Were you to visit Presque Isle — a small peninsula on the Erie, Pennsylvania lakefront — during any mid-nineteenth-century autumn, you’d likely see marshes thick with cranberry bushes. The largest marsh of all occupied the peninsula’s middle. September’s arrival would see the berries at their reddest, a development that summoned the folks of Erie County to their harvest.
The picked cranberries would go into jellies and preserves or into stalls at public markets. And in doing so they precipitated a tragedy of the commons: greedier sorts would steal a march on their unsuspecting fellows, leaving them to find the marshes of Presque Isle bare of fruit. The phenomenon became so acute that in 1841 the state legislature of Pennsylvania intervened. It deemed such deviousness to be “contrary to the peace and dignity of the commonwealth.” To this end, it forbade the picking of cranberries on Presque Isle from “the first of July” to “the first Tuesday of October.”
Variously monikered “the blood month” for the many animals slaughtered during it, the “wind month” for the icy gusts that swept the land, and “the month of blue devils and suicides” for reasons unstated, November was to those who lived before T.S. Eliot the cruelest page of the calendar. Occult influences of the sun’s moving into the house of the constellation Sagittarius were blamed for the merciless turn taken by the weather, which beset London with endless days of leaden skies, torrential rain, and stifling fog. So sharp, in fact, were November’s winds that farmers believed them to suspend “the vegetable powers of nature,” which would resume only with the arrival of spring.
Rarely does ingenuity find just reward. The enterprising Nicolas Appert learned this unhappy fact when, in 1795, he hit upon the means by which to preserve meat, fish and vegetables in glass bottles. This découverte came only after a serious of professional failures. Appert began his career as a champagne salesman, and then tried his hand at confections before ending up in a grubby little atelier in the rue de la Folie-Méricourt, immersing in a piping hot bain-marie wide-mouthed glass bottles stuffed with everything from peas to pot roast. Finding that the bath rendered the jars airtight, Appert hit upon an idea that, for a few years at least, would bring him fame and welcome fortune.