The Canner Can Can: The Rayburns and Food Preservation

By Margo McCutcheon, Educator, Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site

If you ever tell someone that you think you were born in the wrong era and that you’d rather live at some point in the past, you might take a minute or two in your actual timeline to consider all the factors surrounding that era of the past you think you’re so fond of. Being from Texas, I suggest one of those factors be air conditioning. Being a human being who enjoys convenience, I suggest the other factor you consider be electricity.

We can all imagine a short span of time without electricity, but we might fail to imagine a full or even half a life without electricity. Having to buy oil and wicks, light a lamp just to walk around or read at night, and then clean that lamp? Having to wash all of your family’s clothes by hand once a week, and ironing some of those clothes with an actual piece of iron that you had to heat up in a fire on a hot summer’s day? Today, we might worry that our food will go bad without a working refrigerator, but what did people without refrigerators do before electricity?

The Rayburn family lived the majority of their lives without access to electricity at home because they were farmers and were born before the 1900s. The oldest of the 11 Rayburn children was born in 1869 and the youngest born in 1891. Located about two miles outside the city limits of Bonham, the Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site did not have electricity until 1935, when Sam “Mr. Sam” Rayburn paid to have lines run out to the home that he shared with some of his siblings over the years. Mr. Sam was 53 years old when he finally lived in a home with electricity (I’m not counting his apartment in Washington, D.C., because that was simply his home away from home).

According to the National Museum of American History, the electric power systems that we know and love today began around the 1880s, with most large population centers around the United States having electric power by the 1920s. However, numbers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that about 20% of farms around the U.S. did not have power in 1950. That means that just about 70 years ago, there were still rural families in the U.S. that did not have power. Mr. Sam was a huge proponent of bringing electricity to rural areas, and one of his proudest accomplishments during his career was his involvement with the Rural Electrification Act, which helped create electric cooperatives that allowed farmers to supply themselves with the electricity that electric companies refused to sell to them.

While there are many, many, many reasons electricity improved the lives of rural Americans, one important area was the realm of food preservation. Without electricity, you had to either preserve your food in some way (cellars, ice boxes, having a drawer at a locker plant) or use your products immediately. A walk through the Rayburn house will show you just how well the Rayburn family took to electricity, but there is a reminder of their past efforts of preserving food sitting on a table in the kitchen.

When most visitors see this item, they call it a pressure cooker. However, it’s actually a pressure canner. Engraved on the top of this almost 18-by-12 inch object are the words “Automatic Hot-Spot Master Cooker – Automatic Canning Devices Inc. Chicago.” Around the sides of the canner near its top are six clamps to keep the lid tightly shut. There is a safety valve and petcock on one side of the canner.

The pressure gauge on the opposite side of the canner from the valve has a label for J.P. Dowell in McKinney, Texas, on it. In the 1933 edition of the “Fannin County Home Demonstration Clubs’ Cook Book” in our collection, there is an advertisement for J.P. Dowell’s business in McKinney. This advertisement includes a picture of the Automatic Hot Spot Master Cooker that appears very similar to our model.

The specifications for the Master Cooker include a Hot Spot Black Bottom that takes less time and fuel to heat, and an Alcoa Aluminum kettle. Based on this ad and the pressure gauge on the Rayburn cooker, the Rayburns might have purchased their canner from J.P. Dowell. Along with their pressure canner, the Rayburns had glass jars and a canning rack that was used to lower and raise the cans inside the canner.

The gauge on top of the canner is one of the main differences between a pressure cooker and a canner. Michelle Jarvie at Michigan State University discusses the important differences between cookers and canners as well as the dangers of attempting to can goods using a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers are typically used to cook large meats in quicker times, and usually hold no more than four quarts of items.

Canners process low-acid foods for canning, meaning these foods will be specially pressurized into cans to be preserved and eaten at a later date. Pressure canners are large enough to contain several sizes of jars, from half-pints up to seven quarts. The most necessary and most dangerous part of the canning process is the accurate measure and timing of the pressure placed on the foods processed for canning.

The small size of typical pressure cookers means that you can’t accurately measure the time to heat up or cool down the canned products, and most pressure cookers do not have a gauge to measure the pressure inside or such gauges may not be as accurate as the gauges on a device made specifically for canning.

