History Bite: How the French Revolution Nearly Guillotined The Inventor of Canned Food

The French Revolution of 1789 is often credited with having, well, revolutionized the course of world affairs. Not only did it set off a series of wars on the continent, but also led to the downfall of a monarchy, the secularization of French society and even led to another revolution in Haiti, the first successful slave revolt in modern history. Its reverberations were even felt nearly a century later right here on the West Coast as Richmond and Steveston grew into full-fledged settlements. How so, you wonder? Read on.

In addition to all of the above, the French Revolution is also remembered for its “excesses”—most notably the infamous “Terreur” which cost the lives of tens of thousands, most notably King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. After years of hardship French peasants had a bit of an axe to grind, and grind away they did, sending the majority of those thousands to the “National Razor,” the recently-invented guillotine.

But though many perished as the revolution grew increasingly radical, others had more luck on their side. Enter Nicolas Appert. Taking a keen interest in the early stages of the revolution, Appert quickly rose within its ranks, becoming president of his district division and even assisting in the execution of Louis XVI. Unfortunately for him, this wasn’t enough to win the graces of the authorities, and in April 1794 he was himself arrested on account of his more moderate political views.

Nicolas Appert, inventor of canned food and near victim of the guillotine.

Facing execution, as so many others had before him, Appert caught a break three months later as the Jacobins were overthrown by the Girondins and he was released. Little did anyone know at the time that future canners were catching a break as well. This is because following his release, Appert decided to devote his life to the important task of perfecting the art of preserving food and medicine. In 1810 Appert published his findings in a little book entitled “L’art de Conserver,” which explained how by hermetically sealing perishables in bottles or containers and then boiling them in water, items could be kept for up to six years longer than usual, while avoiding many of the problems associated with existing methods such as drying or salting.

Nearly a century later, this same method (using cans rather than bottles) was employed by the booming salmon canning industry as it established itself on the West Coast, including our very own Gulf of Georgia Cannery. Would Appert’s method have been invented elsewhere had he perished in the Terreur? Possibly. Thanks to the Girondins, however, canneries were at the very least saved their founding father, and were possibly, to conclude this blog entry on a rather dramatic note, saved their very existence. Tangled webs of history indeed!

Appert, Nicolas. “L’Art de Conserver, pendant plusieurs années, toutes les substances animales et végétales.” 1810.
Garcia, Rebeca & Adrian, Jean. “Nicolas Appert: Inventor and Manufacturer.” Food Reviews International, 25: 115-125, 2009.

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