Sun, June 01, 2014

History in a Can

By: Steve Henrikson, Curator of Collections at the Alaska State Museum
(Note: This article was republished from the Alaska State Museum’s Bulletin 41 with the permission of the author.)

Though famous for our isolation and uniqueness, the scattering of Alaskan material culture around the globe shows the extent of our engagement in the world economy. Years ago I was in Manhattan, on the “museum crawl,” and took a few minutes to browse an antique mall in the Garment District. The bottom floor was reserved for the glitziest of furnishings and decorative arts, and there, amidst the Deco and the Louis XIV, I glimpsed something so incongruous I thought I must be hallucinating. In the middle of a fashionably lit kiosk of fine porcelain and crystal was a century-old Alaskan salmon tin. I couldn’t have been happier.

The label read “Red Brand Spring Salmon, Arctic Packing Company, Alaska,” and the can itself looked early. It was hand-soldered, with a small vent hole that was plugged with solder after the cooking process. The label appeared to be an 1890s chromolithograph, an expensive process by which master printers hand stippled designs on stone plates to produce complex designs with naturalistic shading in over a dozen colors—each color requiring its own stone plate. The Arctic Packing Company operated canneries at Larsen Bay, Olga Bay and Nushagak Bay in the 1880s and 90s. However, the latter site was in operation beginning in 1878. One of only three canneries that began operations that year, listed as Alaska’s first.

I later heard that when my procurement documents hit the street in Juneau, my recommendation to spend $70 on an old can—empty no less—met with surprise and consternation. Such unusual requests from the museum have long ago entered state procurement lore, and today generate little controversy.

Though the can was (happily) empty of its original contents, it was full of potential for the interpretation of Alaska history in the museum. When we consider objects for acquisition by the museum, we always think about the end use—can it become a primary source for future research, or something useful in educational programming, or in exhibitions? And what interpretive subjects are suggested by the object? Sometimes the lowliest object turns out to be most useful in making a variety of interpretive points.

Salmon cans are incredibly versatile artifacts that support the telling of many Alaskan stories. Early industry, industrial revolution, labor history, and racial strife; Alaska as America’s colony, and as part of the global food chain; environmental degradation; the history of advertising, marketing and branding; and even printing technology are all themes supported by salmon tins. The subject matter printed on the labels, such as “Seward Brand” (Seward’s role in the Alaska Purchase Treaty), and “Wigwam Brand” (depiction of Alaska Natives in advertising), may be subjects worthy of exploration in our museums.

The canning of salmon in Alaska was only possible due to advances in science and technology that allowed for processing on an industrial scale. Canning in crocks, glass, and tinned iron, was developed in Europe during the 18th century, primarily for military consumption. In New York, salmon packed in glass jars were among the first vacuum packed foods available in the United States. After the Civil War, with improvements in the production of tinned iron, and the invention of new canning equipment, canned food became increasingly available to civilians in the United States. In Alaska, the invention of canning line machinery and processes conveniently coincided with efforts to develop its vast fishery resources, early in the American period.

By the early 20th century, much of the canning process became mechanized, but tin can construction in Alaska remained a hand operation due in part to the cost of shipping: it was cheaper to ship the tin sheets to Alaska flat. The tin itself was expensive, and a large quantity was required. In 1882, for example, the tin plate used by Alaska canneries in 1892 amounted to 49,239 boxes—each 108 pounds, with each box containing 112 14×20 inch sheets, which made 448 cans. To ship the packed cans south, crates were constructed from lumber supplied by Alaskan mills. These early cannery contracts came about at a critical time for Alaska’s fledgling lumber industry.

Once the cut salmon pieces were inserted in the can, the top was soldered on, but a small vent hole was left open. The food was cooked in the cans, and the vent hole was soldered closed when the food was steaming, creating a vacuum. Between 1908 and 1910, the American can company invented the sanitary can, featuring pre-soldered can bodies that were flattened for shipping, and once in Alaska, they were reconstituted and fitted with crimped ends. This eventually brought an end to hand manufacturing of cans in Alaska.

