Sunday, November 22, 2009

Franklin curiosities: Toy replica of Goldner's tin

In my last posting, I mentioned another remarkable item in my collections, a small toy replica of one of Goldner's infamous red tins. It's about an inch tall, and is made from a wooden spool and painted with (non-toxic) red paint; wrapped in tissue, it fits snugly inside a box decorated with woodcuts of Arctic explorers, with the label "Franklin Expedition Arctic Discovery Play Set." A small leaflet within outlines the essential history, and explains the possible role of Goldner's tins in Franklin's demise. This remarkable item is the work of Ron Toelke, a graphic designer with many years of experience in the book trade, who has taken up the sideline of making extraordinary toys and gifts using old engravings and woodcuts of Polar voyages. In addition to the Franklin play-set, he's worked on a set of Franklin expedition playing cards, with Franklin and his officers as "Kings" and the ships as "Queens." (Interestingly, there was a set of such cards made back in the 1850's for Dr. Kane's Second Grinnell Expedition; these are on display at the library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia).

Goldner's tins, of course, excite a sort of morbid curiosity -- and here Toelke has chosen the infamous "Ox Cheek" soup, which one imagines, even if wholesome and properly tinned, might cause some (understandable) queasiness. I've had some experience with these tins -- there's an original one in a glass case at the airport in Resolute, Nunavut -- and for the Franklin documentary I was in, the producer had made a number of cans spray-painted red. When I was in Los Angeles as the Velaslavasay Panorama, they made lovely full-size tins (Ox Cheek Soup being again featured), which were placed around the tables from which period Arctic fare was served. The actual degree to which these cans -- either from the lead in their solder, possible contamination with botulism, or simple putridity -- contributed to the demise of Franklin and his men remains a subject of fierce debate. I would only observe this: the much higher death rate among Franklin's officers, as opposed to ordinary seamen, must correlate with something -- and officers were regularly issued several times the tinned rations of sailors. Sounds like a fun game to me -- say, kids, who wants to go first?


  1. With a small string, the "toy" could be transformed into a Christmas tree ornament.

    If exact replicas of Goldner's tins were constructed, filled, sealed and stored then we could in theory determine the lead content of the food inside. This would give actual values for lead contamination levels and therefore an indication of what role the tins played with respect to lead poisoning.

    The Inuit found unopened cans on one of the ships and near one crewman on the Todd Islets. The Todd Islet can was opened and the meat eaten by the Inuit.

  2. Mmm, good!

    In fact, every indication is that the food in Goldner's tins was -- for the most part -- palatable and not harmful, unless eaten in quantities over a long period of time. Reports of spoilage date from several years later. In John Murray's documentary Finding Franklin, they actually replicated Goldner's process in a laboratory, and found that it was safe and effective for canning food, as long as the procedure in his patent was carefully followed.

    What we'd need would be for the NMM or someone else who possesses a yet-unopened tin to open it. I recall that this may have been done once, in the 1930's, but don't know of the results. If you could figure out the rate at which lead leeched into the food, the levels today could tell you something about the levels then.