Food Preservation the Pioneer Way ~ by Patty Smith Hall


One of my favorite childhood memories was harvest time at my grandmother’s house. After the crops were picked, Mom, my sister Rose and I would rise early, knowing we had a long day ahead of us. But whether it was shelling peas, snapping green beans or peeling apples, we had a good time just sitting and talking while we worked. It’s a good memory and one I relive every year when I’m canning various vegetables and fruits out of my garden.  

It also got me wondering—how did people back in the 1800s preserve food before canning and refrigeration were widespread?  

The type of food helps determine the best way to preserve it. Take corn. It could be shelled, ground into cornmeal, or left on the cob and stored in a corn crib. But what about other vegetables like green beans, cabbage or potatoes? One way of preserving fruits and vegetables in the early 1800s was to run a heavy thread through them and hang them by the fireplace or in a warm, dry room. This helps remove the moisture from them and keeps them from rotting. In order to cook them, you’d treat them the same way we do dry beans today. You’d put them in water overnight to rehydrate, then cook the following day. 

Another way to preserve food was by using a root cellar. If you’ve never been in one, it’s basically a small room, very dark and much cooler than the temperature outside. The walls have roots growing out of them and there’s a strong scent of dirt, fresh vegetation, and kerosene from the lantern used to light the room. Barrels filled with sawdust line the walls and inside them are various fruits and vegetables. Green beans and peas are strung from one side to the other. Root cellars were used up until the mid-1900s when home refrigeration become popular. 

We can thank Napoleon for home canning. In 1795, the French emperor offered a reward for anyone who could come up with a way to preserve food for his army. It was fifteen long years before Nicholas Appert unveiled his method of heat processing food in glass jars. Over the course of the next century, improvements to the equipment were made. John Mason introduced a glass jar with a screw-top lid and rubber seal. William Charles Ball and his brothers got into the home canning business and marketed their canning jars across the country, making it easier for families to preserve their own food. And Alexander Kerr developed the wide-mouth jar (praise the Lord!) and the metal ring with a lid that sealed the preserved jar. 

Funny story—I went to high school at a former Agricultural and Engineering College built during the 1890s. While I was there, one of the original buildings was torn down. The workers found the A&E school’s root cellar with canned beans, pickles, and squash dating back to 1913. And they still looked as fresh as the day they were picked! 

Do you can or freeze food for your family?   

Let’s Chat!  I’ll give away two print copies of THE HEART OF THE MIDWIFE 

The Heart of the Midwife

If Not For Grace by Patty Smith Hall
New York City, 1889
After her friend’s death in childbirth, Grace Sullivan converts her family home into a haven for immigrant families preparing for the birth of a child. But when the city threatens to close her down, her only hope is to ask for help from an unlikely source—her former fiancé, Patrick O’Leary.


Barnes & Noble

Bio: Multi-published author Patty Smith Hall lives near the North Georgia Mountains with her husband, Danny, her two daughters, her son-in-law, and her grandboy. When she’s not writing on her back porch, she’s spending time with her family or working in her garden.  





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38 thoughts on “Food Preservation the Pioneer Way ~ by Patty Smith Hall”

  1. I don’t can but my mom still does. Her homemade pickles and vegetables. I freeze all my meats. Hugs and Thank you for sharing.

  2. I freeze a few things, like blueberries and corn, but I still can most of the fruits and vegetables. I’ve done this for years. I like home-canned green beans and pickles so much better than store bought ones.

  3. I freeze peaches every year, and most of my meat. I grew up watching and helping my parents freeze corn, chickens, and canning all sorts of veggies, fruits, some meats. I don’t have any of my mom’s canning supplies, but wish I did. She also made jelly/jams.

    • I freeze more stuff than I can. But last year, I got into making preserves. I’d grown strawberries so I canned several jars. I’d like to do more like apple jelly and fig preserves. Grandma and Momma also made a batch of apple jelly when I was a kid.

  4. I started helping my Mother can when I was about 8 years old. We lived on a farm and had a good sized garden. I had 5 brothers and sisters, so canning was a must. We also raised and butchered our own meats. I don’t do much canning anymore. I do make jam once in a while.

  5. When I lived at home we canned everything, but since I was married and moved away I haven’t canned anything. My younger sister still cans a lot. You just can’t beat fresh green beans that has been canned. My sister does a lot of green beans, tomato juice and pickles not sure what else.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this blog! i didnt know alot of the informationyou shared about early food preservation! The info on the long ago found root cellar is amazing! i do some canning and freezing but not enough. i haven’t had my own garden in years. I have MS and can’t do all the stooping, bending and down on my knees workit takes to do a whole garden. Currently I only do pot gardening but i want a raised garden but have just never gotten one done. Tables and hay bale gaerdening are what I’m wanting to do.

    • Stephanie, have you thought about calf water tanks? My brother-in-law used some of our leaking ones and was happy to be able to reach them from his wheel chair. They even painted the outside of them green.

  7. Canned goods will stay good for many, many years. That’s why it drives me batty to see kids throw out canned food because it’s past its date stamped on the can. What a waste!

  8. Hi Patty! Thanks for being on Petticoats and Pistols. In my younger married days I canned a LOT with my sweet mother-in-law. She was good at it. Had a huge garden and preserved it all.
    She had a root cellar, too. It was old and dank and a little buggy. But we’d can tomatoes, that was the big one. She was more into freezing corn and beans (by the time I came on the scene) Juice and whole tomatoes. She also canned MEAT. We’d have a local locker plant butcher a cow and she’d go down on the day they cut and get…I can’t remember what cuts. But instead of letting them slice and freeze neat little packets of steaks and roasts and hamburger, she’d bring it home and cook it in a pressure cooker. That meat was so delicious and tender and just DIFFERENT.
    I have lots more to say on canning. 🙂 Poor Patty!

