Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny and the California Gold Rush of 1849 sent miners, homesteaders and trappers into the frontier. A considerable amount of provisions was needed to make the long journey across the plains and the mountainous West. Settlers traveled in wagon trains filled with supplies and herded livestock alongside their caravans. Foods canned in the East were critical for survival.

Still, tragedy and starvation were common. It was the gruesome fate of the Donner party in 1846, an 87-member group reduced to cannibalism when deep snow trapped them in the Sierra Nevada mountains, that set one determined inventor to work on a canned food innovation. Gail Borden was inspired by the need of travelers for nutritious food that took up little space. He first tried a meat biscuit—condensed meat and vegetables—which was a culinary and financial disaster. Borden became an overnight success however when he hit upon canning condensed milk.

Borden was not the first to can milk, but he soon became the best. Not only was Borden's Eagle Brand the most palatable, it was the most promoted. In 1856, he set up a cannery in Connecticut and began to target the New York City market. In those early days of urbanization, the milk that reached the city was often of poor quality. Cows at dairies on the outskirts of the city were fed waste from liquor distilleries and other dubious sources. The milk often required adulteration to make it look more like milk. What's more, it was sold in bulk in open barrels in crowded, dirty stores and transported to market in uncovered containers on the back of a horse-drawn wagon amid the filth and dust of city streets. Borden advertised his product as cleaner, purer and fresher than anything else New York residents could buy.

Another chapter in American history, the Civil War, also features the can in a prominent role. Soldiers, especially from the North, came to rely on canned rations. In fact, Borden's canned milk is credited with saving many lives during the war. Borden could hardly keep up with the Union army's orders and leased milk processing plants all over the country to meet the demand. When soldiers returned home from battle they were familiar with and trusting of canned products and soon made them a regular part of their household.

In 1861, as the war began, an important discovery was made that would help canneries increase output. It was learned that adding calcium chloride to the water in which the cans were boiled raised the temperature and increased the speed of the canning process. Then the can opener was invented in 1865, making canned products more convenient than ever. And since the war effort competed with can making for metal resources, necessity and creativity introduced thinner cans that remained sturdy while using less tin. Annual production of canned foods increased six-fold—from five million to 30 million—by the end of the Civil War.