Waste Not, Want Not: Kelp, Cans and MAP: Packaging as Food Preservation

By Anne Murcott

Starting work on a history of food packaging some years ago, rapidly led to the realisation that it is also a history of a very long list of other things, including food preservation.  But preparing a contribution for a conference called ‘Waste Not Want Not’ prompted looking at both the preservation and packaging of food from a slightly different angle.  The two are intimately linked in a way that other relevant histories – such as of transport or the cold chain, the invention of plastic films or the very idea of convenience – associated with the development of food packaging are less so.  For most food preservation techniques involve a wrapping, receptacle or package for storage – exceptions include meats or fruits that are dried solid, biltong or jerky, apple or pear.    

Here are three illustrations which all happen to exploit the significance of oxygen when preserving foodstuffs.  The first two involve drastically reducing atmospheric oxygen pretty much to create a vacuum.  The third entails changing the proportion of oxygen in relation to the other main gases in the air we all breathe, modifying the atmosphere in the package. 

The first example dates from prehistoric New Zealand.  It is a Māori technique for preserving tītī commonly known in English as mutton bird – a fish-eating sooty sheerwater found in Australasia.  A bag, pōhā, is made of split bull kelp which is then inflated then filled with cooked birds sealed with their own fat.  Bags are then placed in woven flax baskets and can be secured with strips of bark for safe handling and transport.

Nereocystis or ‘bull kelp’. A prehistoric algae used by The Māori to preserve tītī (mutton bird). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Next is the history of the ubiquitous tin can.  Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner (1749-1841) is often called the ‘father of canning’.  He published details of his invention – translated as a way ‘of conserving all kinds of food substances in containers’ in 1810.  Within a few months, an Englishman, Peter Durand, was granted a patent by George III that is virtually identical to Appert’s method.   Duran sold the patent to Bryan Donkin, an engineer who already owned the Dartford Iron Works near London and who in 1813 opened a ‘preservatory’ i.e. canning factory in Blue Anchor Road, Bermondsey, London.  The ‘great man’ solo inventor version of the history does not seem to be disturbed by the fact that only a few months separate Appert’s treatise being published in French in France and Durand’s being granted the patent published in English in England.  It is important to remember, this is a time when confectioners, merchants and engineers may not have spoken a second language and a period when both countries were politically extremely wary of one another, if not actually at war. 

 One interpretation depends on suggestions of industrial espionage – casting Donkin as a spy.  Not so well known, however, is a 1994 PhD by Norman Cowell, a retired food scientist who has worked through the archives of the Royal Society and the National Archives.  He has identified a second Frenchman, an inventor called Philippe de Girard, who came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent what was apparently his own idea.  Cowell finds strong circumstantial evidence that Appert and Girard were in contact.  Thus he is led to propose that Durand can no longer ‘be seen as a naked opportunist pirating Appert’s invention: instead he appears as a London agent facilitating the exploitation by Girard (and probably Appert) of their inventions in the more technologically advanced world of British industry.’

Portrait of Nicolas Appert, inventor of food canning in 1795, tiré de Les Artisans illustres de Foucaud, anonymous woodcut, circa 1841. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Where the first two examples involved eliminating oxygen, the third postpones the food’s spoiling, by altering the percentage of this gas relative to carbon dioxide and nitrogen surrounding the foodstuff in proportions that differ from the air everyone breathes. One history identifies a turning point in the spread of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) technology when, in 1981 Marks and Spencer (in the UK) introduced a wide range of fresh meat products packaged under a modified atmosphere.  The use in the UK of MAP is labelled on the pack.  But the wording avoids the word modified, using ‘Packaged in a protective atmosphere’ instead. 

These three examples illustrate the following among other features.  While it is very well known that food preservation is found worldwide and is very old indeed, so too can be what nowadays is called packaging.  The second example illustrates how a history of an invention is not necessarily best written as solely springing from the efforts of a ‘great man’ and the socio-political context should not, of course, be ignored.  And the third once again demonstrates that there are some food preservation technologies that cannot work without a package. 


