Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Americans Can’t Can

Can All You Can Poster/tiles/non-collection/9/9-10-canning-USDA-Can_All_You_Can_NAL.xml Image courtesy of the National Agricultural Library Encouraged by posters like this one, Americans supported both World Wars by growing Victory Gardens and preserving their own foods. Years later, as food prices soared during the 1970s, President Ford urged Americans to plant WIN gardens to help “Whip Inflation Now.”
Housewives and gardeners hurried from store to store during the summer of 1975 only to find the shelves devoid of one item on their shopping lists: canning lids. Desperate to preserve their fruits and vegetables before they rotted on the vine, the people turned to Congress for help.

During the 1970s, inflation and unemployment plagued the economy. As prices soared and product shortages abounded, President Gerald Ford encouraged Americans to combat rising food costs by planting gardens and preserving their produce. In response, six million new gardeners joined the legions of experienced home canners, bringing the total number of home canners to more than 20 million in 1975. When it came time to “put up” their harvests, they retrieved their reusable glass jars and screw-on rings and headed to the store to purchase the only piece they needed to replace each year: the metal canning lid.

After a tinplate shortage reduced the number of canning lids produced in 1974, the necessary raw materials were again abundant the following year, yet manufacturers still struggled to meet demand. Newspapers reported that canning companies like Ball, Kerr, and Bernardin were running production lines 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but canners found few lids. Despite messages from government agencies and manufacturers that urged consumers not to hoard, the limited number of lids that landed on store shelves disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Speculation regarding the origin of the lid shortage ran rampant as the crisis spread and harvest time neared. Many canners insisted that the manufacturers or the retailers—or even both—were conspiring to withhold canning supplies to drive up prices or encourage the sale of complete jar sets.

Letter from the Ball Corporation to Philip Sharp/tiles/non-collection/9/9-10-canning-ball_letter_NARA.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Desperate to know why they could not find lids, home canners contacted manufacturers, retailers, and their Representatives. With this letter, the Ball Corporation provided Congressman Philip Sharp with material he could use to respond to constituent questions.
William C. Hannah's Testimony/tiles/non-collection/9/9-10-canning-hannahtestimony_NARA.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
About this record
William C. Hannah of the Ball Corporation testified before the Subcommittee on Commodities and Services of the Small Business Committee on June 24, 1975.
Worried they would not be able to preserve their produce, constituents flooded their Representatives on Capitol Hill with letters seeking help. On hearing the pleas of a group of North Carolina women, Representative Charles Rose sent his interns around the capital region to purchase available lids. His staff gathered and mailed 2,160 lids to families in his district. His efforts drew criticism from President Ford’s Special Assistant on Consumer Affairs, Virginia Knauer, who chastised him for “taking away the fair share allotted to the people of this area.”

The House Small Business Committee, in its first year as a standing committee, took up the cause on behalf of the frantic home canners. The Subcommittee on Commodities and Services spearheaded an investigation to “determine the real causes of this shortage” and to “determine what steps are being taken, and should be taken, to alleviate this shortage.” Witnesses from various government agencies, manufacturing companies, and retail companies testified before the subcommittee, sharing their perspectives on the issue.

During testimony, Representative Bob Traxler presented the dire situation in his district, saying, “I know that a subject like ‘canning lids’ may not capture the interest of sophisticated city people in Washington, but back home in Michigan it is the number one issue that I hear about when I visit with constituents.” Congressman Alvin Baldus also advocated for the farmers and canners in his Wisconsin district who preserved their produce “to offset the crippling effects of inflation.”

Two Women Admiring Preserved Food in a Pantry/tiles/non-collection/9/9-10-canning-womenwithjars_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration For many families, canning was, and still is, a tradition passed down through generations. By having a full pantry like this one, households could save money and serve delicious fruits and vegetables any time of the year. These women admire their stockpile of preserved foods and supply of spare jars for future canning.

Main Types of Jars and How to Seal Them/tiles/non-collection/9/9-10-canning-ifglassjars_NAL.xml Image courtesy of the National Agricultural Library The United States Department of Agriculture published guides that encouraged safe canning practices. This page from a 1940s guide shows a variety of lid and sealing systems. By the 1970s, many canners preferred to seal their jars with the flat metal lid and screw band system shown in the lower right corner.
William C. Hannah, vice president of the Ball Corporation, testified: “Mr. Chairman, I know there is a problem of supply in many parts of the country. We are receiving, daily, requests from housewives, local groups of various types, and government officials both at the state and national level to satisfy the increasing demand,” he said. “I am sincere and mean every word when I say we are doing all we can to help meet the problem.”

During the subcommittee’s investigation, officials from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also pledged to uncover the source of the shortage through an “expeditious and thorough investigation into all levels of the industry—manufacturers, distributors and retailers.” After seven weeks, the FTC determined that there was no anticompetitive activity. By the end of its investigation in 1976, the subcommittee agreed with the FTC that, “unprecedented demand, aggravated by panic-buying and hoarding” had caused the canning lid shortage.

Despite the investigation’s findings, there was no immediate solution for home canners. By November 1975, supply finally started to surpass demand, and the shortage of lids appeared to finally be over. Unfortunately, it was too late; the canning season had also come to an end.

Sources: Congressional Record, House, 94th Cong., 1st sess. (25 July 1975); Congressional Record, House, 94th Cong., 1st sess. (9 July 1975); Congressional Record, Senate, 94th Cong., 1st sess. (22 July 1975); Congressional Record, House, 94th Cong., 1st sess. (29 July 1975); Testimony of William C. Hannah, Group Vice President Ball Corporation, Before the Subcommittee on Commodities and Services of the House of Representatives, Committee on Small Business, House, 94th Cong., 1st sess. 24 June 1975; House Report No. 94-1775: Nationwide Shortage of Home Canning Equipment, House, 94th Cong., 1st sess; Virginia Knauer to Charles Rose, July 11, 1975, John Marsh Files, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, MI; Daily Mail (Hagerstown, MD), 28 July 1975, 26 November 1975; Edwardsville Intelligencer (Edwardsville, IL), 24 July 1975; Freeport Journal-Standard (Freeport, IL), 26 July 1975; New York Times, 20 July 1975; U.S. News & World Report, 2 June 1975; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Home Canning of Meat, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1946); Yanek Mieczkowski, Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005); “Whip Inflation Now (WIN),” Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov; “How Did We Can?: The Evolution of Home Canning Practices,” United States Department of Agriculture National Agriculture Library, www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/ipd/canning/timeline-table; “History and Jurisdiction,” Committee on Small Business, smallbusiness.house.gov; “Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History,” Smithsonian Institution, gardens.si.edu/our-gardens/victory-garden.