Farms Finest: Mason jars preserve food and American history
October 19, 2014
Overnight, in the mid-1800s, an improvement in food preservation increased the very odds of a family's survival. From pioneering ancestors to the military, another option suddenly became available that went beyond salting, drying, smoking or pickling. The mason jar is an important part of American history.
One hundred sixty years later, this invention is as popular as ever and has made an encore in places far beyond the kitchen pantry.
From flower vases to silverware holders to beverage containers, the creative applications seem infinite. Recently, Food & Wine magazine called the celebrated Masonshaker, by W&P Design N.Y., "a brilliant cocktail shaker." A Pinterest board titled "One million ideas for Mason Jars" includes "15 Mason jar pies" and even how to make mason jar terrariums.
Functional, rugged and with a stiff dose of nostalgia, these stalwarts of grandmother's pantry are in a revival. Rich in memories of a slower time, their practicality continues to thread its way into today's high-tech, fast-paced world, reminding us that simple is good.
Food as it had been known was transformed in 1858 when a New York tin-smith, John Mason, invented a machine that cut threads into metal rings. To this he added a rubber seal and a flat zinc top. Combined, these three parts maintained a tight seal on the thickly threaded jars that he began manufacturing, whose bottoms were stamped with "Masons Patent November 30th, 1858."
Mason's patent rights were short-lived and expired in 1870, and 500 glass companies began producing their own versions. Mason quietly died in poverty around 1900.
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Over time, styles were modified, but all were based on the original thick-walled Mason jar. A wire bail and glass-lid jar was produced in 1882 in Bennington, Vermont. These were called lightning jars, and a version of this (from the 1800s to 1964) was the Atlas E-Z Seal. It was called "strong shoulder" and prevented the potential for cracking.
The canning-jar industry hit full stride in 1883 when William Charles Ball, his three brothers and two other men converted a tin- and wood-container factory to glass in 1886 and produced wide-mouthed fruit jars. A large opening, with no shoulder, allowed even more versatility. Slowly they acquired many other jar companies and began mass production, becoming industry leaders.
In 1903, Alexander Kerr founded the Hermetic Fruit Jar Co.. These jars were the first commercial, wide-mouth, economy-priced jars with a permanently attached gasket making them cheap, fast and easy to use. Then, in 1915, Kerr invented a simple one-piece flat disc-and-gasket combination that worked with mason jars and replaced the troublesome red rubber seals. This design transformed canning safety and is still used today.
Although Kerr produced the first wide-mouth jar, Ball was quicker and their numerous plants immediately duplicated this design. Today, Ball has been spun off to what is now Jarden Corp. Home Brands. It is reported that sales of Ball jars and all canning supplies have jumped 25 percent since 2001.
The canning jar had a place in history, especially during the Great Depression and then during World War II, when the government encouraged raising food in Victory Gardens to aid our troops. For collectors, the early handblown ones with amber shades or cobalt are most prized. Over time, clear glass became more popular for practical reasons.
During the 1950s, refrigeration and science stalled the canning-jar market as TV dinners, Tang and frozen foods became popular. A brief surge of sales occurred during the Y2K craze, and then in 2008 the recession made sales jump in canning products. This was a time when people stayed home and rediscovered the gratification of being self-sufficient.
Today, healthy diets and the enjoyment of food preparation have become popular pastimes. People have found that they want a level of involvement in the food process, and that includes home canning.
This icon of a slower time is now being made in knockoffs for marketing campaigns. In hopes of adding a sense of wholesomeness, plastic versions include ones that sell Red Lobster shortcakes and even neon-lidded ones for 7-Eleven Slurpees.
For me, nothing says functional simplicity any better than the original Mason jar. Whether they are holding buttons, coins, M&Ms or raspberry jam, they will always be an enduring part of American history.
Joni Keefe writes about sustainability, healthy agriculture and alternative crops. Send feedback to Farmsfinest@gmail.com.