Waste Not, Want Not: Interpreting Thrift through Victorian Food Writing

By Lindsay Middleton

When you use ‘thrift’ in conversations today, the word carries connotations of frugality and, perhaps, tightfistedness. In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, however, the meaning of ‘thrift’ was being reinvigorated. Cookbooks and etiquette guides such as Samuel Smiles’s Thrift (1875) told their middle- and working-class readers to return to thriftier ways of living. By doing so, people would supposedly be morally superior, living without wastefulness and making society more efficient. Food was one of the ways readers could adopt thrift into their lifestyles, and as Smiles said: ‘[h]ealth, morals, and family enjoyments are all connected with the question of cookery. Above all, it is the handmaid of Thrift’ (Smiles 1876: 370). Speaking at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference, my paper explored how thrift and food preservation were framed within Victorian food texts. Looking at three recipes from cookbooks and three from periodicals – published between 1866 and 1895 – I structurally analysed recipes to examine how they use words, space on the page, different textual forms and food technologies. Changes between these characteristics can be compared to reach wider conclusions: for instance, the way innovations in food preservation influenced cooking times.

C19th silver soup tureen. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What my paper showed, was that recipes were engaging with thrift and preservation and attempting to bring them into the Victorian home. Furthermore, both of these topics were intertwined in the debates of the time. The recipe for ‘Gravy Soup’ found in Charles Buckmaster’s Buckmaster’s Cookery (1874) uses a tin of preserved meat, boiling it to make soup. Tinned meat circulated in Britain from 1813, when Donkin and Hall supplied it to the Navy, and it was slowly adopted as a domestic ingredient from that point. A scandal in 1852, however, concerning 264 rotten cans destined for the Navy, meant the public were suspicious of canned meat when Buckmaster was writing. Despite public concern, tinned meat was fast becoming a valuable food resource, as British livestock quantities were failing to feed an ever-growing population. Buckmaster’s way of convincing readers to try the soup is to appeal to the middle-classes, who could have afforded his book and were involved in setting trends. He declares that ‘prejudice against preserved meat can only be gradually overcome by the middle and upper classes eating it’ (1874: 106) and suggests serving the soup in a decorative tureen. This elevates ideas of thrift and preservation away from the notion that people who were thrifty had to be, because they were poor. By making thrift a fashionable thing that appeals to the middle-classes, Buckmaster implicates it in the class relations of the time as well as discussions of food supply, demonstrating that thrift and food preservation were integrated into Victorian current affairs.

Other recipes demonstrate that thrift was framed using nutrition, economy and self-sufficiency. A satirical story published in All the Year Round in 1874, the periodical edited by Charles Dickens and then Charles Dickens Jr., shows that thrifty foods were so ubiquitous they were being used for entertainment. In the story, the female narrator describes her cooking-school instructress making mutton croquettes from a leftover joint. The tutor misses the point, telling students to use the finest cut of mutton and expensive ingredients. The narrator scorns this approach, advocating that people should properly adopt thrift in their kitchens. I compared this recipe to one for croquettes in Eliza Warren Francis’s How I Managed my House on Two Hundred Pounds a Year (1864) which uses the last scraps of meat available. Though the recipes stand in opposition to one another, they each convey the same message: thrift was to be encouraged. These recipe authors address a range of people, different physical spaces, and use different textual spaces to demonstrate that thrift and preservation were issues that occupied a myriad of spaces within Victorian society.

Victorian reformer, Samuel Smiles. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What delivering this paper at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference showed, was that the Victorian recipes I studied were revitalising ideas of thrift and economy that had been around for centuries past. The other papers determined that these ideas were in no way new, but were often refashioned at times of societal change. By making thrifty foods fashionable and a matter of morals, the Victorians were attempting to discourage wastefulness, so that Britain could adapt to changes such as increasing industrialisation and a still-growing population. Throughout history, then, an analysis of these ideologies through the lens of food can be a window into the realities of the past.


