16 May 2022 - 17 h 30 min - 18 h 30 min
Sarah Pickman (Yale university)
“Warranted Not to Waste its Sweetness on the Desert Air”: Canned Meat, Expeditions, and Consumer Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century
In a 2000 article, Simon Naylor called attention to the ways that a mundane, mass-produced commodity – canned food – shaped conceptions of space in the nineteenth century. Canned food was perceived as a technological triumph that collapsed “distances between sites of food production and consumption” and aided the expansion of European empires by feeding soldiers and explorers cheaply. But how did the agents of Western empires materially experience this collapse of distance? And how did consumers in Europe and the United States understand cans as tools for the spread of colonial values?
This paper examines writings from British and American explorers, who increasingly relied on canned food for sustenance in the nineteenth century, and a series of trade cards and other advertisements drawn primarily from the Jay T. Last Collection of Ephemera at the Huntington Library. Focusing on canned meat as a case study, the paper argues that explorers experienced canned food as a vehicle for recreating the comforts of home in extreme environments. Canned provisions held the promise of freeing explorers from their reliance on locally-sourced food, and thus local Indigenous intermediaries. However, the unpalatable taste of much canned meat, failures in the canning process, and the physical weight of these provisions demonstrated the vulnerabilities of expeditions as colonial enterprises and triumphs of technology. At the same time, though, these vulnerabilities were glossed over in advertising materials for British and American consumers, which presented preserved meat as a material good for expanding Western influence, one which – in the words of one trade card – could be found “wherever civilized man dwells.”
Sarah Pickman is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University in the Department of History – Program in History of Science and Medicine. Her research examines the material culture of British and American exploration in the long nineteenth century, with a focus on mundane goods such as clothing, food, and furniture, and their connections to Anglophone ideas of comfort, domesticity, and commodity culture. Her work on polar explorers’ clothing was published in the catalogue Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme (Thames & Hudson, 2017). Her research has been supported by grants from the Huntington Library, Hagley Museum and Library, and American Geographical Society Library.
Digital Materialities Webinar
In 2021-22 the webinar will look at the intersections between visual and material culture: from 20th century photography to Renaissance miniature portraits and from paper collages to ads for canned food, we’ll be examining the links between visuality and materiality.