Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Did My Grands and Great-Grands Can Tomatoes?

It's tomato season again. The tomato stand alongside the country road I sometimes drive caused me to wonder if my great-grandmothers canned tomatoes. What would the canning process have been like in the late 1800s when they were young mothers with children, and probably also with gardens?

Cornell University's HEARTH provided some answers -- not specifically about whether my great-grandmothers canned tomatoes -- but about the canning process. Mary F. Henderson's book, Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving: A Treatise Containing Practical Instructions in Cooking : in the Combination of Serving of Dishes : and in the Fashionable Modes of Entertaining at Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, published in 1877 by Harper & Brothers, gave instructions for canning.

Are you ready? Do you have cans and lids? Your tin cup, your tea-kettle, a porcelain preserving kettle, and red sealing-wax? Then let's begin.
To Can Tomatoes.

Let them be entirely fresh. Put scalding water over them to aid in removing the skins. When the cans with their covers are in readiness upon the table, the red sealing-wax (which is generally too brittle, and requires a little lard melted with it) is in a cup at the back of the fire, the tea-kettle is full of boiling water, and the tomatoes are all skinned, we are ready to begin the canning. First put four cans (if there are two persons, three if only one person) on the hearth in front of the fire; fill them with boiling water. Put enough tomatoes in a porcelain preserving kettle to fill these cans; add no water to them. With a good fire let them come to the boiling-point, or let them all be well scalded through. Then, emptying the hot water from the cans, fill them with the hot tomatoes; wipe off the moisture from the tops with a soft cloth, and press the covers tightly. While pressing each cover down closely with a knife, pour carefully around it the hot sealing-wax from the tin cup, so bent at the edge that the wax may run out in a small stream. Hold the knife still a moment longer, that the wax may set. When these cans are sealed, continue the operations until all the tomatoes are canned. Now put the blade of an old knife in the coals, and when it is red-hot run it over the tops of the sealing-wax to melt any bubbles that may have formed; then, examining each can, notice if there is any hissing noise, which will indicate a want of tightness in the can, which allows the steam to escape. If any holes are found, wipe them, and cover them while the cans are hot with a bit of the sealing-wax. There will be juice left after the tomatoes are canned. Season this and boil it down for catchup.
While reading this recipe I wished for illustrations and I certainly hoped that someone who had already canned would have been helping teach the process. It seems like they were using cans, not the glass jars that we usually use these days.

Several of my grands were young mothers in 1877. Elizabeth Armitage Meinzen was 25 with with 3 children. Elvira Bartley Gerner was 23 with 5 children, one born in July of that year. My great-great-grandmother, Lydia Bell Thompson, was 26 with 3 little ones. And my great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Laws Doyle was 32 with 8 children. Imagine canning over a fire with little ones to care for.

Oh, and did you ever think of why it's called catsup or ketchup? I always thought it was because women were trying to catch up with the overabundance of tomatoes. Maybe it was the juice and not the tomatoes that were in overabundance.

The photograph of tomatoes, above, was taken by Adam Selwood and made available on Flickr.


  1. I remember helping with the canning when I was of late gradeschool age. My job would be to take the skins off the tomatoes and peaches.

    Cut the fruit and place them in the sterilized glass jar. My parents would deal with the boiling and hot liquids.

    I have never canned since that chore, although my sisters both do. I don't know if they ever helped with the canning. I will have to ask them.

    I do blanching and freezing but not by large quanities.

  2. Nancy, having just gone through the process of canning tomatoes with Abigail, I am most grateful that we use bottles with prepared lids. I cannot imagine using hot wax! I'm almost certain your grands and great grands would have had some kind of help with this process. Surely! Complicated household projects were often dealt with in groups - extended family or possibly neighbors. I'm sure they would have farmed out the children at the very least! What these women could do, though, even by themselves, is truly remarkable to me. BTW, don't you just love the HEARTH website?!? I can really get distracted there. ;o)

  3. I used to can and I was happy to stop and begin freezing extra food. And I was doing it in the 1970s, not the 1870s.

  4. Claudia, my mother canned, too. Tomatoes, peaches, corn, jams. I think I helped her most by staying out of her way. My only memory or actually helping was shucking corn and breaking beans. I've never canned tomatoes, probably because I don't like them much.

    Kathleen, oh, yes, I can't imagine using actual cans and lids and hot wax - with a real fire nearby. What a setting for disaster.

    I do enjoy HEARTH, and the more I use it, the better I like it.

    Did Abigail enjoy canning tomatoes?

    Kristin, freezing is so much quicker and cooler, isn't it?

    Thanks to all of you for visiting and leaving comments.

  5. I think they use to can everything. My mom remembers her mother canning beef as refrigeration wasn't an option.


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