This object is particularly relevant to this time of the year. The colder weather is setting in, and with it comes the end of the summer’s bounty.
For those of you who are wondering, the object is an antique can filled with paraffin wax that was used for sealing things like jellies and jams. It also was thought to help the lids to canning jars seal better, so lids were coated with it before sealing the jars.
Prior to the invention of modern canning and freezing, most food was canned at home. This could include things like jellies, jams, fruits, vegetables, pickles, sauces, and even meats.
Canning also meant the glut of summer produce could be saved for lean times, and it also meant that families might achieve a higher standard of living. More food meant healthier families, and healthier families meant that you could have more children. And for a farm family, more children meant more hands available to do the work, which in turn meant you could grow even more food.
Canned goods usually were prepared according to the accepted practices of the time, and then stored in the cellar or basement of the house. Any extra canned goods were often shared with friends and family. Any excess beyond that could be sold at the local general store to those without the means or inclination to can their own food.
Usually, paraffin was used to seal things like jellies and jams. Once the jelly was ready to be sealed, a layer of paraffin was carefully poured over the top of the sticky sweet mass, and allowed to cool. The jar then was sealed with a lid, as usual, and put aside until it was ready to be eaten. Prior to consumption the wax layer (and any debris from the wax) was carefully removed from the jelly, and set aside.
According to the USDA, paraffin doesn’t create a sterile environment and sometimes can seal in mold and mildew spores, along with other nasties that could potentially make you sick. The recommendation now is to skip the paraffin, and use a self-seal type lid on your canning jars, although there are likely some old timers out there who still swear by the paraffin method.
Our records don’t tell us who the wax can came from, or from when. However, we are grateful to have the object in our collection, to remind us of a time when life was both simpler, and more complicated.
“Out of the Attic” features artifacts from the collection of the Des Moines County Historical Society. For more information, to ask questions or to offer comments or suggestions, call (319) 752-7449 or email email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: Out of the Attic: Sealing wax made home canning possible