The food packaging industry has gone through many changes since the rise of the first metal packages. Industrialization was the driving force behind metal being an early choice of material for the mass commercialization of food products. Here are key turning points in history since the industrial revolution that have led to the current state of increasing demand for packaging made with aluminum and other metals.
Early Industrial Packing Methods
Following the American and French revolutions, modern packing methods began to emerge. The 19th century saw rapid advancements in factory machinery that sped up packaging processes. In the early 1800s commercial food containers were made of materials such as pottery, glass and tinplated iron. The first commercial canning factory was launched in England in 1813. Foods that were canned in this era included oysters, meats, fruits and vegetables.
Decorated tinplated cans started to become widespread in the 1830s with biscuits and cakes. The patent for the first machine to stamp cylindrical can ends was awarded to Allan Taylor in 1847, as other new processes helped speed up production. Eleven years later American inventor Ezra J. Warner won a patent for the can opener, which became common to U.S. military personnel during the Civil War.
By 1875 the tapered can first appeared and was widely adopted for canning corned beef and sardines. As a multitude of modern inventions began to appear in the 1880s, this era ushered in the first automatic can making machine. One of the most unique packing developments of the century came in 1899 with the patent of aerosols, awarded to the team of Helbling and Petsch. Aerosols allow for liquid or gaseous contents to be kept under pressure in a container then sprayed as a fine mist. A more contemporary version of aerosol cans was introduced a few decades later.
One of the key drivers that revolutionized the meat packing industry in the United States was the popular 1905 novel The Jungle by investigative journalist Upton Sinclair. Although a fictional novel, the book exposed and raised awareness about unsanitary conditions among American meat packing facilities and food contamination, which led to the Meat Inspection Act then the Pure Food and Drug Act. This legislation eventually spawned the formation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
20th Century Metal Packaging
In the early 1900s new inventions blossomed even more, as a contemporary consumer-based society was starting to take shape. Tuna canning began in 1909 on the west coast of the United States. In 1914 continuous ovens began to be used to dry ink on tinplate packages. Bayer introduced pocket sized cans for aspirins in 1917. That same year marked the beginning of coffee cans with key openings. Here were some other major food packaging developments of the 20th century prior to World War II:
- 1926 - canned spam makes its debut
- 1931 - electric can opener first introduced
- 1935 - first beer can was marketed by Krueger
Immediately following the war the first aerosol cans were marketed on a mass scale in 1945. In the fifties as the world entered the Cold War era, metal can manufacturers tested containers to see if they could survive a nuclear explosion and still provide safe food. The results were positive. Then in 1957 metal cans got even more durable as aluminum was introduced in metal can making. The first all aluminum beer can appeared a few years later. Then came the first beverage can with a pull-tab in 1962.
Age of Sustainability
The launch of Earth Day in 1970 kicked off a new era that inspired metal can recycling. Can manufacturers began paying closer attention to principles of sustainability, as they began to emphasize less materials to make lighter cans. By the mid-eighties aluminum cans were the dominant container for the beverage market. Aluminum is among the most sustainable materials of all metals, since it's durable enough to maintain a long shelf life and it can be recycled endlessly without degradation of quality.
Another example of how sustainability goals inspired innovative concepts for metal packaging was the introduction of the retained ring on beverage containers in 1989. By keeping the ring on the can instead of breaking it off, it reduced waste and it kept the aluminum material in tact, as more metal went toward recycling. Throughout the nineties can ends were downsized with less circumference size for even more efficient and sustainable packaging.
The food packaging industry has used several materials over the past century, but metals such as aluminum and tinplate have gained the most widespread favor due to reliable strength and sustainability. History shows that metal cans make the most sense for long-term food storage.