The first version of a pressure cooker was created in 1679, by French physicist Denis Papin. He made a large cast iron vessel with a lid that locked. His version raised cooking temperatures by 15% over boiling, and accordingly reduced cooking time. However, regulating the steam and temperature was difficult, and explosions were common.
The Beginnings of Canning
The canning process is a product of the Napoleonic wars. Malnutrition was rampant among the 18th century French armed forces and as Napoleon prepared for his Russian campaign, he needed a better means to provide food for his troops, so he offered a prize of twelve thousand francs to someone that could find a way to preserve food.
The process was invented in France in 1795 by Nicholas Appert, a Parisian candy maker won the prize of 12,000 francs offered by Napoleon for a way to prevent military food supplies from spoiling. Appert, called his method "appertisation" , and he was the forerunner of canning as we know it today. Appert placed fresh products (meat, vegetables) in wide-mouthed glass jars which were then heated in a boiling water bath. Finally, the jars were hermetically sealed with corks.
Although the causes of food spoilage were unknown at the time, Appert was an astute experimenter and observer. Noting that wine store in airtight bottles didn't spoil, he filled wide-mouth glass bottles with meats and vegetables, carefully corked them and sealed them with pitch, and then heated them in boiling water. By 1804, Appert opened his first vacuum-packing plant. His nephew, Raymond Chevallier-Appert improved upon the design by inventing (and patenting) an early version of the pressure canner to vacuum seal foods in clean jars, leading to the eventual development of the canning industry.
The canning process was so important that it was a French military secret, but it soon leaked across the English Channel. In 1810 Peter Durance, an Englishman, patented the use of metal containers for canning,which was perfected by Bryan Dorkin and John Hall, who set up the first commercial canning factory in England in 1813. By the next year others had opened factories. The troops that faced off at Waterloo had canned rations, and soon, these "tinned" foods were used to feed the British army and navy. Thomas Kensett, who emigrated to the United States, established the first U.S. canning facility for oysters, meats, fruits and vegetables in New York in 1812. More than 50 years later, Louis Pasteur provided the explanation for canning's effectiveness when he was able to demonstrate that the growth of microorganisms is the cause of food spoilage.
In the USA the first pressure cooker patents were granted in 1902. Early commercial pressure cookers were huge industrial-size pressure vessels. In 1905 they were known as "canner retorts," and were primarily used by commercial canneries. Soon fifty gallon capacity pressure pots for hotel and institutional use were developed. Next, thirty-gallon canners for hotel were manufactured by National Presto, then called Northwestern Iron and Steel Works. for pressure cooking meals rather than canned goods. Soon thereafter, the ten-gallon models, more suitable for home canning, were also developed.
Light weight aluminum was used in manufacturing large-size pressure canners for home use to promote home canning as a means of preserving food in the days before refrigeration. In 1917, the United States Department of Agriculture determined that pressure canning was the only safe method of canning low-acid foods without risking food poisoning. Pressure canners were in widespread use since refrigeration was mostly non-existent at that time and canning was the main method of preserving food.
In 1915 the term "pressure cooker" first appeared in print and National Presto installed an aluminum foundry for the specific purpose of manufacturing large-size pressure canners for home use and thrifty housewives everywhere wanted one. In 1938 Alfred Vischler introduced his Flex-Seal Speed Cooker at a New York city trade show, the very first pressure saucepan for preparing meals rather than canning. (Believe it or not people are still trying to use these old relics) Vischler's idea was so successful that it wasn't long before other manufacturers in America and Europe were making many brands of pressure cookers to keep up with the growing popularity.
As people migrated from the country, and a farming lifestyle, to the cities and suburban living they wanted all the comfort foods that mom made in the big pressure canner at home. Housewives wanted a smaller, more convenience size so the new "pressure saucepan"was developed. Smaller than the big farm-sized canning kettles, the new, smaller aluminum pressure cookers were perfect for the smaller size of new families and the modern kitchen.
War Time Popularity
In 1941,at the start of WWII, smaller, cast aluminum pressure cookers enjoyed widespread popularity in most American homes. The production of pressure cookers by eleven major manufacturers was tightly regulated during World War II, as aluminum was needed for the war effort, and it wasn't long before the manufacturing of aluminum pressure cookers came to a halt. In 1943 Presto made the following statement in Life magazine:
The manufacturing facilities of the makers of PRESTO COOKERS are now devoted to war production. Once victory is won – there will be Presto Cookers for everybody. Until then, if you own one, share it, won’t you? It’s a good neighbor policy.
