Classic business history links the evolution of markets and consumption to underlying macro, classic, and web-like infrastructures such as energy grids, transportation systems, and communication networks, which have transformed the economy. However, recent scholarship has also addressed the impact of small, mundane, and “disconnected” market-things as market drivers. In this tradition, I look at “canned goods” (Hine, 1999; Strasser, 1989; Twede, 2012) as an underappreciated but highly important “pico-infrastructure” underlying these same transformations.
More precisely, cans were like an inverted Trojan horse, transforming American consumption just like the Greeks’ gift to king Priam reversed the course of the Trojan War. In the myth, the spectacular free seductions of the container—the horse—served as a voluntary means to introduce a hidden content: a military squad with defined purposes. By contrast, with ordinary canned goods, the hidden paying promises of the content—the canned good—served as an involuntary way to introduce a visible container: the can. Despite its visibility, this container carried less-foreseeable implications. The can’s ability to be read, stacked, and manipulated without affecting its content helped goods move beyond the limit of the counter, escape the retailers’ mediation, and be handled directly by consumers. Well before the advent of supermarkets, cans thus heralded the shift from service to self-service arrangement, the rise of modern consumerism, and the development of the brand economy. The spread of canned goods after World War I triggered an unplanned shift of market infrastructures and structures: in advocating preserved foods and the technical means to carry them, their promoters more or less surreptitiously introduced important changes linked to the features of this new container.
A change over time
Progressive Grocer, a trade journal founded in 1922 that targeted small, independent grocers and played a key role in promoting canned goods, advertised the can’s two distinct advantages: the ability to transcend seasonality and the power to store foods. In its very first year of publication, the magazine launched a “Canned Foods Week” that became a yearly event each fall (October 1922: 7 sq.). Stressing—or rather constructing—the seasonality of cans, along the principle that “every business has its harvest period” (October 1924: 9), may seem totally paradoxical. Indeed, aren’t cans actually intended to transcend seasons, allowing the consumption of produce throughout the year? Yes, but Progressive Grocer’s marketing genius was to note that the natural seasonality of fresh produce can build the commercial seasonality of the containers aimed at preserving it. It is precisely when fresh produce becomes scarce—when the fall season comes (November 1923: 11)—that it becomes possible to sell the solutions that claim to compensate for such a shortage. Progressive Grocer invented the annual autumn can fair as a device designed to capture, along a sexist and almost animal scheme, the squirrel that supposedly hides inside each consumer:
Even in this day of prompt delivery, women have a feeling of security if they have a well-filled cellar or pantry (November 1923: 11).
[In the fall] [t]he old nesting instinct arises in the breast of the housewife and she wants to fill the larder (October 1924: 10).
The autumn moment and, more broadly, the 1920s, were indeed very favorable conditions for the consumption of canned food. Domestic refrigerators, introduced in the previous decade (Anderson, 1953), were still very rare. Therefore, most consumers continued to adapt, as they always did, to the seasonal eclipse of fresh produce. Traditionally, families prepared preserves for the winter, and the consumption of dried fruit and smoked meat was still part of American life. Thus, the burdens of the past created promising conditions for the development of a future market. Such a project was not totally obvious, of course: if the wide acceptance of substitutes for fresh food created a favorable environment for the consumption of canned foods, the habit of homemade preserves was a clear obstacle to their commercialization. But again, the general evolution of the economy and the American society changed the odds: Progressive Grocer noted that more than half the population lived in cities, away from the individual gardens that supported self-production, hence the likely decline in homemade preserves and the corresponding rise of a market for their industrial substitutes (October 1923: 23).
A spatial shift
But Progressive Grocer’s attempt to list every benefit of canned foods makes all the more remarkable the magazine’s complete omission of two major advantages. First, this type of packaging, stackable and durable, required less furniture and less-expensive display and storage fixtures than other products. Second and most important, because customers could handle cans themselves without risk of damage, and because the cans could be clearly labeled with their contents, brand name, and origin, canned goods could “sell themselves” and reduce the need for service. Either Progressive Grocer’s journalists were not yet aware of these benefits, or, more likely they were anxious not to disrupt the visceral attachment of the grocery industry to customer service and product substitution, as well as its hostility towards brand names that reduced its place and freedom. Regardless of the reasoning, Progressive Grocer in the 1920s avoided the most distinctive marketing appeals of the product they wanted to promote.
Can manufacturers and canners did “push” these benefits, but with extreme caution. In advertisements (Figure 1), most of the cans appear only behind the counter, in the old-fashioned way according to the traditional routine of grocer-mediated sales. The advertisers who designed these advertisements were well aware that most businesses were still working this way, so that it was prudent not to go too far against common practice, “all other groceries being equal,” so to speak. Yet, in all these ads that use the same rhetoric, it is clear that the cans also highlight their ability to be stacked without need for shelves as well as their labels, which advertise their content and “speak” at the same time or in place of the grocer. Thus, by virtue of their superior “display” ability, the cans may slip surreptitiously and silently from the background shelves to the talkative foreground of the counter, and thus relegate the grocer in the middle, between the sales counter of old and the self-service system to come. This evolution continued through merchandising innovations like those of the Libby’s Cannery (Figure 2).
In this advertisement, Libby’s takes a step further. The staging is the same, with the double exposure of cans on shelves or in a stack, and the presence of the grocer. However, the counter, now useless, has disappeared, causing subtle changes: by moving to the ground, the pile of cans has grown; in jumping on the other side of the counter, the stacked or shelved cans have become fully accessible to customers. Thus, as we gradually discover, the can initiated the era of self-service in small and traditional grocery stores in the 1920s rather than in the larger, subsequent supermarkets. Of course, the transition is conservative: the grocer is retained, but his stacking gesture is clearly reversible into a taking one and transferable on the client’s side: the purpose is to “gently” teach grocers that cans are not only stackable as highlighted by the previous ads, but that they can also be left to the direct manipulation of clients, without having to fear that such manipulation generates material risks (they are solid) or health hazards (they are hermetic).
All in all, the strength and sealing of cans greatly supported the advent of self-service, while their opacity supported the invention of a new transparency, that of packaging, which paradoxically enabled the consumer to learn more about each product by its outer label than through a direct contact with it, by means of the statements of its composition and origin (Frohlich, 2011); and second to bypass the mediation of the vendor, which before was almost mandatory (Strasser, 1989). Thus, the generalization of cans is inseparable from the promotion of brands like Libby’s (November 1929: 6-7), Monarch (August 1929: 62-63), or Gerber’s (January 1930: 74-75) and from the emergence of new preferences, like the taste for vitamins (March 1937: 10; March 1941: 142-143; September 1942: 97). The “pico-infrastructure” of cans clearly prepared the move of the grocery store to self-service and mass consumption, “for better (the rise of canners’ and grocers’ profits) or for worse (the strengthening of a chauvinist consumerism),” as one says at weddings, along with other promises of long, happy life, with many children, but also with even more cans: 788 cans a year for the average bride in 1953 (Figure 3)!