The canning process was invented as a result of a contest sponsored by Napolean Bonparte beginning in 1795. The French emperor needed to be able to feed his troops as they marched through Europe, and he was having a hard time. Hauling around lots of food – and keeping it from spoiling – was no easy feat.
        So instead of paying someone directly to come up with an idea, the French government did what many cash-strapped organizations in modern times do: they held a contest, so they could get lots of mediocre ideas in exchange for the promise of a paltry bit of prize money.
        This sort of arrangement is the precursor to the idea contests that are ubiquitous in present day America. And speaking of idea contests, Palmetto Breeze, formerly known as the Lowcountry Regional Transportation Authority, wants ideas for a new slogan and jingle, according to the Island Packet.
        I can’t wait to see what people come up with. It can’t be any worse than an economic development slogan a professional marketing consultant proposed for our state capital several years ago: “Columbia: It’s on Fire Again!”
        No kidding.
        In the case of Napolean’s idea contest, however, someone actually came up with a brilliant idea.
This was of vital importance to the soldiers because, while they were already at great risk of dying in battle, they were at even greater risk of starving to death.
In 1810, Nicholas Appert won the contest. His technique:  boiling food under pressure in sealed containers. We call it canning.
        Knowledge of canning spread quickly to England, where tin-coated iron cans were developed. By 1820 the new technology had made its way to the United States, and the young nation soon became a leading producer of canned goods.
        The New York and Connecticut areas became important centers of oyster production and canning. As the northern population grew and oysters declined in quantity and quality, the oyster industry took hold further south in Baltimore.
        There, in 1861, a canner found that by adding calcium chloride to the food, boiling time could be reduced from five hours to half an hour. By 1874 advances in pressurized cooking reduced this processing time even further. Baltimore became the canning capitol of the country.
        Vegetable farming was also important in the Baltimore region. Some vegetables were “truck” – produced for fresh transport on steamer or rail. Others were destined to go the the canneries and were brought to Baltimore from farms around the bay.
        The canneries processed vegetables in the summer, and oysters in the winter, and the big canning companies carried this seasonal pattern of production down here to Beaufort in the 1890s.
        The corporate strategists, such as they were at the time, knew this would be a good place to set up shop because the federal government had sponsored a study that found we had lots of good oysters down here.
        Yes, they had government studies even back then. And yes, they can be useful.
        The U.S. Fish Commission had conducted its survey of South Carolina bottoms in the winter of 1890-91. By bottoms, I mean the bottoms of the waterways, not the bottoms of the residents.
        They found we had 775 acres of natural oyster beds in South Carolina, with another 20,000 acres of bottoms suitable for cultivation.
        By 1895 some of the Baltimore canneries had established a presence here, and the South Carolina oyster industry had begun.
        Five oyster canneries were built in Beaufort County around 1895. George Lowden & Company opened two facilities, one in Bluffton, the other at Club Bridge on St. Helena Island. The Hunt Company built a    cannery at Factory Creek on Lady’s Island.
        Both Lowden and Hunt were based in Baltimore.
        Local entrepreneurs also got in the business. Capt. William Roberts, a Beaufort harbor pilot, established a cannery at Dulamo on St. Helena Island. The Maggioni family, of Savannah, built a cannery on Daufuskie Island, and then moved its operations to Port Royal in 1903.
        The Maggioni cannery remained in Port Royal until 1917, when it moved its operations to the Hunt Cannery site on Lady’s Island. In the decades between the two World Wars, the Maggioni family operated similar canneries at Tom Fripp on St. Helena Island and at Sam’s Point on Lady’s Island.
When the Lady’s Island cannery closed its doors for good in 1986, it was the end of an era. It has been over 20 years now, and it seems almost like it never was.
        Were there really giant mounds of white oyster shells looming over Factory Creek, waiting to meet their fate in the shell-crushing plant? Yes, and now that I think about it, they were kind of like Beaufort’s very own little white cliffs of Dover.
         that I’ve ever seen them, I’m just imagining.
        Now, on the banks of Factory Creek, the piles of shell have been replaced by giant McMansions, veritable palaces of conspicuous consumption. The shell-crushing plant has been replaced by a soul-crushing resort services economy.
        Just like Napolean’s battles, none of this was inevitable, but it happened anyway. History is like that.
So next time you dig into your stash of SpaghettiOs, remember Nicholas Appert.
        And while you’re thinking about brand names and bright ideas, maybe you’ll come up with a decent slogan for our new transit system, Palmetto Breeze.