Preservation is a skill humans developed early on. Throughout history, people have found innovative ways to keep food, drink and cosmetics clean and, most importantly, safe to use.
In the Beginning
For early civilizations (and some later ones), food preservation was essential to human preservation. As far back as 5,000 B.C., the Babylonians were using the fruit of the date palm to help wine and vinegar be used for food and as a preservative or pickling agent. Ancient Egyptians would dry grains and store them in sealed containers to ensure they kept, while the ancient Greeks and Romans packed their meat and fish in salt to keep it edible for months after it was prepared. In 2003, a 2,400-year-old shipwreck from the bottom of the Black Sea was found and contained the bones of a seven-foot catfish that had been dried and cut into steaks to feed the ship’s crew during the ill-fated voyage.
The Role of Fire
Wood smoking food has been a natural and traditional way of increasing the shelf life of food for millennia. Since the Neanderthal era, people have used fire to preserve their food and there’s even evidence of early humans smoking food atop their chimneys and tipis. Heat from the fire reduces the water content in food, so it takes longer to spoil and allowed for nomadic tribes to preserve food during times of plenty.
Smoked salmon was first eaten by nomadic Native American tribes centuries ago. Younger members would responsible for keeping the fire at just the right temperature for smoking and ensuring the food was cooked through. This tactic ensured that no food would go to waste during the harsher months.
The World’s Oldest Christmas Pudding
Fast forward one hundred years or so and people had started steeping fruit in alcohol—another natural preservative—to prolong its shelf life. This meant that fruits harvested in the summer could be enjoyed during the winter. Even fruitcake as we know it can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages, and both fresh and dried fruits were soaked in spirits and spices for up to a year, and were then added to cakes and meals when fresh food was scarce.
In the Victorian era, dried alcohol-steeped fruit was enjoyed in the form of mince pies and traditional Christmas pudding. In fact, because of Christmas pudding’s high alcohol and sugar content, it can last for decades or even centuries. In fact, the Ford family in Michigan lay claim to an unusual heirloom baked in 1878—a Christmas pudding cooked by their great grandmother that has been passed down from generation to generation and, impressively, is still edible.
An Army Marches on its Stomach
Canning was a technique first developed in France during the Napoleonic Wars when the French government offered a reward to anyone who could devise an effective but cheap way of preserving food for soldiers. French brewer, Nicolas Appert, created a means of sealing food in glass jars which was developed into a process of packaging food in airtight cans made of tinned wrought iron.
As well as keeping soldiers fed, great explorers would take canned food on expeditions all over the globe, allowing them to go farther than ever before. Unfortunately, not all canning methods were safe at the time, as demonstrated by an ill-fated expedition to the Arctic in 1845 led by John Franklin. When the bodies of the crew were recovered, lead poisoning from the solder used to seal the cans was found to have been a factor in their deaths.
Making Every Meal Count
In many ways, natural preservation has been the key to human preservation. During the Second World War, eggs and milk were rationed, and their powdered alternatives offered due to their far longer shelf life, just as salted beef and pork were presented as corned beef and Spam.
Powdered eggs and milk are made by rapidly drying out the fresh produce. This process, known as dehydration, is used today for making instant coffee and soup stock cubes. While powdered eggs and milk were scorned by many, they contained the same essential nutrients as their fresh counterparts at a time when they weren’t readily available. Powdered eggs could easily be added to cakes and bakes in powdered form, or rehydrated with water to be used in liquid form.
Freezing prevents microorganisms from accessing moisture in food, which keeps perishables fresh for longer. Subterranean icehouses can be traced back to medieval times and were a popular addition to estates of the wealthy during the 18th century when they were used to provide cool storage for most of the year. As they became more widely available, ice shipping became a lucrative trade for budding entrepreneurs.
The introduction of the first practical, domestic refrigerators in the 20th century threatened the ice shipping business to such an extent that ice companies spread rumours they were unsafe. The public was reluctant to leave behind their iceboxes—non-mechanical cold closets packed with ice—but by the 1940s, the domestic refrigerator had been embraced by consumers who delighted in their practicality and ease of use.
The Development of Safe Synthetics
Of course, there were limitations to what could and couldn’t be preserved, and for how long, until scientists introduced parabens in the 1930s. These non-toxic, odorless, colorless and inexpensive chemical preservatives revolutionized the industry because products that once had a shelf life of months could now be stored for years, which drastically reduced waste. Parabens are still widely used today because of their reliability, non-toxic nature and long history of safe use.