Buckmaster, Charles. Buckmaster’s Cookery. London: George, Routledge and Sons, 1874.

Dickens, Charles, Jr (ed.). ‘Learning to Cook.’ All the Year Round, 12.306 (1874): 611-617.

Smiles, Samuel. Thrift. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1875.

Warren Francis, Eliza. How I Managed My House on Two Hundred Pounds a Year. London: Houlston and Wright, 1864.


Waste Not, Want Not: Physics and Fruitcakes

By Simon Werrett

In 1767, the Winchester writer Ann Shackleford gave a recipe for clear fruit cakes in her Modern Art of Cookery Improved (1767). A candied fruit juice should be placed ‘upon glass plates, or pieces of glass’ and dried in a stove or oven, ‘or by setting them in a window where the sun comes, keeping the window shut’.  In 1666 Isaac Newton bought a triangular glass prism and after darkening his room, he let in a beam of light through the window shutters and passed it through the prism. This created a spectrum of colours, and when Newton passed one coloured beam through another prism, with no change, he concluded that white light was made up of a series of fundamental colours.

Newton’s scientific experiment. Light dispersing through a triangular prism. Image credit: D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons.

What is the difference between these two performances? In one sense the answer is quite obvious – one is a cookery recipe, and the other is a famous scientific experiment. One is not very interesting – unless you like fruitcakes – and the other is a profound moment of human discovery. As Alexander Pope famously wrote, ‘Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light’. But there are many similarities. Both happened at home – Shackleford’s recipe would presumably be done in a kitchen and Newton did his experiment at home in Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, and in Trinity College, Cambridge. Both made use of glass items that were ready to hand (prisms were a toy and Shackleford was probably using pieces of old bottles or glasses). Both used a window to manage light, either in terms of generating a beam of light or to dry out the fruitcakes. Both Newton and Shackleford wrote accounts of these events so that someone else could repeat them.

In fact recent research by historians is revealing how early modern householders might not have viewed these two episodes as differently as we do today. People in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries viewed both Newton and Shackleford’s activities as ‘experiments’. Experimenting was something expected at this time of all good householders. Books of advice on ‘oeconomy’, or household management, encouraged ‘thrift’, which meant not so much saving money as finding a balance between buying new and making good use of the things one already possessed. Thrifty householders should make a point of finding out new uses for things and looking after them to ensure they could be useful for as long as possible. So men and women recorded recipes for cooking, cleaning, gardening, and making medicines which might be carried out by all the family. Contemporaries called this an experimental enterprise, because it involved trying out recipes, testing cleaning methods, trialling medicaments, and figuring out what you could do with old and broken possessions. In 1662, for example, the writer on oeconomy Hannah Woolley published a recipe book called The Ladies Directory, in Choice Experiments & Curiosities of Preserving in Jellies And Candying both Fruit & Flowers. Newton and Shakleford were both householders, and from this perspective of thrifty household management they were both experimenters. They were both finding out new uses for things (prisms, broken glass, light, fruit juice), and they both ‘made use’ of their homes (windows, sunlight) as a kind of experimental apparatus.

Kitchen ‘experiments’. Gerrit Dou, Woman Pouring Water into a Jar (c. 1655). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course we don’t remember Newton and Shackleford today as doing the same thing: far from it! Why is that? It seems that in the seventeenth century, some male householders decided to take these family experiments outside the home to new places like universities and academies where they argued that domestic know-how should count as a form of scientific knowledge. Science already took in things like mathematics and astronomy, but it was controversial to say that mundane everyday knowledge of the kind found in household recipe books should count as science. The seventeenth-century chemist Robert Boyle, for example, explored the optics of eggwhite bubbles and experimented with eggs, coriander seeds, distilled liquors, wine, beer, vegetables, jars of oil, and vinegar. Contemporary wags lampooned him for investigating the phosphorescence seen in rotting fish and meat because this wasn’t the sort of thing normally associated with doing science. Nevertheless, over time, men like Boyle divorced elements of domestic knowledge from their original homely settings and ‘experiment’ came to be seen as an exclusively scientific, and male, enterprise.

