The Doug Crawford Canning Collection, courtesy of The Wellington Heritage Museum, Prince Edward County

Like so many inventions, the preservation of food was actually developed to meet a military need.

It was the age of Napoleon. Conquering countries was hard work that left Napoleon’s armies hungry. Napoleon also wanted to overcome the bad habits of people who were being conquered. They often burned their crops as French troops advanced. To be victorious, he realized his army would win as long as their stomachs could be filled.

In 1795, Napoleon sponsored a contest in France to develop a way of preserving food. A Paris food merchant, Nicholas Appert, claimed the 12,000-franc prize by cooking food, and placing it in large, glass apothecary jars sealed with a mixture of cheese and powdered lime. It was a huge advancement at a time when famine was widespread.

Within a few decades, the industry had swept across Europe and to the seaboard of the United States. In the late 1870s, a nursery salesman from Prince Edward County, Ontario attended a food exhibition in Philadelphia. George Dunning brought the idea back home and teamed up with a wealthy and influential entrepreneur, Wellington Boulter. Together, they build a small experimental factory on Boulter’s farm. The experiment worked and in 1882, they built the first successful fruit and vegetable-canning factory in Canada on the corner of West Mary and Spring Streets in Picton, the area’s major centre. Dunning faded from view in the new industry, but Boulter went on to be a canning pioneer still remembered today as the father of the canning industry in Canada.

The Doug Crawford Canning Collection, courtesy of The Wellington Heritage Museum, Prince Edward County – label photos by Sandra Foreman

Boulter also made a great fortune. And soon there were others who rushed to join in the canning game. Small factories dotted the landscape in Prince Edward County and from the 1890s through until the late 1950s, the industry became the lifeblood of the area. Farmers grew crops for the factories; their wives and daughters took seasonal jobs in them. Local canners processed such a large volume of produce, the area became known as ” Garden County of Canada.”

The Wellington Museum is home to an extensive exhibit on the canning industry of Prince Edward County. Photo courtesy of Will S.

In the first days of the industry, canning was an imperfect science. Lead poisoning from tin cans, and botulism from spoiled canned food were common. The early canners liked to keep the colour of their canned tomatoes bright red so they used cochineal, a dye used in the textile industry. It’s made from bugs and proved to be a source of stomach cancer in later decades. Still, people ate it and during the war years, the canning factories of Prince Edward County ran day and night to meet the demand for food.

But after the Second World War, the small factories of the area were old and obsolete.

They couldn’t compete with newer factories built elsewhere, imported canned goods, and changes in government regulations that demanded better sanitary conditions and worker benefits. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the canning factories closed their doors one by one, and the industry that had once meant everything to Prince Edward County, was gone for good.

Picture of Peter Lockyer

Peter Lockyer

Local historian and former CBC Journalist, Peter has been a life-long resident in Picton, Ontario.

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