  9. Also, this happened to a family I knew but long before my time, but a viciously cold winter FROZE THEIR CANNING JARS IN THE ROOT CELLAR AND BROKE THEM. They almost starved, I mean literally. Then had none of that food. My neighbor, who’s grandparents it was, still talks about it. His grandpa said they lived on bread all winter Bbecause the grandpa drove a bread truck and could buy unsold bread really cheap. That bread was their only food for months. Terrible memory. Those root cellars contained LIFE in many ways.

  10. I have a good recipe for canned picante sauce I used to make. Haven’t done that in a while. That was good stuff. And green pickle relish. The weird part of that was, most of the ‘pickle relish’ was green tomatoes. My mother-in-law always made this right at the end of the growing season to use up tomatoes that weren’t going to ripen. My husband still wants me to make relish, which I do every couple of years. We don’t eat much of it, so I can four quarts of it and it lasts two years.
    I used to make dill pickles. My MIL had a huge dill patch. We’d pick the smallest cucumbers we could find and can up jars and jars of those delicious dill pickles. She’d can bread and butter pickles. My grandma made pickled beets. I still think of Grandma when I happen along a pickled beet.

  11. Oh, one more thing. 🙂 There is a museum near me called De Soto Bend, where they found a sunken ship called the Bertrand. They have all the contents of the Bertrand behind a glass wall on display. It was packed in mud at the bottom of the Missouri River and surprisingly well preserved. The ship sank in 1865, so all this stuff in there we KNOW existed in 1865, right? There is surprising stuff. ketchup and mustard…pineapple. There are pretty bottles of cherries that were preserved in brandy. If it was on the Bertrand then I know I can use it in my story.
    Oysters? They were canning oysters back then. Scary. Who was the first guy brave enough to eat a canned oyster? I think they were canning milk, too.

  12. Welcome. This is a good post. I remember from the time I was 8, I would can with my mom and grandmother and aunt. My sister came nine years later and didnt want anything to do it. Boy did she fight to be in the kitchen. LOL I am now almost 62. I have always canned food. And for the last 37 years I have done both. My sister still will not can. But she will freeze like crazy. What ever works I guess. LOL quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

  13. My Mom used to, but hasn’t in a very long time. One of my aunt’s used to make her own pear preserves until a few years before she passed away.

    • Trudy this reminded me of wild plum jelly. We have wild plum trees all over here. Oh my gosh, that jelly was so delicious! I haven’t made that in years, wandering in the thickets, hunting those trees (they bloom so beautifully in the spring so you know where they are). We have some wild grapes, too, but I haven’t found a wild grape vine in years.

  14. I helped my grandmother when she was canning each season. I enjoyed the activity and the time spent learning from her.

  15. I grew up in a house in northeastern NY where, like many of the older houses, it had a cellar not a basement. The walls were stone and the floor dirt. Like a root cellar the temperature stayed between 40*and 50*most of the year. We did have an old wood stove down there for extremely cold weather to keep the bins of potatoes and tubs of carrots from freezing. We also had shelves for canned goods. We were very glad to get a home freezer in the mid 50’s. Then most of the fruit we preserved and the corn and beans went in the freezer.

    When we were first married and I moved to Washington State we stored the canned fruit and pickles in my husband’s family’s root cellar along with the root vegetables. It was so nice to later move into a house with space for shelving for the canned goods. I always thought it was called “root cellar” because “root” vegetables were stored their. We still store potatoes in a cellar and canned fruits and pickles on the shelf in my pantry next to the freezers (we have 3)

    Just my volunteer job coming out…..if you are canning be sure to use USDA, University approved or Ball recipes. Many recipes are online or in magazines that have not been tested and the right balance of acidity and processing method and time are extremely important. Preserving food is fun and it is very satisfying to see a shelf full of canned goods.

  16. I don’t do any canning, but I have frozen food items when blessed with more than we could use at the time.

  17. I help with canning and freezing at my parents house, and I occasionally do it here.

    My grandparents’ house still has a root cellar, and my dad uses it. No one lives in the house–he uses the kitchen for extruding honey from his apiary.


  18. I used to help my grandmother and also my aunt with their gardens, mostly weeding. My grandmother always put up much of what she grew. She started when the jars had glass lids and rubber rings. I wish I had learned to can from her. I sort of taught myself one year when our garden did very well. I expanded that to preserves and jellies. I did wine and sauerkraut one year, but that wasn’t repeated. The only place for the crocks was in the dining room. Not a good plan.
    I have put up fruits and vegetables by canning, drying, and freezing. We tried our had at root cellaring when we moved her, but we don’t have a good place for it. We did keep carrots, potatoes, and some squash. There is a room below the shed that was likely a root cellar at one time. I have not gone in much further than the steps down into it. It is a bit too spider webby and damp for my liking. The weather here has warmed noticeably in just the 28 years we have lived here. I think that room likely did work well as the root cellar when the house was built in 1898.

    I love the sound of your story in THE HEART OF THE MIDWIFE. Anthologies are a favorite format, especially this time of the year when we are so busy.

    I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving and the rest of the Holiday Season will be wonderful. Stay safe and healthy.

      • I hope I become so blessed at some point. I am attempting to convert my brown thumb to a green one. I canned some things in various methods. I just struggle to find the time with work and, until recently, grad school.

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