Canned Goods For The Greater Good In Georgia

Canning club girls from Rabun County, 1916

Home canning has regained popularity with Americans sharing a renewed interest in locally-grown food, handmade goods, and household thrift. Canning equipment sales are booming despite lean economic times, canning parties and can swaps are sprouting up throughout the country, and delicious recipes designed for storage in glass jars have recently shown up in cookbooks and food blogs everywhere. Many of these new home canners are enthusiastic hobbyists, working in small batches, and sharing amongst friends. Until recently, however, most canners did so out of necessity. Georgia boasts a history of industrious people who not only generated vast quantities of preserved goods, but whose canning efforts  fortified the land that they farmed from, secured educational opportunities that had not previously existed, and supported national defense efforts.  Resources about these people and their activities can all be found in the Digital Library of Georgia.

Georgians had embraced home canning as a common household practice by the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Most kitchens, both on the farm and in town, likely contained some version of an airtight screw cap and glass jar: either one that was patented by John Mason in 1858, or any number of similar jars that were patented shortly afterward. An advertisement for “Mason’s Patent Screw-Top Fruit Jar” is available in the June 26, 1869 issue of the Macon Daily Telegraph.

After the harvest bounty was preserved, these home-canned goods were judged in contests at state and local fairs. Winners of these competitions received prizes or “premiums,” and their names were printed on the front pages of local newspapers.  The November 16, 1877 edition of the Weekly Sumter Republican describes a variety of preserved foods that received awards from the Americus Fair Association. Among the many items entered in the competition were: Mrs. Dr. E. J. Eldridge’s jars of pickled onions and walnut catsup, Mrs. E. B. Rosa’s mangoes, Miss Mollie Hawkins’ brandy peaches, Mrs. C. M. Wheatley’s “May haw” jelly, and Mrs. S. M. McGarrah’s jars of preserved watermelon and peaches preserved without sugar.

By the early twentieth century, rural girls joined “canning clubs,” agricultural organizations that preceded cooperative extension programs and 4-H clubs; here, girls learned how to cultivate and preserve tomatoes.  Some of these “canning club girls” can be seen in a 1916 photograph from Rabun County. Also known as “tomato clubs” throughout the South, these organizations were established for young women as the counterpart to boys’ “corn clubs;” all were part of a Southern initiative overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to encourage crop diversity and mitigate the impact of the boll weevil.  Both corn and tomatoes grew plentifully in Southern soil, and both crops generated profits. Tomatoes, which required minimal processing for longer-term storage, could be preserved quickly and efficiently in the Southern home kitchen; conveniently, their natural acidity hindered spoilage.

A December 15, 1911 article in the Athens Weekly Banner shows the profits made by a successful canning club girl from Athens.

In Georgia, canning clubs became extremely popular; thousands of girls were instructed and supervised by home demonstration or “canning” agents across the state’s participating counties. In addition to demonstrating safe canning processes and efficient kitchen management, home demonstration agents also provided young women with food cultivation and financial management skills. The girls planted small plots that yielded tomatoes for the household, as well as fresh and canned tomatoes that would be sold. They were shown how to sterilize and seal both glass jars and tin cans; in the case of the latter, girls were also trained how to solder the cans shut. Additionally, the girls were required to keep detailed and accurate crop records, as well as descriptive accounts of their work. When this was complete, they presented their wares in canning displays that were set up at agricultural shows and state fairs, much like this 1920 exhibit from a Bibb County girls’ canning club. They also sold their tomatoes under their own names. A December 15, 1911 article in the Athens Weekly Banner refers to the crop records kept by a successful canning club girl. Miss Louise Hardeman, a member of the Clarke County canning club and the recent winner of the state’s canning contest, made $25.00 in net proceeds from a harvest of 2, 155 pounds of tomatoes that she grew on one-tenth of an acre–this would be about $577.57 today.

1914 Athens Woman's Club minute book entry describing a $30 scholarship awarded to a canning club girl.

Canning club girls also displayed their work in local fraternal organizations: early on, they found sponsorship from women’s clubs and town benefactors who not only purchased canning club products, but also made charitable contributions in the form of scholarships and awards.  A 1914 entry in an Athens Woman’s Club minute book on page 55 notes that “A letter from one of the Canning Club girls of the session Jan 14 was read. She expressed delight in her study. The Club was asked for a $30.00 scholarship for a canning club girl.” Another entry from 1916, on page 110, encourages the purchase of canning club goods: “Mrs. Shelton moved a committee be appointed to see the merchants and ask if we have at least twenty women to buy these Canning Club products, if they will carry them. The motion carried and Mrs. Green asked Miss Hill to appoint this committee. ”

Congress’ passage of the Smith-Lever Act on May 8, 1914 (co-sponsored by Georgia senator Hoke Smith) formally established cooperative extension services at land-grant universities. Most land-grant institutions in Southern states signed cooperative agreements with the USDA and created cooperative extension departments.  The University of Georgia created the UGA Cooperative Extension Service, and absorbed the canning clubs as part of its 4-H youth program (because the University of Georgia and 4-H programs were segregated, African American cooperative extension activities were headquartered at Savannah State College until 1967; an African American 4-H center was established in Dublin, Ga. in 1939). This increased cooperation between canning clubs and the state land-grant institution was uniquely beneficial for white Georgia women eager to enroll in higher education. The clubs demonstrated a visible economic value for domestic activities, and of course, a growing demand for home demonstration workers who required instruction and training. Because of this, Georgia’s progressive women’s club members were able to shrewdly leverage the popularity and financial success of the canning clubs for greater access to women seeking higher education. In 1918, the Georgia State College of Agriculture of the University of Georgia approved the first degree program for women, and the university awarded its first undergraduate degree to Mary Ethel Creswell in 1919. An entry from the Red and Black from October 29, 1913 notes Creswell’s resignation as the head of the Girls’ Canning Club for a “government service position” (she served as a field agent for the USDA, where she became their first female supervisor, and later became the first dean of UGA’s School of Home Economics). Other new college girls followed her path; many of whose tuition payments and scholarships were secured by proceeds from the sale of canned tomatoes.