While most experiments happened at home in the seventeenth century, by the nineteenth this new profession of ‘scientists’ built specialised laboratories and insisted that kitchens, parlours and basements were no longer acceptable as spaces to investigate nature. Today we find it hard to imagine a time when cooking fruitcakes and studying light could be seen as a similar sort of inquiry. But for early moderns, household oeconomy encouraged making use of things to find out what they could do. That could mean exploring light or inventing new recipes for fruitcakes. Recognising this demands a new recipe for the history of science: if we want to understand experimenting, we’ll need to pay more attention to the home as a place where people studied nature, and we’ll need a bit more room for forgotten female writers like Shackleford.

Waste Not, Want Not: An Introduction to Histories of Food Waste, Thrift, and Sustainability.

By Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley

As awareness of global climate and humanitarian issues increases, a growing number of us are seeking ways to grow, buy, and eat food more sustainably – by, for example, using food sharing apps to prevent food waste, reducing our plastic packaging consumption, or switching to less meat-centric diets. In the world today, one-third of the food produced for humans is estimated to go to waste, with society throwing away ten million tonnes of food per year in the UK alone. At the same time, food systems contribute to 37% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. 

But how did societies think about food waste before these concerns earned a regular spot in the headlines? And what might we learn about the past – how people lived day-to-day, their beliefs, and the wider advances in industry – through this focus on food? This month’s thematic series, edited by Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley, explores the history of food waste, thrift, and sustainability from the early modern period to the present. The blog posts are based on a series of papers presented at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference at the University of Cambridge (September 2019), which brought together historians, sociologists, and industry experts to address these topical questions.

John Gilroy, We Want Your Kitchen Waste (1939-46). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Prior to the invention of artificial refrigeration, consumers themselves had to come up with thrifty ways to preserve food, which would otherwise quickly spoil or rot. Certain papers demonstrate how these kitchen experiments carried out by ordinary people (often women) might best be understood as scientific advancements. Others look at inventions in the packaging industry, from tin cans to plastic film, which have transformed the way that we eat today. ‘Thrifty’ foodways also demand particular attention in the context of conflict and war, when rulers used propaganda to enforce food rationing and new methods of collective cultivation on entire societies.

Moving from methods of preventing food waste to the food waste itself, several posts in this series explore processes that transformed waste products – like molasses from sugar or the ‘skim’ from milk – into viable and even desirable comestibles. The rise of veganism in recent years has seen similar developments, with companies transforming Aquafaba – the liquid gloop at the bottom of a can of chickpeas – into an egg substitute for baking, for instance. On the other hand, changing food habits have had the opposite effect: national consumption of offal (another ‘waste’ product) has declined dramatically in the past fifty years, from more than 50g per person per week in 1974 to only 5g in 2014.

Addressing themes of waste and sustainability in the history of food, these papers have made us think more about the historical relationship between cookery and scientific innovation, about the central role of food in wider social and political power dynamics, and about the enduring relationship between food and identity.

A particularly successful feature of the conference was the conversation it sparked between historians and present-day policy makers. Pioneering initiatives like History and Policy and Cambridge Sustainable Food can use knowledge of past food practices to better understand the advent of present-day food sustainability issues, to inform the direction of food initiatives in the future, and to engage the public with these consequential topics.

In what follows, some of our speakers reflect on the key themes from their papers.


This conference was hosted by Cambridge Body and Food Histories group, co-convened by Lucy Havard, Philippa Carter, and Kylie Chiu Yee Lu, and gratefully funded by Cambridge AHRC-DTP.  For a full list of our fantastic speakers follow this link!