Not having enough pressure, heat, or cooling times means that the canned goods might contain botulism spores (in the right conditions, these spores can grow and create lethal botulism toxin). These spores are removed with proper processing time and pressure.

Jarvie recommends making sure whatever device you use to can has a way to measure pressure accurately, vent air from inside the canner, and be big enough to hold at least four quart-sized jars with lids upright. Pressure canning is not something you should guess at—please use recipes and consult canning guidelines such as those published by the USDA to make sure that your products are canned properly. You may also contact your local county Extension Service office for help.

According to a canning timeline from the USDA, canning, tin cans, and mason jars were all being developed during the 1800s. From 1914–1917 in the U.S., the creation of Home Demonstration Agents, the two-piece disposable metal canning lid by Alexander H. Kerr, and the USDA officially announcing the pressure canner as the only safe method for processing low-acid foods all contributed to advancing the knowledge and safety of home canning.

Once refrigerators became popular in the late 1940s, home canning declined, likely due to the fact that families could store their food whole for longer rather than immediately have to can it. However, home canning made a comeback in the 1970s, and the USDA continued to develop safety standards for home canning from then on. In the beginning of their development, pressure canners were mostly made out of aluminum as it could withstand high heat and pressure. You would set your pressure canner on the stove and monitor its temperature and pressure. Your canning container was either glass jars (multi-use) or tin cans (single use), though you did need certain equipment to help seal the lids for tin cans.

The Rayburns had another reason for knowing all about canning other than their age and farm life. Mr. Sam’s mother, Martha, had a cousin named Minnie Eldridge who lived with the Rayburns for about 10 years after Martha’s death in 1927.

Minnie worked as one of those Home Demonstration Agents that were an important part in the development and teaching of proper canning methods across the U.S. Young women learned how to grow their food and can it, as well as other skills, thanks to agents like Minnie. There is even a dedication to Minnie in the 1933 “Home Demonstration Clubs’ Cook Book” referenced earlier in this article.

Like other Americans, at least some of the Rayburn family stopped canning their own goods. Medibel Bartley, one of Mr. Sam’s three sisters, moved into the Rayburn House with her husband during the 1940s. In a letter she wrote to her brother Sam in 1956, Medibel told him that the garden she and the house caretakers maintained was growing enough tomatoes to eat but that she didn’t “want any to can for I don’t know how, the store bought are good and cheap.” Medibel either didn’t know how to can food or couldn’t justify the activity with the availability of other food preservation methods and the convenience of store-bought products.

At the Rayburn House today, we are happy to continue to develop new ways to show visitors how the Rayburns lived. At certain events throughout the year, we have some activities that demonstrate how farmers like the Rayburns made butter, ice cream, or washed their laundry.

We are looking into ways to demonstrate things such as how to can your own food, not only to celebrate the Rayburn way of life but also because some people like to maintain traditions of how things used to work (or even try to make themselves as self-sufficient as possible).

However, the Rayburn House teaches us not only the value of history and tradition, but also to embrace modernity because that’s what the Rayburns did, too. The family purchased some of the top-of-the-line equipment in their day from freezers to ovens to make their lives easier and better.

They could even continue to can or farm as they used to, it just didn’t take as long, meaning they could spend more time on their own hobbies or interests. So, if you’re thinking about time traveling to the 1950s for whatever reason, think twice before you hit up a farm and talk about how the future is consumed with too much technology—that farmer may be in the 20% of Americans who didn’t have the luxury of light bulbs, vacuum cleaners, or refrigerators.


“Fannin County Home Demonstration Clubs’ Cook Book.” Home Demonstration Clubs. Fannin County, TX. 1933.

Jarvie, Michelle. “Pressure Cookers Versus Pressure Canners.” Michigan State University. September 6, 2018.

McBride, Brandon. “Celebrating the 80th Anniversary of the Rural Electrification Administration.” U.S. Department of Agriculture. February 21, 2017.

United States Department of Agriculture. “How Did We Can? The Evolution of Home Canning Practices: A National Agricultural Library Digital Exhibit.” National Agricultural Library. Accessed February 22, 2023.

Wallace, Harold D., Jr. “Power from the People: Rural Electrification Brought More than Lights.” National Museum of American History. February 12, 2016.

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