Pick, Peel, Preserve: Canning in Johnson County
In the late nineteenth century, canned goods became a major part of the American food supply chain. As Anna Zeide writes in Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry, canned goods profoundly changed Americans’ relationship with food. As early canners described it, “All the hoarded gifts of summer live in the can” and canned food “put the June garden into the January pantry.” The commercial canning industry in the United States began in the 1850s in New York, Maryland, and Delaware. Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, and California joined by the 1870s. By 1914, there were 4,220 canneries nationwide, producing more than 55 million cases of canned vegetables, fruits and seafood. Nearly one-third of the vegetables were tomatoes.
By that time Indiana had more than 100 canneries, and in Johnson County, most of the canned goods produced were tomatoes. In the 1940s, Johnson County was the #1 canning county in the state and #21 in the nation. In 1942, over 5,500 people in Johnson County worked in this industry, at a time when the county’s population was just over 22,000 (a portion of those workers were migrant workers from other counties and states). Canning not only changed how people in Johnson County, Indiana, ate, it also changed how they worked.
So where are the canneries now? Many of these successful canneries in Johnson County were small canneries. The businesses operated only a few months out of the year. They could not compete with big companies that operated year-round in states with warm climates, like California. In addition, during the 1950s, frozen foods provided an alternative to canned foods. Unable to compete, small canneries closed down or sold out to larger companies.