The tin – so much more than just food packaging

By Lena Hennewig (Research Assistant)

According to Duden, the tin can is a "tin can in which foodstuffs and luxury foods are preserved in an airtight manner". Invented around the year 1800, it is still found in almost every household today and is actually nothing special. Or is it? 

They are probably available in almost every household: Tomatoes in a can, these here from the shopping bag of Alfred Biolek: Purchasing Biolek: Zwei Dosen geschälte Tomaten der Marke "Tip" (Two cans "Tip" brand tomatoes) (2005), white sheet, printed paper * industrially manufactured, 11.5 x 10 cm, © Stiftung Domäne Dahlem

"An army marches with its stomach." The tin can and Napoleon Bonaparte 

The success story of the tin can began in France in 1795 with Napoleon Bonaparte and a tender he initiated: anyone who could develop a way of preserving food for longer and thus reliably supply military troops was to receive 12,000 francs. Until then, the troops on their campaigns depended on the success of their military activities: only what was captured and "plundered" could be consumed. Accordingly, soldiers were killed more often by spoiled food, malnutrition or undernourishment than in combat. "An army marches with its stomach," Napoleon is said to have said. 

The invention of preserves

With an average annual salary of 500 francs, the 12,000 francs that had been awarded by Napoleon Bonaparte were a considerable sum that Nicolas Appert did not want to miss. Nicolas Appert was a Parisian chef and confectioner, who turned away from his learned craft in 1796 and devoted his time exclusively to the research and invention of methods for food preservation.

Originally preserved in glass containers, it was only then that the idea of using tin cans arose. "Gerrix" preserving jar with lid and clamping clip (1st half of the 20th Century), H: 15 cm, W: 11 cm, D: 11 cm, D: 11 cm, glass * manufactured industrially. © Domäne Dahlem Foundation - Estate and Museum

Appert had the idea of heating and thus preserving food in airtightly sealable glass containers – a process known in German as "Einkochen" or "Einwecken" ("bottling/preserving"). After years of tinkering, Appert came to the following conclusion: he filled prepared food into discarded champagne bottles and sealed them with burnt lime and cheese – a technique that worked! After the successful testing by the French Navy, Appert received the reward of 12,000 francs in 1810. As early as 1804, Appert, convinced of his invention, had opened the world's first cannery. The spiritual father of preserves in glass wrote a treatise on his invention, which you can read here in the German translation.

Sturdy sheet metal instead of fragile glass

However, it soon turned out that glass as a material was not ideally suited for transport and field use due to its fragility - the solution to the problem followed in 1810 in England: the British merchant Peter Durand patented his implementation of Appert's idea with tin containers instead of glass containers. 

Tin USA, Army Food Dinner 5 (circa 1950?), tin, 8 x 7 x 3.4 cm © Museum Europäischer Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Museum of European Cultures, National Museums in Berlin) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

The shape follows the print. Why cans are round and not square

But why is the can actually round? One might think that a square can would be much more practical and space-saving. To ensure that the food in canned food cans actually remains stable for a longer period of time, it is mandatory to heat the filled and closed container. The pressure generated by this process, which – as we know from the round balloon – spreads evenly, would cause a square tin can to become round anyways. Therefore, they are produced in the same cylindrical shape. 

Initially, canned food was mainly used by the military and the wealthy; at an average production speed of initially only one can per hour, this is not surprising. The French Home Army or the British Army also used the preserved food on their campaigns and were now nutritionally independent of the success of their operations and their looting. 

The tin can played a decisive role as early as the First World War. The British writer and journalist George Orwell even argued that the First World War would not have taken place without the invention of the tin can.

Better late than never! – The invention of the can opener 

But how did the hungry soldier get access to all the preserved delicacies that were so well and securely packaged in the cans? He first had to make it with a knife, a bayonet, or a hammer and a chisel – a rather cumbersome and not entirely clean matter, as you can imagine.

Only came onto the market after 60 years of delay: Dosenöffner (Can opener) (ca. 1930-1935), TECHNOSEUM Landesmuseum für Technik und Arbeit in Mannheim (State Museum of Technology and Labour in Mannheim) (CC0 1.0)

The can opener was not patented until 1870, exactly 60 years after Peter Durand's patenting of the tin can. Further years to decades passed before the now widespread tear-off lid or the key integrated into the can to open it was invented.

300 billion cans per year – the unimaginable scale of industrial mass production

Probably everyone knows Andy Warhol's soup cans. However, he was not the first to ennoble the tin in the fine arts: Max Liebermann was already a female canner at work in 1879. Liebermann, Konservenmacherinnen (Canners) (1879), Maße Dia: 5 x 5 cm, Fotograf: Peter H. Feist © Mediathek des Instituts für Kunst- und Bildgeschichte der Humboldt Universität zu Berlin (Media Library of the Institute for Art and Art History of Humboldt University at Berlin (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Since the late 19th century, the tin can has been produced in industrial mass production. At the turn of the 20th century, 700,000 tinplate cans were produced annually in the USA alone. Worldwide, the figure was already 300 billion in 2017, and the trend is rising. In 2019, 4 billion cans were sold in Germany alone.

