Celebrating the can: 200 years of history preserved

Dan Zak celebrates the 200th anniversary of the creation of the can with more examples of the invention's influence.
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010

The march of Western civilization and the prosperity of the United States have partly hinged on the quiet little object behind those boxes of pricey whole-grain rotini pasta on the third shelf of your cupboard. The object is cylindrical and silver and wrapped in a paper label. It is dusty. Its expiration date has passed.

"You think it's still good?"

"I dunno. Open it. No, wait. Don't."

Or do. Several years ago, on the 50th anniversary of his marriage, an Englishman in Denton ate a can of cooked chicken he received as a wedding present. His only complaint? It was "a little bit salty."

Such is the power, the longevity, the simplicity, the overwhelming ordinariness of the can. Until food can be bought, cooked and consumed via iPhone, we will remain a container society, a canned civilization, preserved, pickled, hermetically sealed against the ravages of time, a people whose food and drink shall not perish from the Earth.

Wednesday is the can's 200th birthday.

Everyone takes the can for granted.

For the next 1,000 words, let's not.

* * *

Great moments in cans:

1810. A Frenchman named Nicolas Appert discovers a way to preserve soups, produce and dairy products in glass bottles using boiling water to force out air, and sealing the contents with cork, wire and wax. Other inventors soon adapt the process to tin cans, which are lighter, cheaper and more durable.

1978. A Delta Tau Chi fraternity brother named John Blutarsky methodically crushes several aluminum cans of Nacy L. Courey's age-dated beer on his forehead during the movie "Animal House," causing generations of macho collegians to wound their brows (and pride) in copycat attempts.

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