I’m working on a book called Freedom from Want: Home Canning in the American Imagination. Broadly, I’m interested in who has promoted canning in the United States in the last 150 years, and why.
My book’s working title references Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech, given to Congress in 1941, which affirmed the importance of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. The speech was later translated by Norman Rockwell into iconic Saturday Evening Post covers and posters for the US Office of War Information. Rockwell envisioned “freedom from want” as the liberty to enjoy a well-stocked Thanksgiving table; my book’s title references this emphasis on provisioning (which is, after all, canning’s raison d’être), but it also calls to mind a desire for less desire, for freedom from a social structure built on the unchecked consumption of industrially produced goods. That is, while home canning has long been about ensuring access to food out of season, it’s also been practiced as a way to promote freedom from wanting things—and has thus been closely associated with “simple living,” do-it-yourself creativity and control, and the public good. Furthermore, this latter emphasis on personal choice—canning as a political practice, not merely a necessary one—is not new. Home canning has always had larger symbolic meanings, and it’s been linked to a range of causes and commitments.
I’m intrigued by today’s revival of preserving at home—an enthusiasm I experienced firsthand while teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011 and 2012—and also by the ways that home canning has persisted more continuously in many communities around the United States. Canning was an unremarkable part of my own childhood, for example, growing up Mormon in central Ohio. But getting a complete picture of canning’s many meanings requires putting current practice in historical context—documenting the continuities and bursts of participation that have characterized home canning since the technology became widely accessible in the late nineteenth century.
So I decided to combine a focus on observed practices with attention to talk about those practices, both past and present. I’ve started to explore some of my family connections to home food production and preservation on this blog, but my research sources are primarily ethnographic interviews, photographs, diaries, instruction manuals, war posters, trade publications, marketing studies, government agency reports, advertising campaigns, and product labels. I’ve paid attention to contemporary examples of canning-related talk at workshops and tourist sites (such as Kitchen Kettle Village in Lancaster Co., PA), but I’ve also searched the collections of the Winterthur Museum (DE), the Ball Corporation archives at the Minnetrista Cultural Center (IN), the American Folklife Center (and the food history holdings) at the Library of Congress, the National Museum of American History, the National Agricultural Library (MD), and the LDS Church History Library (UT), as well as archived materials held by Brigham Young University, Indiana University, North Carolina State University, the Ohio State University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Pennsylvania, Utah State University, and the University of Utah. I’m grateful for grants from the American Folklife Center and the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies that have made some of this research possible.
Watch for related posts of a personal nature on this blog; I’m also working on a series of posts for a new blog (not yet live) in which I’ll share some of the interesting primary sources I’ve found in archives and used bookstores. (If you’re looking for great food books, for instance, try Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, an amazing shop in Greenwich Village. I cleaned out the canning-related materials during a trip to Manhattan last week, but don’t worry: Bonnie said she’d restock.)