Prior to crating, the full cans were varnished (to inhibit rust) and a colorful paper label glued around the circumference. Early on, salmon cans in northern California were painted red, and consumers became so accustomed to the color that they reportedly refused to purchase anything painted another color. Habits die hard, and later paper labels in Alaska usually had bright red backgrounds—which also helped conceal spots of rust bleeding through the paper.

The labels’ designs themselves chart the birth of modern marketing techniques and branding. Competition was fierce, and consumer impressions of quality and cleanliness where based in part on the outward appearance of the can. Companies spared no expense designing their labels with colorful brand names and interesting graphics to make them stand out when displayed on shelves behind the counter of old-fashioned general stores. Consumers were loyal to brands that experience showed met their expectations of quality and purity. Over time, some brands lasted decades and became valuable assets, surviving as the company changed ownership.

Salmon cans symbolize the development of Alaska and its participation in the world economy.

In 1883, Alaskan canneries shipped 36,000 cases of 48 one pound cans. Just eight years later, the annual pack had increased to 789,347 cases—a rate of growth that some at the time considered alarming. Special Agent Paul S. Luttrell, Special Agent for the Salmon Fisheries in Alaska in 1895, reported that “the salmon-packing industry… has attained the limit beyond which it is dangerous to pass; and that, if we would perpetuate the salmon industry and keep it up to its present grand proportions, measures of protection must be taken…. it should never be forgotten that there is a limit beyond which it is not safe to go, and that if we would reap an annual golden harvest we must also guard the source of supply, and see that nothing is done to either fish or stream that will change the natural order under which the fish have grown to such numbers and by which they may be perpetuated without abatement forever. Paradoxical though it may appear, it is nevertheless true, that none are more anxious to save and perpetuate the salmon than the canners themselves, and yet their methods are such as, if continued, will very soon destroy them.”

In 1936, production in Alaska had increased astronomically to eight million cases to meet the global demand (one salmon tin recently acquired by the Alaska State Museum, a “Meteor Brand” can from the early 1900s, was recently excavated from an old garbage dump in Chile).

In terms of significance, canned salmon played a key role in Alaska’s development; between 1880 and 1937, the value of canned salmon produced in Alaska exceeded the value of minerals extracted from Alaska during the same period. Luttrell contined: “Let it be borne in mind that all the canning factories in Alaska are owned by three or four corporations in San Francisco, who have millions invested in the salmon-canning industry, but who have no interest in the development of Alaska, and who, as a matter of fact, do not add one dollar to the wealth of the young Territory from which they take millions of dollars annually. These corporations are rivals in the salmon-canning business, and their rivalry is carried to such extremes betimes that bloodshed at any moment will not surprise those who know the real conditions existing there. Now, this bitter rivalry of great and rich corporations, if allowed to continue, will eventually destroy the salmon…”

The role of museums is not necessarily to celebrate history. Resource development remains a mainstay of life in Alaska and makes available to society many important and positive things. Yet we may not overlook the suffering and ruin that resulted. Such production levels were possible in Alaska, where civil government and resource regulation was virtually nonexistent. The harvest exploited a vast biomass that had evolved in place for thousands of years. That abundance, the lifeblood of the rainforest and of Alaska Native cultures, was the target of canning companies as they expanded up the Northwest Coast, moving northward as California, Oregon, and Washington were overfished. The vastness of Alaska’s runs, and its relatively high operating costs and isolation, spared it the decimation seen in areas south. The lessons of overharvest and colonization were learned late. Fish traps—the device that led to such rapid increase in productivity—were eventually outlawed, and Alaska’s constitution became unique with its mention of the sustained yield principal.

Too, we must not overlook the human cost of the industry—Alaskans overlooked poor and dangerous working conditions in order to have a chance to make a cash income, which enabled them to participate in the introduced economy where some cash was a necessity. Cultures clashed when cannery management played one group against the other to lower labor costs, or to circumvent strikes (a technique that one writer noted had been taught “by the more irresponsible European laborers”). In Klawock, Tlingit and Haida cannery workers fought each other for access to employment. In Sitka, clans staged an organized protest when Chinese workers were imported. Violence was averted when officials explained that the Chinese were there only to make cans, and if the Natives would learn to make them, the Chinese would be sent away. That explanation, and a threat of calling the “man-of-war” for “a little gunnery practice,” helped quell the dispute. Canneries heavily reliant on Native labor worked in cahoots with the government to ensure that strikes and ceremonial activities would not interfere with production.

