Updated: May 1, 2020
Interest in gardening is surging as Americans practice social distancing to keep everyone safe and although the growing season is just beginning in much of the country, soon enough gardeners will face the inevitable question of what to do with their bounty. Non-gardeners, too, can end up with too much produce from those great deals at the farmer’s market, or an overflowing CSA (community supported agriculture) box. Many gardeners are planning to donate to food banks, but others may return to home canning as a way to preserve the food they’ve grown, as Greenbelters did, especially during WWII.
Just as government and industry promoted Victory Gardens, they also encouraged Americans to preserve the produce from those gardens. Commercially produced canned foods were needed to feed troops abroad and, in addition to canned goods, items like sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, and meat were all rationed. Fuel and rubber tires to truck produce and canned food around the country were also in short supply. While many Americans had refrigerators in their homes, freezers were very small, so canning allowed families to eat healthful vegetables year round.
“Putting up” or canning and preserving food was traditionally hot, hard work and usually fell to the women of the household. There were (and still are ) many other methods of food preservation that were used as well, such as pickling, freezing, drying, and making jellies or jams, but canning seems to have been the most discussed. Magazines of the WWII era are full of advice about what, when, and how to can. Instructional pamphlets produced by everyone from government agencies to jar manufacturers also offered recipes, instructions and warnings (see Kerr booklet). Incorrectly canned food could be dangerous, but this worry did not keep women in Greenbelt or elsewhere from canning. In 1943, U.S. families bought 315,000 pressure cookers for canning, compared to 66,000 in 1942. The Mrs. Greenbelt column of the Cooperator often offered canning advice and early residents’ oral histories include many references to canning. In 1943, the Cooperator reported that thirty-three Greenbelters preserved 2,529 quarts of produce!
Canning was so popular that in some parts of the country, women were encouraged to form cooperative groups to share equipment. The government had supported this prior to WWII, as well, as part of the New Deal effort to help rural communities.
Some communities used common canning equipment and in the south, one of the Resettlement Administration’s experiments was a farming community built for African Americans called Flint River Farms in Georgia. Residents received education on a training farm which for women included canning instruction (see photo on left) among many other household skills.
During wartime, having put so much effort into preserving food, some women hesitated to use it, sparking another campaign encouraging Americans to use what they had saved. There’s been a resurgence in canning in recent years as a way to save money and eat more healthfully, and canning supplies can still be purchased at hardware stores and grocery stores, including the Greenbelt Co-op.
Extra Credit: Watch a video produced by the USDA about the history of canning.
Extra Extra Credit: Read an article about the role canning played in the lives of African Americans in the south by Debra Ann Reid, “Locations of Black Identity: Community Canning Centers in Texas, 1915-1935."