Cooks held onto their prewar pressure cookers and often several families shared a single cooker. In a time when fuel and food were rationed and shortages were commonplace, the pressure cooker was fast becoming a necessity rather than a mere convenience.
During the war years larger canners made of steel (not the stainless kind) continued to manufactured under approval of the War Production Board for the extremely important victory gardens. Food and fuel shortages forced a return to home canning, and several government programs supported the home front.
The End of the Beginning
By 1945, with the war ending, the pent-up demand for pressure cookers was tremendous. The demand exceeding the supply and homemakers everywhere put their names on waiting lists. In following years there were 85 US manufacturers trying to convert from war products to making pressure cookers and canners, but what they DIDN'T know about pressure cookery brought about the decline and fall of pressure cooking in America.
Competition was steep, and manufacturers tried to cut costs by producing cheaper, poor quality pressure cookers. Production methods favored quantity rather than quality and these inferior products flooded the market from the late 40's through 50's.
Busy cooks who had replied on their pre-war cookers rushed to buy new ones. New families were in the making and the newly married wives bought pressure cookers so they could cook the same recipes that mom made. Cooks suddenly found exploding pressure bombs in their kitchens and as the word spread about these flawed pressure cooker, people became reluctant to use them. The frequency of pressure cooker accidents founded the familiar expression of "...in a pressure cooker", implying disaster is imminent.
The old horror stories still abound, just as those aged, antique, and vintage pressure cookers still do. A great many of those dangerous old pressure cookers are still around, and are often sold at places such as EBAY, garage sales, and estate sales, as well as passed on from generation to generation as family keepsakes. Unfortunately the problems also persist to this day, as people find these poorly manufactured pressure cookers in the attics and basements of their grandmothers and great aunts and still try to use them.
Decline and Fall
One by one manufacturers went out of business as cooks stopped using the post war pressure cookers. Only a few manufacturers could afford to stay in business as sales plummeted. The few diehard pressure cooker users were demanding a better quality pressure cooker, but manufacturers, burdened with overstocked warehouses, were slow to comply with consumer demands. When the new and improved models finally came on the market it was too little, too late and pressure cookery began a steady decline.
Marked with a bad reputation, pressure cooker usage continued to decline, and coupled with newer, modern cooking methods such as the arrival of the microwave oven, the art of pressure cookery nearly disappeared in the US. In the 70's there was a brief resurgence in pressure cooker popularity with many younger cooks drawn to a rural, back-to-nature lifestyle.
While American cooks were storing their pressure cookers down in the basement, Europeans were still happily using their old reliable pre-war cookers and never had the problems of their American counterparts. By the 1950's European and Asian manufacturers were reaping the benefits of the War Reparations Act. Capital was invested for research and development to produce new designs and improved safety features that lead to the modern pressure cookers of today.
European and Asian manufacturers developed new valve systems, redundant safety features and updated pressure release methods. American manufacturers have again been slow to adapt the new designs and the jiggle top remains the US standard. In the early 90's European manufacturers cracked the American market, importing the newest models and bragging about their new safety features, quiet operation and the scorch-resistant layered bases. American cooks are once again discovering the benefits of pressure cookery with fast, economical, efficient and nutritious meals that appeal to busy and health conscious American consumers.
Millions of cooks in Europe and Asia continue to rely heavily on pressure cookers. In countries where the cost of fuel, natural gas, propane, and electricity is very high, pressure cookers are an economic necessity in every home. India, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany manufacture several brands of pressure cookers that are exported to the US.
Pressure Cookers Today
New pressure cookers, with their multiple safety features and improved vent systems, are once more catching on in the US market. Busy cooks with hectic schedules, demanding jobs, an active family and little spare time are looking for fast, economical ways for preparing home-cooked, nutritious meals. TV ads market overpriced pressure cookers with fancy new names, touting the "latest, greatest, new invention" to cooks who would never have considered buying a pressure cooker. Wide spread advertising has brought with it a popular resurgence of interest in pressure cookery, and this old-fashioned cooking method is suddenly new again.