Early Canning Required Resourcefulness

Early canning utilized fruit jars and National pressure cookers.


A scarcity of canning jars in a frontier settlement leads to creative canning techniques.

Photo By iStockphoto/Ralph Baleno

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The date when glass was invented is unknown. One story theorizes that ancient Phoenician merchants built a campfire on a beach and afterward found glass in the ashes. Further research shows glass found at early Egyptian and Roman sites dating back 2,150 years.

Today, it is hard to imagine a world without glass. However, just such a world existed here on the plains 121 years ago, when glass was nearly impossible to obtain in a remote area. Bill Russell, Clarendon, Texas, found evidence of that in an oral interview conducted in 1936.

Lou Naylor and family, who came to the area in 1891, lived in a dugout 12 miles east of newly founded Clarendon. The wild plum and grape crop was excellent that summer, so the Naylors decided to make jelly. Sugar could be bought that summer in Clarendon, but not fruit jars.

Undaunted, the men were sent to gather empty whiskey and wine bottles. The bottles were filled with cold water up to the base of the neck. Heavy twine was soaked in coal oil and tied around the bottle at the water line. The twine was set afire, and when it dropped off the bottle was tapped against the table where, hopefully, the neck broke off.

Next, the jar’s sharp edges were ground smooth on a flat stone. The new glasses were cleaned and filled with jelly. Brown wrapping paper was cut into circles, dipped into hot vinegar water and hung to dry. Later, the circles were laid atop the glasses, folded over the rim and tied in place with string. The vinegar odor seemed to keep insects away while the jars were in storage in the root cellar.

The Trew family owned a cellar full of fruit jars and a National pressure cooker made in Eau Claire, Wis. Mother had it tested each year at the Home Demonstration agent’s office in Perryton, Texas, and it still sits in storage in our well house. It held quart jars or two layers of pint fruit jars. I can remember carrying bushel baskets of jars from the cellar to the kitchen when Mother started her summer canning.

We had neighbors who bought bottles and a bottle-capping tool that attached tin caps to the lips of bottles. Apple cider, root beer and fruit juice could be bottled and kept in storage. But the favorite use of the bottle system was for making home-brew. There were many different recipes and an equally limitless number of end results for this beer-type concoction.

My favorite home-brew story, told by a friend, involved several cases of home-brew bottled up and stored in a closet just off the living room of his home. The new minister and his wife came calling, and while they were visiting in the living room, the bottles began popping their lids. The unique odor and foam creeping out from under the closet door left little doubt what, exactly, was behind the closed door.

The story was too good to keep secret. After it made its rounds in the community, my friend’s dad was nicknamed “Popping Johnny.” FC 

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; email: trewblue@centramedia.net.