Our intern reenacts a Portland inventor’s early efforts to can corn

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This video, shot in our Congress Street office, details Isaac’s triumphs and follies while learning how to can corn.

Earlier this summer, I was searching for a wacky facet of Portland history to produce a video on. I searched high and low on the Maine Memory Network for interesting visuals or a fun backstory and a stumbled upon this strange looking can.

It mentioned brothers Isaac and Nathan Winslow, who lived in Portland around 1840, and were prominent businessmen in Portland. Intrigued by this information, I did a quick Google search of the brothers, yielding a book from 1902 detailing their rise to fame and how Portland became a canning capital.

For all of you who thought Maine wasn’t the epicenter of corn canning in the United States, let’s clear this up right now. Olin Lee Deming of The Canner and Dried Fruit Packer is here to tell you the truth.

Maine has been generally acknowledged as the early home of corn packing in this country, and its claim is a just one.

Isaac Winslow’s corn-canning odyssey started to develop a possible remedy for scurvy, which was a problem on ships during the 19th century.

Isaac Winslow did most of the experimental work, while Nathan provided supplies and a space to work on Fore Street. Isaac tested for 20 years on everything imaginable. He tested the temperature of the corn, how long to cook it, and even how to get the corn off of the cob. After using a fork to de-corn the cob, he realized a knife was better and filed a patent for a corn-cutting knife.

A Winslow Brothers canned corn label from the collections of Maine Historical Society, item #1469 on MaineMemory.net.

A Winslow Brothers’ canned corn label from the collections of Maine Historical Society, item #1469 on MaineMemory.net.

After leaving the canning business, Isaac Winslow left all three of his canning patents to his son-in-law, John Winslow Jones. Jones and Nathan Winslow packed for nearly a decade before Jones was the sole operator of the business.

Jones operated that business ruthlessly, bringing a lawsuit to a corn packer from Wiscasset. This resulted in royalties being paid to Jones with every corn sale. Eventually, this was reversed and the original patents were declared invalid, leaving no sole right to can corn in the United States.

Jones organized the John Winslow Packing Company with the help of English investors. He was unsuccessful in that venture and overtaken by C. P. Mattock’s Winslow Packing Company. Jones retreated to Maryland, canning for a short while there.

Packing companies came and went in Portland. Their influence is still evident in the city today, as visitors from the north are welcomed by B&M Baked Beans, which has been operating in Portland for almost 150 years.