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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Cans,Coal and Corporationshomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 5:  Lectures & Activities

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Lecture Transcript One:
Cans, Coal, and Corporations

Lecturer: Professor Jonathan Chu

Image of Jonathan Chu

Good afternoon. I'd like to share a couple of stories with you this afternoon, one involving Eagle sweet condensed milk and the development of the railroad in the middle of the 19th century. And I hope this will ultimately link us to the main topic of our concern, the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. These three stories are examples of the way in which we can take smaller stories, connect them, and see within those connections the larger developments that characterize the development of American history.

Gail Borden [of] Borden's Eagle condensed milk had been experimenting with preserving food—not something terribly new. Anyone who has ever eaten chicken Marengo knows that that celebrates Napoleon's great victory by using prepared food. Borden believed that you could get something even more convenient than canning chicken or meat or salt pork; that somehow you could work out some kind of arrangement for doing it. And he was experimenting with something called a meat biscuit. You would take meat, and you boil it down and boil it down and try to pack it into a biscuit, which he thought would be a top moneymaker for various armies then marching up and down the European continent.

Well, it didn't work. And on his way back in 1851 from a trip to London, the story is that all the cows onboard ship were seasick and they couldn't produce milk, so he decided that he would try to preserve milk. He got back and looked at a number of techniques, all of them pretty awful. You boiled it down, and you did something horrendous to it and put it into jars, and it turned a ghastly yellow and tasted like sulfur and molasses. Now, it also happened that a number of people were working with vacuum techniques, and he works with these vacuum techniques, and it didn't work there either, because the milk would scald. It would taste awful again.

Finally, he hit up upon an idea of greasing the sides of the pan and then putting it into tins. And he finally works out the process—according to the label here, family tradition since 1856. Different moments at which it may have happened, but in any event, he starts to do this at a moment in which America is becoming urbanized, and one of the problems of urbanization was getting fresh milk into the cities. There was a tendency for it to spoil. The chain of distribution is not always good. But because he's got a reliable product that tastes pretty good, it's pretty much a kind of conceptual breakthrough involved with canned goods, that a canned good could provide a product that was very much like the natural product that was wholesome and tasty.

Well, in 1861, of course, the Civil War takes place, and this is just the perfect thing for the Civil War. One of the problems of preserving food for armies, like the chicken that ended up in chicken Marengo, was that it was in jars. Jars break. You've got armies that are on campaign, and something like the canned milk provided cheap protein and was widely distributed throughout the Civil War. He couldn't stock it fast enough. In fact, he has to license probably the first precursor of McDonald's franchises; he licensed other plants to produce it. So by the end of the Civil War, what Borden has essentially done is to begin the first stage of encouraging people to can food, can in the sense of putting it literally in a can, as opposed to jars.

Now, this also corresponds with another interesting development that emerges out of the Civil War with regard to the railroad. The railroads have been around for a while, but one of the things that demands for the rapid movement of troops during the course of the Civil War made was the development of the use of coal as a mode of power. Literally, it started to run out of wood anyway, but now locomotives adapt to the use of coal.

They also developed something very interesting along the course of the way. One of the things that railroads tried to do before the Civil War was to keep the competition off their rails, and one way you did that was to vary something called the gauge—the distance between the rails—and the height of the rails. In fact, even today, if you go from the Chinese railroads on to Mongolia, literally, they take the cars, and they lift up the cars, and they put new tracks, new wheels under the cars in order to get them to run in Mongolia, Mongolians not wanting the Chinese to use their railroads.

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