Collecting Salmon Tins:

Alaska cans may appear at any time for sale the internet auction sites, or through antique dealers, usually from outside Alaska, where the vast majority of the cans were originally sold. Many cans sell for under $75, and dozens are offered annually. Currently, a rare and early “Zenith Brand” can, packed by the Yakutat and Southern Railway Company of Yakutat, is offered for $1,500—the most I’ve even seen for an Alaskan can. It is from a small cannery, with an early type label, and in nearly perfect shape. Labels are more common still, and rare examples may sell for several hundred dollars. These are mostly leftovers that were never affixed to cans, found by the bundle in old canneries and printing plants.

Condition can be an issue, given that most of them spent at least part of their existence in the garbage. Luckily, some cans survive a half century or more in the trash in a remarkably good state of preservation. One can we collected had been found in the wall of a house in upstate New York, having been deposited there by lunching carpenters—it was in great shape, and was opened from the bottom, which is nice for display purposes. Early cans were generally opened with a knife, which often chewed up the metal and sometimes even part of the label.

Online Resources:

Canneries, Canning Technology, History of Canned Salmon Industry:
Cobb, John N.
1917 Pacific Salmon Fisheries. Appendix II to the report of U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries for 1916. Bureau of Fisheries Document No. 839. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.
Friday, Chris
1999 “Competing Communities at Work:
Asian Americans, European Americans, and Native Alaskans in the Pacific Northwest, 1938-1947. Over the Edge: Remapping the American West. Edited by
Valerie J. Matsumoto and Blake Allmendinger. Berkeley: University of California Press.;brand=ucpress
Jordan, David Starr
1898 Reports on Seal and Salmon Fisheries by Officers of the Treasury Department, and Correspondence Between the State and Treasury Departments on the Bering Sea Question From January 1, 1895, to June 20, 1986, with Comments on that Portion Thereof Which Relates to Pelagic Sealing (four volumes). Washington DC: Government Printing Office.
Moser, Jefferson F.
1902 “Salmon Investigations of the Steamer Albatross in the Summer of 1901.” Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, Vol. XXI, 1901, 57th Cong. 1st sess., Ho. Doc. No. 706. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 374-376.
Label History:
The History of Fruit Crate Labels and Can Labels
Label Collecting Tips (including identification of printing techniques and dating)
Label Collecting:
Schmidt Label and Lithography Company (the printer of many salmon can labels):
Finding Aid, Schmidt Lithography Company Papers, Bancroft Library:
The Schmidt Lithography Company: Oral History Transcripts, 1967-69

Finding Aids:

Alaska Packers Association
Alaska State Library:
Western Washington University:
Pacific American Fisheries
Southwestern Alaska Cannery Logbooks:
Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union Local 7 Records 1915-1985
North Pacific Cannery National Historical Site Finding Aids;isdiah


Boettcher, Graham C.
1997 Canned Culture: Pacific Salmon Fisheries and the Image of the American Indian. Unpublished Manuscript in the Alaska State Museum files.
Clark, Hyla M.
1977 The Tin Can: The Can as Collectible Art, Advertising Art & High Art. New York: New American Library
Dunbar, Kurt, and Chris Friday
1994 “Salmon, Seals, and Science: The Albatross and Conservation in Alaska, 1888-1914.” Journal of the West 33 (October 1994): 6-13.
Edwards, Jack
2006 How Old Is That Label: A Celebration of Pacific Northwest Salmon Labels & Dating Guide. Long Beach, Washington: Chinook Observer Publications.
Friday, Chris
1994 Organizing Asian American Labor: The Pacific Coast Canned-Salmon Industry, 1870-1942.
Freeburn, Laurence
1976 “The Silver Years of the Alaska Canned Salmon Industry.” Alaska Geographic3(4). Anchorge: Alaska Geographic Society.
Lorenz, Claudia, Kathryn McKay, et al
2002 Trademarks and Salmon Art: A Brand New Perspective. Vancouver BC: Gulf Of Georgia Cannery Society.