Saturday, April 25, 2015

Exeter Canning Company

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 24, 2015.

Photo courtesy of Peter A. Smith
At the opening of the twentieth century, marketing of canned goods took off. Much of the credit for this goes to improvements in the safety of canned foods. In 1915, Exeter became the home to this industry with the creation of the Exeter Canning Company – a wholesale food packing factory located on a triangle of land behind Salem Street. Today, if you check Google Earth, there is no trace of this company, not even the outline of its buildings.

Preserving food to last between growing seasons has always been a challenge. Salting, smoking, pickling and preserving were the only options people had until the early 1800s when rudimentary canning was developed to help ship food to Napoleon’s army. Heavy metal cans with crudely soldered lids were packed tight with meats. If the can didn’t swell (a sure sign of decomposition) then the food was deemed safe to eat. These early canned goods had the added benefit of lead soldering, so if the food wasn’t outright rotten, the seal provided a low level of lead poisoning. Needless to say, outside of the military canned foods didn’t catch on. Home canning in lidded glass jars flourished to some degree, but spoilage continued to be a problem.

Beef hastily supplied for use during the Spanish American War of 1898 was so poorly packed that it came to be known as ‘embalmed beef’ by the army. With illnesses on the rise, the scandal of adulterated canned goods dominated the news and lead to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Combined with the growing awareness of the germ theory, food preservation took a great leap forward as sanitary factory conditions began to be seen as marketable.

James H. Ingersoll, according to the Exeter News-Letter, a “pioneer in the canned goods industry,” arrived in town in 1915, eager to build a sanitary canning factory. Perhaps to bolster the new business, the Exeter News-Letter ran a short article extolling the virtues of the tin can. “The tin can is the emblem of civilization. Its absence defines the savage; its use sets apart from barbarians the modern, forehanded, sanitary man. It is civilization’s defense against the leanness of lean years and against the attacks of carnivorous germs. It has been improved in the last 10 years; the top and bottom are no longer soldered on, they are crimped on, so that no corrosion can result from acid contents. Cans are now sealed in a vacuum, so that no bacterial change can be set up within. And machinery for making cans and the machinery for filling and sealing them have been perfected until the process in each case is now a continuous process, and the process wholly mechanical, in which the workmen share with their hands only to pull levers and adjust apparatus.” So clean, so sanitary.

Exeter had a number of advantages for the new business, including close proximity to the Boston & Maine railroad and access to local farmers. At this time, the town and surrounding area was still quite rural, although Ingersoll may have underestimated the output of local farmers. Rather than producing large volumes of one crop, most local farmers mixed their agricultural output. In this manner, if one crop failed there were others to fill in the loss. The largest local crop was hay – easy to grow, but not much good for canning. Still, Ingersoll was optimistic. He shipped wholesale in big number 10 cans to markets in Boston, Providence, Springfield and other New England cities.

Ingersoll focused on only a few products: corn, string beans, apples and baked beans. Of these, all could be obtained locally. He offered premiums to local farmers, including seed corn for the next season. Farmers were generally pleased to have such a ready market for their goods. Ingersoll’s advertisement in November of 1915 pledged, “we shall take no apples or string beans of anyone except from those who plant corn for us, giving our patrons the chance to dispose of their other canning products before taking from others who do not plant corn.” It was a pretty good deal for the farmers. Ingersoll awarded prizes to his best producers. W. Leslie Dining of Stratham won $25.00 in 1917 for the best acre.

The factory ran at full volume in the summer and fall when produce was abundant – sometimes almost too abundant – and winter and spring were busy packing baked beans. The seasonal nature of the business sometimes made it difficult to find workers. In October of 1918, when men were away fighting in World War I and influenza was felling many workers, Ingersoll desperately advertised, “WANTED: 30 to 50 Women – good wages! Steady work!” Priscilla Williams Johnson, a student in the Normal School division of the Robinson Female Seminary, went to work at the factory during the flu outbreak when the schools were closes. She later remembered to Nancy Merrill that the pay was good. She didn’t, however, stay with factory work. Johnson went on to become a long-time teacher in Exeter.

Ingersoll’s factory flourished for seventeen years. In 1927, it was abruptly announced that a sheriff’s auction would be held to disperse the holdings of the company in March. James Ingersoll died in November at the age of 76, so he didn’t linger into retirement. His obituary was complimentary, “president of J.H. Ingersoll & Company, Exeter, which until reverses did a business of considerable proportions.” Considerable indeed, his business met the needs of the time and helped advance the sanitary standards we all take a bit for granted today.

Photo: Canned goods became popular in the early part of the 20th century – as evidenced in this photo c. 1903 in an Exeter grocery store. (Photo courtesy of Peter A. Smith.)

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