – decided to apply this system to his food preserves but using a different type of container, namely, tinplate boxes.

Because Appert had not patented the method (as he was too preoccupied with publishing the treatise and making investments for his own laboratory), Donkin and his partner John Hill developed the technique which, in honour of its inventor, is still known today as “Appertisation”. Instead of glass, Donkin and Hill used tinplate containers, thanks to the enormous progress that English iron and steel had made in the 18th century: from the use of coke in a blast furnace (Abraham Darby, 1709) to the preparation of steel (Benjamin Huntsman, 1760), until the invention of puddling (Henry Cort, 1762) and soon after of the hydraulically powered rolling mill.

The first canning factories

Around 1830, therefore, foods intended to be preserved and tin were officially united (in the past, “tin” indicated tinplate and the name was used for the container). Cans became safe and reliable “keepers”. From that moment on, canned foods, canned drinks and, later on, also chemical products, became progressively more common in the United States, Europe and the whole world. The British introduced cans to the New World. Specifically, Thomas Kensett (in 1812) and William Underwood (in 1817) founded, respectively in New York and Boston, the first canned food factories. However, they still used cans imported from the United Kingdom. In America, the first tin factories were opened only in 1870, precisely in Cincinnati and Chicago, near large pig and cattle farms.

Cans on the battlefields and in exploration missions

The advantages of cans were particularly appreciated and extensively exploited on the battlefield, where they were considered an irreplaceable tool for provisioning. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), British soldiers averted the danger of contracting scurvy by eating safely. Cans were used massively by armies during the two world wars.

The 19th century was the period of great exploratory expeditions, an area in which the organisation of logistics was essential for the success of these adventurous journeys and for the safety of the crews’ and all the participants’ lives. The English explorer John Ross was the first, in the polar expedition of 1818, to carry Donkin & Gable cans of preserved meat and vegetables on board his ships. At the time, one type of vegetable soup and four different types of beef were canned. Cans were also on board the ships of subsequent polar expeditions. Polar journeys were long and full of unexpected events; in 1845, Sir John Franklin’s ships were trapped in the ice. For two years, the crews were kept alive by the 8,000 cans of preserved vegetables and meats stored in the ships’ holds.

The italian food industry discovers canning

In Italy, the biggest producer of canned food is Francesco Cirio who, in 1856, founded one of the first canning factories in Turin. Pietro Sada (in 1881) was the first producer of canned meat in Italy but used packaging produced abroad. The first Italian manufacturer of cans was Luigi Origoni (1890). In the early 1900s, Italian olive oil packaged in cans landed in America, bringing some Italian flavours to overseas cuisine.

Italians and canned food

After WWII, Italy was literally invaded by cans brought by American soldiers: the large Marshall Plan parcels contained cans of meat, biscuits and ready-made soups packed in steel containers. Canned foods, at first associated with an emergency situation, became part of Italian life after the war. In the 1950s, canned tomatoes and olive oil became increasingly common in the general population – Italy had been exporting these canned products since the beginning of the century.

In 1960, frozen products began to be more widely available and consumed in Italy. This new competitor in the food preservation industry pushed canners to think of new ways to use their containers. In the 1960s, new canned products appeared on the Italian market: tuna in oil, soft drinks, beer and spray cans. From the end of the 1970s, pet food also started being marketed in cans.

The oil cans that, at the beginning of the 1900s, landed in the new continent from Italy brought with them Italian flavours but also images of national heroes and Italian history, printed in very colourful lithographs. The portraits of Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giuseppe Mazzini and the singer Caruso travelled with oil, but so did images inspired by the most famous works of Giuseppe Verdi, such as Rigoletto, Othello and Aida.

The evolution of the can

At the beginning of the story, cans were “naked”. Internally, tin was in direct contact with the stored product while, on the outside, a writing printed on the metal simply indicated the type of product contained inside.

Over time, studies on the migration of metal elements inside cans led to the need to further isolate the tin-plated part from the food. At the same time, embellishing the cans on the outside was required because of the increasing numbers of canned products and of companies producing tinned food. It became necessary to be able to tell the cans apart easily, which was done by “dressing” them with labels and designs that caught the public’s eye.

The boxes were painted, both on the inside and on the outside. The designs and colours of the label were then printed on the outside. In this way, cans became a marketing tool, conceived to sell the product but also, in a way, they became the carriers of an image culture that spread through commercial packaging.

To learn more, visit the website RicreaEdu and read the volume Lunga vita alla scatoletta (Long live the can).