Editor's Notebook: The humble tin can was key to our region’s early success

<p>This Gill Netters Best salmon label is one of many examples printed by the Schmidt Lithography company of San Francisco and Portland.</p>

Cruise ship passengers walking past the large Astoria Warehousing complex on Marine Drive surely must look up at the fading American Can Company sign and idly wonder why a small town needed so many containers.

Most of us who live on the Lower Columbia know about our region’s glory days as the world capital of the fish-canning business. But even we can scarcely appreciate the massive industrial efforts and innovations that went into more than a century of canning.

In its peak year of 1884, the Columbia fishery generated about 31.5 million cans of salmon. Astoria and Ilwaco were also closely involved with Alaska, which by 1902 was producing up to 106 million cans of salmon a year. Trainloads of canning supplies came in and trainloads (and ship cargoes) of full cans went back out. The waterfront must have been truly abuzz.

Even if a salmon-based alien civilization appeared in water-filled spaceships and blasted out all the Columbia-Snake dams, the eventual resurgence in fish runs wouldn’t bring back canning. Transportation and tastes have changed. Except for sandwiches and a few recipes, there’s not much use for canned salmon when you can select fresh or frozen. For our grandparents, however, canned salmon was a delicious, affordable and routine menu item. (I suppose intelligent space-based salmon would strenuously object to their relatives being eaten, so it’s probably just as well that humans remain in charge of the hydropower system.)

Like so many other things we take for granted, the whole process of preserving food in sealed containers is comparatively new. Invented by a Frenchman in 1795, by the time of the Columbia River industry’s heyday, a book reported, “The world could not dispense with canned foods and live; for without them progress would be halted, effort hobbled, if not extinguished, armies dispersed, the great progress of the world stayed and thrown back upon itself shattered. Deprived of canned foods, all nations would fall into greater depths of depravity than theretofore known because the world has been enabled to climb higher through the improved food it feeds upon.”

America led the way in canning, with the first metal containers being used in 1839 to preserve lobster. A 1914 industry publication recalled that the term “tin can” was short for “tin canister,” and that they were initially made one at a time by a tinker at the rate of about 60 a day. Tin doesn’t react with most foods and was an affordable option at the time. Most cans today are made of aluminum, steel or alloys. In the early days of the industry, can seams were sealed with lead and labels contained strict warnings to immediately empty the contents after opening, before the lead could react with air and leach into the food.

Salmon canning started in 1840 in New Brunswick, Canada. The Hume brothers (an Astoria street is named in their honor) started canning salmon on the Sacramento River in 1852, coming up to the Columbia in 1866. Up until the mid-1880s, most Columbia salmon was shipped by sea to England, but completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad eventually brought rail rates down and millions of cans began going Back East. The great “Salmon Rush” was under way.

“Salmon Can Labels,” a limited-run book written by Susan R. Kilka in 1994 as her graduate thesis, is a unique examination of the canning and labeling process, particularly focusing on the San Francisco-based West Coast printing industry. German immigrant Max Schmidt was a leader of the industry, growing it from nothing in 1872 to a huge enterprise by his death in 1936. In 1922 at the time of the Alaska Packers Association’s 40th anniversary in business, APA alone had bought 2 billion labels from Schmidt at a cost of more than $1.5 million.

Many remain fascinated by label art, with numerous surviving examples coming from Schimdt. One of the firm’s early designers recalled going to Fisherman’s Wharf and buying a fresh salmon, which he nailed to his drafting table so as to have an example to go by.

American Can Co., founded in 1901, divested itself of its packaging business in 1986. After a variety of mergers, its nearest corporate descendant is Citigroup (Citi), the New York-based financial conglomerate. It’s interesting to think that Columbia River salmon played a part in making this famous firm a success.

I am well along on a project I mentioned in this column a year ago, an electronic database of salmon labels. It’s not yet available to everyone, but if you send me an email with Salmon Label in the subject line, I’ll send a link so you can take a look. Write editor@chinookobserver.com.

Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.

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