How did the mason jar––a once obsolete, now-ubiquitous kitchen workhorse––become so ensconced in today’s popular culture? Different theories float around the internet, but the most convincing reason seems to be a rise in nostalgic revivalism and a trending love for authenticity that even Millennials get behind. Combined with the ease of sharing inspirational images via social media outlets like Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest, as well as the rise of maker culture has initiated a surge of novel uses and DIY projects for the classic staple. Mason jar lanterns? Check! Stemmed mason jar wine glasses? Check! Who knew one jar could bring about so many uses? Here, a brief history of this classic staple––including its rise to fame.
Napoleon Had a Complex Concerning Food Storage, Too
The world’s first foray into canning was brought introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte. Up until the 18th century, food preservation was limited to salting and drying. So desperate was Napoleon to feed his troops non-spoiled food on the move, that he offered 12,000 francs ($200,000 now!) to anyone that could invent a reliable method of preservation. In 1806, French confectioner Nicolas Appert took up the challenge. He noticed that food in a wax sealed jar didn’t spoil as long as the seals remained intact. But because Appert’s jars were too heavy to be shipped across the vast French Empire, they were eventually replied by tin cans sealed with wax. Since can openers wouldn’t exist for another 48 years, French soldiers resorted to smashing the lids with bayonets and rocks.
The Mason Jar a.k.a. The Lightning Jar
In 1858, New York-based tinsmith John Landis Mason invented the eponymous Mason Jar. Unlike the jar’s predecessors, Mason’s was reusable with a screw on lid, instead of a wax seal that needed to be broken. Another plus was that it was clear, so that folks could easily see its contents.
Sadly, Mason never profited from his invention. He died a pauper even after selling his patent. Other companies capitalized on it by adding their own modifications. In 1869, to combat the metallic taste produced by tin lids coming in contact with food, inventor Lewis Boyd patented a milk glass insert that he affixed to the underside of the tin lids. In 1882, realizing that tin rusts, Vermont-based businessman Henry Putnam invented a wire-clamped glass lid that prevented food contamination. He dubbed his invention the Lightning Jar.
The Ball Bros. and Mass Production
After the Lightning jar came wide-mouthed jars (for easy filling), and the split-lid and rubber seal that set today’s canning standard. In 1884, the Ball brothers of Buffalo, New York, who owned a large glass-producing firm, quickly dominated the industry with the mass-production of their jars—establishing Ball as a household name.
At the turn of the century, home canning was all the rage. Summer fruits, like peaches and berries, could now be eaten in the middle of a December blizzard. Canned green beans and peas made nutritious meals for Northwest settlers, and lasting through long journeys.
During WWII, the U.S. government rationed foods like sugar, eggs, milk, and canned goods to maximize resources for troops. It encouraged its citizens to grow their own Victory Gardens in which to plant fruits and vegetables. U.S. citizens took up the cause, starting gardens in vacant lots, on roofs, and in their own backyards––often sewing more spoils than they could eat. In the 1940s, home canning was a natural progression.
In the 1950s, once modern refrigeration took hold, home canning lost its luster. Farmers didn’t need to preserve their products, opting to freeze them and sell them through supermarkets instead. Except for those who preserved food as a hobby, the Mason jar’s popularity was waning.
Image by Jillian Welsh via SFGate
The Mason Jar: A Comeback
The Mason jar virtually disappeared for a few decades, until social media popularized it in affordable DIY projects that even a monkey could execute. Take it from prominent author and food historian William Woys Weaver: "John Landis Mason would hoot if he knew his jars were used for drinking vessels," and Weaver further cites the Mason jar as one of the great icons of American culinary history. Whether the jar itself is really a bona fide beacon of authenticity (as Weaver has suggested) is debatable but these days, the Mason jar certainly has become the quintessential emblem of rustic American comfort—for everyone from makers and hipsters to homemakers and home cooks. And that’s good enough for us.