An exhibit of canned goods at the 1927 Georgia State Fair in Macon displayed by Bibb County 4-H members

National agricultural clubs like 4-H and Future Farmers of America continued to seek ways to improve food production and promote food preservation, which they did by setting up exhibits at state fairs. Several photographs from the Georgia State Fair include a 1927 exhibit of canned goods from Bibb County 4-H members and a community canning demonstration that promoted the civilian war effort during World War II, when “victory gardens” or “war gardens” were grown on home and community plots so as to minimize demand for the commercial crops that fed American soldiers. Local clubs encouraged food preservation as well, as shown in this 1953 photograph of a member of Cobb County’s Lost Mountain Community Improvement Club canning vegetables, and a “Home Demonstration Club” display at the Winder Fair in Barrow County.

If you are eager to try canning yourself, current resources on home food preservation are available at the National Center for Home Food Preservation, hosted by the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Here you can also find research-based recommendations on food preservation provided by the USDA, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, and other land-grant universities in the Cooperative Extension System.


Secession Debated in the Athens Press

Southern secession from the United States was not a foregone conclusion with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president on November 6, 1860. The state had already endured previous secession crises, most notably in 1850.  The Compromise of 1850 averted secession for a decade, as did the state’s issuance of the Georgia Platform, which affirmed Georgia’s commitment to the Union, with the insistence that Southern rights remained protected. With Lincoln’s election, however, Southerners who wished to extend slavery into new territories and enforce the Fugitive Slave Law felt once again that their rights and values were under threat. Lincoln was openly hostile to slavery, and insisted it should not be allowed to expand (though he had also insisted that he had no right or intention to interfere with it where it currently existed). To many Southerners, his victory signified that the only recourse to protecting their rights was to secede. But many others still believed compromise was possible, and wanted to wait and see what Lincoln would do once he took office before making any decisions on leaving the Union.

The debate over secession took place on many fronts–both in politics and in the press. The Georgia legislature, then in session in Milledgeville, hosted a series of speeches in the evenings presenting both sides of the secession controversy. A similar, albeit less wordy and formal, debate took place in the Athens, Georgia press during the time between Lincoln’s election and Georgia’s secession. The city’s  Southern Banner advocated immediate secession, while the Southern Watchman took a more conservative wait-and-see approach. The debate began shortly after the election; the Watchman urged its readers to “Keep Cool,” while the Banner argued that “Delay is Submission.”

The debate continued with some name quoting; the Watchman printed editorials using the terms “Precipitators” and “Submissionists,” and insisted that those who wanted to wait (like themselves) were not submitting to anything. The Banner responded by insisting that they were not being “rash” by wanting to escape a falling house, and and equated the circumspection of those who wanted to “be calm” with staying in a burning house.

The editors of the Southern Watchman weren’t the only people who believed in a cautious approach; one of the most vocal and eloquent proponents for this policy was the man who would become vice president of the Confederate States of America,  Georgia native Alexander Stephens. The Watchman praised an argument he raised against immediate secession in a Milledgeville speech; their editors agreed that such action should be considered only as a “last resort.” The Banner, on the other hand, printed a special issue with a lengthy argument advocating secession; the introduction mentioned the ominous term “Civil war.”

The two newspapers used  similar wording in the titles of two mid-December editorials, but with very different meanings. The Watchman reported that the movement to cooperate within the Union was gaining strength, while the Banner rallied for secessionists to vote in an election that would send delegates to Georgia’s state convention on January 16, 1861, where secession would be deliberated.

The first state to secede from the Union was South Carolina, on December 20, 1860. Response to this momentous event was different in the two Athens newspapers. The Watchman reported the information more objectively as a news event; the same issue also included an editorial piece rejecting accusations of submission to Northern enemies. The Banner, on the other hand,  reported enthusiastically about a “Great Secession Jubilee” after South Carolina’s news reached Athens.

As the year 1861 dawned,  Georgia elected its delegates for the state convention which would consider the matter of secession. The Banner reported with glee when secessionists won the local elections, opining that Clarke county had “covered herself in glory.” The Watchman countered with a lengthy piece which argued that disaster was hovering over the entire country.

As Georgia’s secession convention met on January 16, 1861, the two Athens newspapers again expressed differing viewpoints. The Watchman acknowledged that secession was likely, but felt “gloomy” about the nation’s prospects. The Banner‘s response was just the opposite; their editors rejoiced in the prediction that Georgia would soon be out of the Union, along with all the other slave states to follow.

Three days later, Georgia adopted an Ordinance of Secession on January 19, 1861.

For more articles like these, and many covering other subjects, visit the Athens Historic Newspapers Archive.

For more on the events leading to secession, and the Civil War in Georgia, visit This Week in Georgia Civil War History.