What Preserving Looked Like in 1917

Caution: Do not follow the recipes photographed below.  These methods were acceptable in 1917 but are not considered safe today.  More on that below..

My friend Brock (from Kensington Brewing Company) approached me with a smirk.

I have a gift for you.

His arm extended forward and he handed me this:

What Preserving Looked Like in 1917

In the introduction, the booklet makes a compelling argument for women to preserve.  The argument includes:

  • Most fruit was only available in Ontario 3-4 months per year.
  • Learning to preserve can reduce waste to ‘almost nothing.’
  • Preserving adds variety, starch and sugars in addition to mineral matter and fiber that are important for health.  “In families where the diet is poor in vegetables and fruits, or where these are abundant for only three or four months of the year, recourse to medicinal help is more frequent.”
  • Having a garden ‘from one-quarter to one-half acre’ would provide enough food for a family in the summer and a surplus to can.  And this made sense because, “The economy of home-gardening and canning of these vegetables is not fully appreciated.  If the produce were purchased as required on the open market, the cost would be from $100 to $200, and if purchased as canned goods the cost would be considerably more.”
  • It also makes a plea that food ‘is going to be scarce this winter.’  This was the middle of the war.  The book mentions it was patriotic to preserve the surplus and consider selling some to raise money for the Red Cross and/ or donate jars to soldiers ‘in the hospitals and in the trenches.’

The writing is obviously aged but many of the points are still valid; preserved food can save money, increase diversity and the amount of healthful options in your pantry, can lower waste and make the most out of a short growing season.

What Preserving Looked Like in 1917

Beyond the cultural changes (such as preserving being the exclusive domain of the ‘woman of the house’), the book shows other signs of age.  I’m fascinated to read recipes like the one that follows for caning beans and peas without a pressure canner (and the inversion method of cooling the cans) that is now considered extremely risky and should not be done at all:

what preserving looked like in 1917, Ontario Department of Agriculture, Old Preserving Books

I’m amazed to see diagrams like this which show a pressure canner on top of a wooden stove:

what preserving looked like in 1917, Ontario Department of Agriculture, Old Preserving Books

Books like these fascinate me.  They show me just how much the world, our kitchens and preserving techniques have changed – and how much (like the intent and purpose of putting food up) has stayed the same or similar to the way it was.

It’s a fascinating look at the past and I thought you’d enjoy it too…  A giant thanks to Brock for the book, it’s a lot of fun!


  1. Hey Joel! I was so glad to see this post, because I have a problem relating to this topic on which I’m hoping you can advise.

    I’ve been trying to do more pressure canning, and recently canned 8 jars of asparagus soup makings (you saute the shallots and garlic etc, then add it to a jar with asparagus bits, cover with chicken stock and pressure can, then add cream while heating and puree before consuming) without incident. However, my next batch of asparagus, I forgot to vent the canner for 10 minutes. :-/ The canner was always about 12-13 pounds of pressure during for 30 minutes (pint jars), but I understand that air inside the sealed canner may reduce temperature even at these pressure levels.

    However, the other day I was given a book containing my grandmother’s recipes from before she was married. (My gran was an amazing cook and farm wife). The first page contains a recipe for Canned Corn from “Rev. Mrs. C. McWallis” in which 16 cups of corn, 3 cups of water, 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of salt are boiled for 20 minutes, then put boiling hot into sterilized bottles and sealed while hot. It goes on to say that for beans and peas, you should only do 10 cups at a time, but presumably with the same method.

    Now, I know we don’t consider this “safe” nowadays, but my grandmother (and her generation) survived on this fare!

    So here’s my question: do I need to throw out my 8 LOVELY jars of asparagus??? :-D

    Would love to know what you think.


    • Heya Karen!

      I can totally empathize – been in similar situations over the years as I’m sure most of us who have canned were at one time or another..

      It’s a really hard question to answer because, ultimately, I really think the decision is deeply personal. Institutes like the National Center of Home Food Preservation develop their standards with an unknown margin of error – i.e. their times and pressures aren’t close to being unsafe so when we vary slightly it’s impossible to know how close to the edge of safety we really are. When we vary from the standard it’s impossible to know how close we are to the actual limits of safety and choosing to eat it becomes an intensely personal choice.

      My family also canned things that are now considered very unsafe. I grew up eating clams that had been processed by waterbath. It’s not a technique or recipe that I share publicly but I still eat them and take the risk; but each time a friend reaches for their first clam we have a conversation first on why this might be a dangerous thing. And, truth be told, I’m starting to question whether I will continue to eat them.

      I met a relative of someone who contracted botulism (not through preserving) and heard about their ordeal and read about it later. It’s beyond horrific. Yet the chances of getting it through canning are fairly remote.

      I know this answer is probably not what you had hoped – I don’t really have a recommendation and the honest truth is that I don’t know what I would do in the same dilemma. On one hand it’s likely completely safe and on the other hand the consequences are dramatic if it’s not. A minor chance of something really bad; at least in my estimation.

      I’ve sat here for 5 minutes thinking “Would I or wouldn’t I?” and all I can come up with is I’d take my time deciding what I was comfortable with..

      • Thanks so much for taking the time to respond in such a comprehensive manner, Joel. I believe I will opt for safety and ditch the lot. After all, $5.50 worth of asparagus really isn’t worth the possibility of paralysis and death, looking at the big picture. :-D I’m trying to become a better pressure canner, and will now store the apparatus with a sticky note which says, “VENT THE CANNER!!” Ahh, ya live, ya learn.


Leave a Reply