Story last updated at 1/9/2013 - 2:21 pm
Prospectors, miners and loggers, in early-day, remote Alaska, yearned for meat to break the monotony of a salt-preserved bacon, bean and rice-based diet. For prospectors, both rice and beans were cheap and non-perishable and expanded compared to their weight in a pack. Some water and a cup or two of beans, with pinches of salt and bacon made a filling, protein dinner. It could be made over a campfire or on a cabin stove. No one asked, "What is for dinner?" Unless wild game could be found, dinner was the same, night after night after night.
As for small mining and logging camps, dried, canned, and salted foods made up for meals without game and fish. Settlers relied on village stores or trading posts. Brined meats were available from barrels, but had to be soaked to remove most of the salt. How exciting when shelves began to stock canned meats to go with canned vegetables and fruits. Was this the start of "convenience food?"
Before Alaska was a U.S. possession, canning meats started in the 1840s in Portland and Eastport, Maine and Boston. The products did not gain much acceptability even by the late 1860s, mainly because of the flavor and mushy product. One of the first companies to work on a shelf-stable canned meat product was Libby, McNeill & Libby. Where did the name come from? Brothers Arthur and Charles Libby along with Archibald McNeill went into the fresh meat market in 1868 in Chicago's stockyards.
Unfortunately, the early tinned products, including meat, suffered from loss of flavor, overcooking, and in some cases spoilage. Libby, the company's shortened name, and other producers worked on technology to correct these inadequacies.
By 1872 the company realized canned corned beef and other firm cooked meat would be in demand if the meat could be served appetizingly, with decent flavor and nutrients, and, above all, conveniently. A fork was used to remove the meat and soupy contents from its container. Libby acquired the patent rights to a rectangular, round-cornered, tapered can, bigger at the top than at the bottom. Partially cooked meat was cut in small pieces and compressed under great pressure, then cooked in the can and sealed. Libby was proud to advertise that the contents would slide out in solid form for convenient slicing. This meat product preserved much of the nutrients, usually lost in brine-soaked meat.
Over the years Libby concentrated on canned meat, especially corned beef that sold well in England as well as America. Libby was the first to pack ox and pork tongues in whole form. Soon the company added chicken, rabbit, ham and potted meats to its line. With expositions popular in those days, Libby entered its meat products into a number of shows. In the Paris 1878 show, its corned beef won a gold metal as it did again in the 1884 exposition.
Libby continued to can meat and expanded into fruits and vegetables. Eventually it entered the Alaskan salmon canning business in 1912 when it built a cannery in Kenai. In 1916, it purchased a cannery in Bristol Bay. In 1917, it added the Yakutat cannery. Next it acquired both the Klawock and Craig canneries in 1929.
What canned products made their way to Alaskan shelves? A federal court civil case in 1886 tells us what was being sold at Shakan, at that time spelled Chican. This village, on the northwest side of Kosciusko Island near Dry Pass on the West Coast of Princes of Wales Island, had a trading post in 1875. In the early 1880s, Ira B. Sprague became the main entrepreneur. In addition to the trading post store, he built and operated a large sawmill, selling lumber in Sitka and Juneau. A number of Natives, especially from Tuxekan, came to find work and started a small settlement.
Sprague bought a trial shipment of 30 cases of canned meats in 1882, at a wholesale cost of $249.50. We don't know what meats these were, but they sold. So he ordered another 305 cases. At some time, he decided part of the shipment was in bad condition, and took cans to Juneau (then called Harrisburg) for a bigger market. N. A. Fuller and C. F. Reed sold most of it for dog food.
Here is a list of the products in the last shipment for his company store: 5 cases corned beef, 125 cases of boiled beef, 75 cases of calves' head, 11 cases of calves' feet, 2 cases of lamb brains, 2 cases of lambs' feet, 1 case of beef tongues, 7 cases of fresh tripe and 75 cases of fresh tripe in 4 pound cans. He also had 10 cases of asparagus, a case of peas and 19 cases of 2.5-pound cans of green peas.
Fresh tripe in cans seems an oxymoron to me! I know tripe is from a cow's or pig's stomach and I've seen it fresh in Asian and Mexican grocery stores, but not in a can. On-line, I learned, you can buy preserved tripe, even some in cans, but mostly in "chubs" or rolls or frozen. Most tripe being sold is for dog food. One lady opened a can of "green fresh tripe", and it smelled revolting. Her dog lapped it up. No wonder Fuller and Reed sold Sprague's cans for dog food!
Sprague sued the wholesaler E. Antiques & Co. of San Francisco for furnishing non-edible cans of food. He wanted to get his money back: $2,008.79. However, the case was dismissed with no explanation.
We have no idea if the cans at Sprague's trading post were produced by Swift and Company, Armour and Company or Libby. All three companies produced canned meats at that time. However, we know that Libby, McNeill, & Libby's products were sold in Alaska.
When I was at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, staff member Beth Garrison said, "Let me show you my favorite basket." The Alaska State Museum staff allowed me to use the basket's photograph to illustrate this story. It is a small, oval, coiled grass basket with a lid. Garrison measured it as 6-inches long, 3-inches wide and 2.5-inches high, probably the approximate size of one of the Libby meat cans for something like calves' tongue. It was collected by Reverend John White in Nome, sometime between 1903 and 1906.
Although the photo's view doesn't show the entire red and white beading around the basket, it reads Libby, McNeill & Libb." Oops, no room for the last "y"? The design at the closure is puzzling: it doesn't look like a "y".
The beadwork on the backside of the lid says "Paris." The word, "Award," is beaded on the front, with the "A" unclear in the left of the photo. A line of decorative white beads adorns the flat top of the lid.
Garrison looked up the International Exposition Univeselle, Paris Exposition 1900. Sure enough, Libby, McNeill & Libby again won a gold metal for its canned meats. When looking through the awards, I also found that the Alaska Packers Association and Pacific Steam Whaling Co., (both in Bristol Bay), had gold metals for their canned salmon.
As for the basket, Garrison surmises that an Inupiaq woman from the Nome area was likely the creator. The Alaska Commercial store or any of the many other mercantile stores undoubtedly carried cans of meat. Perhaps one had a label picture of a gold metal from one of the three expositions Libby had entered.
The Libby, McNeill, & Libby meat must have made a gastronomical impression on the weaver as well as the can's irregular size. Think of the time spent harvesting beach grass and coiling it into this intricate shape to commemorate Libby, McNeill, & Libby long before the company came to Alaska to can salmon.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.