Recipe for a lunch can…

Ask any adult whose parent was a working Joe and you will probably hear stories about lunch can treats. Eating a diet limited by the confines of a metal can is notoriously monotonous and yet…

A miner’s can – photo courtesy of Alvina Ann Walker

The practice of packing food for a day’s toil predates the industrial revolution but the rush to mines, mills and factories transformed the practical need to provide sustenance. As the industrial revolution progressed baskets were replace by assorted cans and buckets made mostly of metal.

Workers at O’Brian’s Mill Chatham, NB c. 1900 Photo courtesy of Our Miramichi Heritage Family FBsite

Metal containers1 served to protect the food from rodents, particularly rats which became more prevalent with increased urbanization. Miners in particular needed to protect their day’s food from the underground or pit rats2 which lived off of their scraps and waste.

Lobster factory workers c. 1910 Photo courtesy of Our Miramichi Heritage Family FBsite.

Eating at work in the early days of the industrial age was fraught with risk. Early industrial environments were inherently unsafe. Working and eating conditions were shared, food, hands, and mouths all adulterated by the constant dust, and fumes.

Train trestle Little Glace Bay c.1890

Variety and novelty in a lunch can meal was and remains a practical impossibility… many workers simply resorted to eating the same working meal everyday. For the coal miners of the region this often meant sandwiches made with molasses, jam, or meat spread, sweets (often prepackaged) and a bottle of tea.

C 1890 Commercial street, Glace Bay, NS
Early Miner’s can c. 1900 Photo courtesy of Frankie Andrews

Monotony, and work dust aside lunch cans and lunch can memories endure… monotony replaced by memories of little girls and boys running to meet their Dad returning from the day’s toil. Children savouring their father’s leftovers…treats flavoured with their hard work, by the unceasing dust and dirt and by a healthy dusting of relief at their loved one’s safe return.

The recipe for a lunch can is simple… lots of high carbohydrate and high fat foods… a refreshing drink, and lots of love.

Explanations and Resources:
1. Assorted metal containers and glass containers were used in the early days as lunch cans, often materials originally manufactured for other purposes. Glass bottles originally made to hold chlorine bleach were a popular choice for holding tea.

2. Pit Rats were and are common in mining environments. The rats live underground and their only source of food is the waste left by workers. Pit rats are notoriously aggressive. During mine shut downs pit rats would leave the mines in search of food.


2 thoughts on “Recipe for a lunch can…

  1. My mother made homemade bread almost every day along with tea biscuits. My father always had meat or an egg sandwich along with a bottle of tea. Never a peanut butter and jam sandwich. Homemade cookies too. Sometimes he would take an orange but if he didn’t eat it he would bring it home and we would fight over it. It always rated better from down in the mine lol

    Liked by 1 person

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