An American Classic – The Mason Jar
Feb 17, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Throughout human history, we’ve been concerned with food: how to get food, prepare food, and enjoy food. Recipes are the tie that binds us to our ancestors. Food can immediately transport you to a different place in time or to a different corner of the planet. I happily count snacking as one of my favorite hobbies! For generations people relied on a combination of climate, salt, and smoke to keep snacks tasting great for longer periods of time. Then finally, in the early 1800s, a new technology came along that promised to take food preservation to the next level: canning. But this new fad would have never caught on without the Mason jar. Allow me to explain…
Our tale begins in New Jersey where a twenty-something John Mason was working as a tinsmith. John watched as neighbors and loved ones tried to master this new canning craze. People were using a precarious solution of boiling, cork stoppers, and wax to seal food from outside influences. I can’t imagine how messy this was – remember, this was before modern ovens and gadgets. Canning in these days was a gamble. For me, reaching for a beloved food treat – only to find out what you crave has spoiled – is a tragedy. John Mason must have shared my sentiments and put his mind to the matter.
His experiments resulted in the first screw-top jar, which he patented in 1858. The world had never seen such a thing. The screw had been around since Archimedes (or some scholars think even sooner), so it wasn’t a foreign concept. But applying that mechanism to the joining of two disparate materials – glass and metal – was a revelation. The first Mason jars, with their stout square shoulders, are believed to have been made in a New Jersey hamlet called Crowleytown. Obviously these jars are highly prized by collectors and stand out thanks to their distinctive aqua color.
John’s new system revolutionized canning and elevated it from drudgery to a movement. People were suddenly freed from tedious wax melting and anxiety. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as it came on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, when the world was more urban than ever before. The Mason jar allowed families in smaller spaces to create well-stocked pantries. In addition, it wasn’t expensive and was reusable. For the cost-conscious consumer, a Mason jar was a sound investment. (And for this generation, which is becoming more aware of sustainable products, it’s a clear winner!)
Unfortunately, John didn’t realize the full return on his invention because he delayed patenting the lid’s rubber ring for a decade. I’m not sure why he overlooked securing his invention in its entirety (after all, the rubber ring was in many ways the centerpiece of this innovation). This misstep proved to be a financial disaster for him personally, but his legacy would thrive thanks to five determined brothers. Raised by a schoolteacher and farmer, the Ball brothers (Edmund, Frank, George, Lucius, and William) were encouraged to collaborate from an early age. Each brother brought his own skill and passion to whatever they set their sights on and by the late 1800s they were preparing to enter the business world.
Collector’s tips: the earliest jars produced by Ball bear the words “Mason’s Patent 1858.” The “upside down” jar (meant to rest on its lid) was made from 1900-1910. You can find jars in practically every color of the rainbow: pink, blue, amber, and purple. For a fun timeline of Ball achievements click here.
When Mason’s original patent expired in 1879, the Ball brothers were ready. That following year, with some starter money from their beloved Uncle George, the guys purchased a company (one Wooden Jacket Can Company of Buffalo, New York). They swiftly pivoted business models and began making tin cans and glass jars. But that wasn’t their only update. They also relocated the facility to Indiana, which was a region naturally suited for glassblowing. Picking up and moving is a challenging endeavor, but to move a young business (when it’s at its most vulnerable) is risky. But Frank, who was on the front lines in Sales, was convinced it would be a safe bet. His brothers, inspired by his confidence, agreed. The move proved to be a sound one and by 1884 they were making the famous Mason jars. With the 1897 invention of a semi-automatic glass machine, Ball became the top producer of Mason jars. Being the number one supplier of a product found in every American kitchen is a good spot to be in and, by the turn of the century, the Ball label had become the most trusted brand in the industry.
The invention of the refrigerator ushered in the next big chapter in food preservation, but canning (and the Mason Jar) remains an American classic. For families in the late 1800s to early 1900s, canning provided an opportunity to have ownership over their own food supply. It opened up a new world of options – menus didn’t have to be dictated by the season. Some scholars even believe it was canning that paved the way for nutritional health improvements. During WWII canning was even seen as an act of patriotism. While our love affair with food has inspired countless inventions, the Mason jar holds a special place in that canon of tasty excellence. Tell me, dear reader, what fond memories do you have thanks to this noble creation?