In 1945, the cans had to be filled manually: Gremmler, Karl Theodor: Woman fills peeled and presumably blanched asparagus stalks in cans (1945), original negative © slub / Deutsche Fotothek (German Photographic Library ) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Victory march in private households

With the advent of industrial mass production, the use of cans in private households also increased. In the 1950s, the tin finally began its triumphant march in domestic kitchens. International specialties came to Germany carefully packaged and sterilised in cans from all over the world. The beverage industry also adopted the can and filled the practical tin containers with lemonade and beer.

The cola can is not only a drink in practical packaging, but now an icon of consumer culture. Felices Fiestas! (1992), aluminium, lacquered, 11.5 x 6.5 cm © Museum Europäischer Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Museum of European Culture, Berlin State Museum) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

But how did this real can boom come about? The dawning economic miracle of the 1950s helped many people all over the western world achieve new prosperity and allowed them to purchase preserved food from faraway countries: Exotic fruit and vegetables could be packaged locally, preserved and shipped to the domestic supermarket. The long transport time was no longer a health problem due to the preservation and was also financially manageable due to the higher purchasing power of private households. 
The experiences of the Second World War – including food shortages, hunger and loss – have certainly also contributed to the triumph of canned food and promoted the desire for food that is always available, storable in the long term and easily transportable.

Necessity makes you inventive – the tin can as a universal genius

However, the can is not only a practical and helpful food storage. Not only did it supply armies on their campaigns or soothe the (post-)war generation traumatised by hunger, food shortages and spoilage: the emptied tin can can also be put to excellent use and has helped out of many an emergency.

Soldiers threw away empty cans – and resourceful hobbyists became pioneers of upcycling: Kaffeeröster (Eigenbau) (Coffee roaster ([self-made]) (1940s), iron, handmade, 54 x 11 cm © Domäne Dahlem Foundation - Estate and Museum

Thus, a fully functional coffee roaster can be produced from a simple can with a little skill, some wire and an iron rod, but other practical household appliances such as petroleum lamps or kitchen graters can also be produced from cans in emergency situations.

A dowry of a particularly personal and touching kind: Reibe, aus einer Konservendose gefertigt (Grater, made of a can) (probably 1945-1948), tinplate punched, perforated, 11.4 x 3.6 x 8.5 cm © Museum Europäischer Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

The improvised household helpers were gladly made privately for special occasions, such as weddings or birthdays, and given away to friends and family. At a time when there was often a lack of space on the roof above the head, it was certainly a great gesture and joy!

Bringt Kinderaugen zum Strahlen: Spielzeug-Eisenbahnwaggon (Brightens children's eyes: Toy railway wagon) (1945-1946), 7 x 17.5 x 5.7 cm © Landesmuseum Württemberg (Württemberg State Museum) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Children in particular were also affected by the period of deprivation during and after the Second World War: they lacked not only food and clothing, but also toys. A father from Braunschweig therefore used an American can and the substructure of an old Märklin railway to build a railway car for his son to play with. The embossed details imitate steel posts, wooden boards and sliding doors.

The toy shows equally the hardship of the time, but also great creativity and the will to create something positive in a difficult time. 

And today?

Andy Warhol's famous silkscreen prints became valuable ceramics: Campbell's Box (2002-2013), porcelain, printed, glazed, 30 x 21 x 21 cm © Hetjens-Museum/Fotograf: Wolf Eric Pohlmann, 2014 (Rights reserved - Free access)

The Second World War has passed more than 70 years ago, but to this day the tin is indispensable in many areas of our lives: in addition to the pantry – not only in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic – we now find the tin in numerous playrooms, at almost every children's birthday party and even in the art temples of this world.

Andy Warhol dedicated his own world-famous series of prints to preserved canned soup, whose works are exhibited in important museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York

Still a great joy for every child: can throwing at the children's birthday party or on the hustle and bustle. Raimund Marfels: Dorffest: Dosenwerfen, links die Anstehenden (Village festival: can throwing, people standing in line on the left) (1977), 6 x 6 cm © Kreisarchiv Stormarn (Stormarn District Archive) (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

And to this day, no childhood is complete without can stilts and telephones, hardly any children's birthday party without the loud clatter of cans being thrown.

You can find more tins and tin-related objects in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek



Scientific contributions to the can and its history:

Aufsatz des Sozial- und Wirtschaftshistorikers Uwe Spiekermann über Lebensmittelkonservierung:

Abhandlung zum Thema „Thermische Konservierung in der Lebensmittelindustrie“ mit einer Kurzgeschichte der Konservendose:

Publikationen des Norwegischen Konservendosenmuseums in Stavanger (Norsk Hermetikkmuseum) in englischer Sprache:


Historical sources:

Nicolas Appert über seine Erfindung der Konserve: (deutsche Übersetzung) (französische Originalversion)

Peter Durand über sein patentiertes Verfahren zur Konservierung von Lebensmitteln: (englische Originalversion)


General information about the can and its history:


(Not only) for Children: