Canning and Food Preservation on the World War II Home Front

Color illustration of a clear canning jar with a red, white, and blue label: “Can All You Can.” Behind it are fruits and vegetables like corn, apples, pears, beets, and tomatoes.
“Can All You Can. It’s A Real War Job!” Poster, Office of War Information, 1943.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 513566).

A black and white photo of bushels and bags of beans, potatoes, turnips, onions, melons, and squash in the corner of an outbuilding with a wooden floor.
“Easily stored food needs no curing or canning. Calvert County, Maryland.” Photo by John Collier, Jr., Office of War Information, January 1942.

Collection of the Library of Congress (

Planting Victory Gardens was only part of the work for those growing their own foods during the War. Efficiently and safely preserving that bounty for later use was crucial. So was knowing how much to eat fresh and how much to save. One government guide provides both a planting plan and recommendations for how much of each crop to preserve.[1]

Like planting Victory Gardens, preserving the harvest was also presented as patriotic. Extensive resources were available from the government, local agricultural extension services, and businesses.[2] Preservation could take several forms: drying (dehydrating), freezing, pickling, and canning. Each of these approaches had pros and cons, and were not equally suitable for all products. For example, sources recommended drying corn because it retained good flavor and was a challenge to can.[3] Sources also discouraged canning lettuce (gross) and canning vegetable mixes (too dangerous).[4]

Drying did not need any rationed items used in canning (such as sugar, as well as the metal and rubber seals). Options included sun-drying, oven drying, and drying cabinets or racks.[5] Freezing did not become popular until after the war, when manufacturers sold fridges with larger freezers. Before that, people rented space in large commercial cold storage facilities.[6] Some produce – especially root vegetables – stored well in cool, dark places like root cellars, or even stored in the ground over winter.[7] By far the most popular means of preservation was canning.[8]


A color illustration shows a white woman in a flowered apron with her arms full of canned produce including beets, corn, beans, and tomato sauce.
“Of Course I Can! I’m patriotic as can be – And ration points won’t worry me!” Note this poster uses the same image as the “Am I Proud” post-war poster. Poster, War Food Administration, 1944.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 515098).

Victory Gardeners canned fruits, vegetables, and even meats.[9] One source recommended canning 85 to 115 quarts of produce per person in a family to last over the winter.[10] Canning home-raised meats like rabbit and chicken was one way to extend meat rations. To support those working to preserve their own foods, canners could apply for up to an extra 20 pounds of sugar. This amount, however, was not guaranteed, and depended on availability.[11]

Canning was most commonly done using specialty glass canning jars.[12] Key to successful canning was ensuring that jars were sterile and applying high heat to kill all the bacteria in the food.[13] If bacteria was not properly eliminated in the airtight containers, botulism and other food poisoning was possible.[14] In general, only acidic foods like tomatoes and fruits could be canned using a hot water bath. Other vegetables and meats needed to be preserved using pressure canners. The pressure allows water to boil at a temperature above its usual boiling point, and thus better able to kill the bacteria.[15] By following the best available science and being aware of the signs of spoilage, successful canning was possible. The goal was to put up enough nutritious fruits, vegetables, and meat to last to the next growing season. There were lots of resources available to ensure success. These included publications and classes from governments, communities, newspapers, magazines, and even businesses.[16] In the Philippines, Maria Orosa and her team of educators taught Filipinos how to preserve local foods to reduce reliance on imports.[17]

Many homes already had a pressure cooker that they could use for canning. These folks were fortunate. Pressure canners and cookers were made of aluminum. As the US joined World War II, the government stopped their production and rationed the available supply. Those without were urged to borrow from their friends, family, or neighbors. Failing that, they were encouraged to use the resources at a community food preservation center (also known as a community cannery). After pressure from the US Department of Agriculture, the War Production Board eased restrictions. In 1944, they capped production of pressure canners at 40,000; in 1945, they raised that number to 630,000.[18]

Black and white photo of four different types of canning jars, including one with a bail, one with a sealing ring, one with a metal cap and liner, and one with a metal ring and glass liner. Three are marked Atlas glass company; one is marked Ball.
“Steel-saving glass-top jars recommended by the War Production Board, Containers Division, for home canning of the Victory Garden fruits and vegetables in 1943.” Photo, John Collier, Jr., Office of War Information, March 1943.

Collection of the Library of Congress (

Community Canneries

Black and white photo of five women working in a community kitchen. The woman on the far left is brown; the rest are white. One is juicing grapefruits, two are pouring juice into canning jars.
“Canning grapefruit for hot weather use. Community kitchen, Harlingen, Texas.” Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Office of War Information, February 1942.

Collection of the Library of Congress (

Community canneries served (and continue to serve) many purposes. They are places where people learned about canning and spent time with community. They also had access to equipment they may not have had at home, and were able to can a lot of product in a short amount of time. There were also knowledgeable staff or volunteers ensuring safety. Equipment available included home- to industrial-size pressure canners, sealers, and large workspaces.[19]

The history of community canneries goes back to the late 1800s, places where neighbors would gather to preserve their harvests. Their use expanded during World War I and the Great Depression, as families grew War Gardens and worked to feed themselves through the 1930s. In World War II, with government subsidies to build and manage them, the number of community canneries expanded and saw considerable use. Some, like the cannery at Michigan State University, were privately funded – in this case, by Henry Ford. Canning jars likely associated with this cannery were recovered during archaeological excavations at the school.[20] It was common for community canneries to be located within schools or on their grounds. This let educators use them for training, and they could also be used to preserve food for the students. Others could be found in private homes, church kitchens, and converted commercial plants. The US Department of Agriculture provided extensive information on how to start and manage a wartime community cannery. By the end of the War, there were more than 3,800 community canneries across the United States. Home gardeners using community canneries and other facilities had to get a permit. This eliminated confusion between who was canning for home use and who was using the facilities for resale / commercial canning.[21]

Black and white photo of a young white woman adding jars of canned produce to shelves already packed with full jars.
“A 4-H Club member storing the food canned from the vegetables grown in her garden, Rockbridge County, VA.” Photo from the Extension Service, US Department of Agriculture, c. 1942.

Collection of the Library of Congress (

Their number declined after the War, as subsidies disappeared and freezing technology improved.[22] Some survived, and there has been waxing and waning in their numbers, but community canneries continue to exist.[23] Until recently, the Keezletown Community Cannery in Virginia was one of the longest-running community canneries. It opened in 1942 in the basement of the local elementary school and continued to operate year after year on the school grounds. In the spring of 2019, operations ceased. The school needed the cannery building to house a growing student population, and at the time there were plans to reopen it elsewhere.[24]

Storage and Use

After preparation, canned foods were kept in a cool, dark location until needed. In 1943, 75% of American homemakers put up 4.1 billion containers of food, averaging 165 jars each. They preserved another 3.5 billion quarts of food in 1944. This represented nearly half of all canned vegetables and 2/3 of canned fruits for civilian use that year.[25] People took great pride in the results of their canning efforts. This, plus the uncertainty of wartime, led to a problem of people not using their preserved foods. “There are two mistakes you can make in using your home-canned foods,” wrote Good Housekeeping. “The first – serving favorites too often. The second – using your supply so sparingly that you’ll have some left over when the summer’s garden crop comes along.”[26]

A color illustration shows a white woman in a flowered apron with her arms full of canned produce including beets, corn, beans, and tomato sauce
“Am I Proud! I’m fighting famine… by canning food at home.” Note this poster uses the same image as “Of Course I Can” with post-war wording. Poster, US Department of Agriculture, 1946.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 513787).

In planning the Victory Garden program, the government intended that the harvest be used by those who produced it. If you had more than you needed, you could give away a small amount.[27] Some shipped canned foods to their loved ones serving overseas. Julie A. Lenard from Middletown, Pennsylvania described her father (stationed in France) asking for a chicken:

So Mom prepared and canned a chicken in a glass jar and sent it off to Dad. Meanwhile he was sent to… New Jersey for treatment of an injury. He arrived back home… when the chicken finally caught up to him. So together, Mom and Dad enjoyed the chicken that had traveled half way around the world.” Julie A. Lenard, Middletown, Pennsylvania, telling the story of her mother, Martha Tittiger [28]

After the War

Even after the war ended, there was a push to continue Victory Gardening and canning. The United States was sending food and supplies overseas to help feed war-torn countries while they got back on their feet. (Britain’s food supply system was so damaged by the war that many items remained rationed into the early 1950s).[29] People continue to grow and preserve their own foods, though most not with the same urgency of the war years.[30]

This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. It was funded by the National Council on Public History’s cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.

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Last updated: November 16, 2023