It’s canning season again, the time of year when people across the country are busily bottling their produce in anticipation of the long winter between now and next summer’s garden. And almost all of them are doing it in Mason jars —grandma’s old-fashioned canning containers which are suddenly once again hot stuff.
Amid current concerns about food content, sourcing, and environmental sustainability, the Mason jar, writes Ariana Kelly in The Atlantic, represents “resistance to the mass production of food and culture.”
Others see it as the healthiest of food alternatives. While Michael Pollan has urged us to avoid processed foods by shopping around the edges of the supermarket, the Mason jar takes food a step further. Why shop at all when we can grow it and preserve it ourselves?
The Mason jar isn’t the latest device on the food preservation scene—that’s probably the refrigerator freezer —but it’s certainly the simplest and most versatile. And once it came along, it revolutionized our relationship with food.
Preservation is a problem that has bedeviled humankind ever since Stone-Age hunter-gatherers found themselves in possession of more perishable chow than they could down at one sitting. The earliest solution to spoilage was probably drying, a process which dates at least to 12,000 BCE, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation. It was most likely discovered serendipitously, simply by leaving a slice of leftover mammoth out in the hot sun.
For centuries, thrifty homeowners dried, smoked, salted, or pickled whatever they could. Still, methods were limited and not all benefited. In the absence of adequate food preservation techniques, sailors were especially hard hit: from the 15th to the 19th centuries, when sea voyages of a year or more were common, millions of men died of scurvy, a vitamin-C-deficiency disease brought on by an unrelenting diet of salt beef and hardtack.
The problem was exacerbated in wartime, when pre-K-ration armies were forced to feed themselves by foraging. Often this was unsuccessful, and malnutrition continually took such a toll on the military that leaders were desperate for solutions. In 1795, the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with an effective way of preserving food for provisioning soldiers far from home.
The prize was belatedly won in 1810—under Napoleon, who reputedly coined the phrase “An army marches on its stomach”—by Nicolas Appert, a Parisian confectioner, vintner, chef, brewer, and pickle maker, who packed cooked foods into champagne bottles, plugged the tops with corks, wire, and sealing wax, and boiled them. He passed on the results, variously filled with roast partridges, raspberries, peas, beans, broth, and gravy, to the French navy, which pronounced itself thrilled. Appert published a book on his process, titled The Book of All Households, or The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years, founded a bottling factory, and garnered publicity by impressively bottling a whole sheep. (He also went on to invent peppermint schnapps and the bouillon cube.) High equipment costs, however, apparently did him in; he died broke at the age of 91.
Appert’s heat-based food preservation process—lumpily known as “appertization”—reached the United States by the 1820s, but only became popular around the time of the Civil War. A contributing factor to its increasing acceptance was the invention of a better jar.
In 1858, John Landis Mason, a tinsmith from New Jersey, patented a handy wide-mouthed jar with a zinc screw cap for home canning—a far easier proposition for home kitchens than Appert’s tricky mix of cork, wire, and wax. The original versions were aqua-blue, made from manganese-bleached glass, and were transparent, a plus, since home canners could see what was inside.
Competitors soon sprang up. In 1882, Henry Putnam of Bennington, Vermont, invented the Lightning jar which, in lieu of Mason’s zinc screw cap, had a glass lid held in place with a spiffy wire clamp. This was quick and easy to snap on and off, hence the name “Lightning.” The clamp made Putnam, unlike the less lucky Appert and Mason, very rich.
By the turn of the 20th century, Mason jar manufacturers had wildly multiplied. Largest and most aggressive of these was the Ball Brothers Manufacturing Company which came into being in 1884, a joint endeavor of the five Ball brothers (Edmund, Frank, George, Lucius, and William). The Ball edge was a convenient two-part lid, consisting of a flat metal disk with a sealing gasket topped by a threaded metal band. (The lid was actually an adaptation of an invention by a rival jar maker, Alexander Kerr of the Hermetic Fruit Jar Company.) Today Ball jars, now sold by Jarden Home Brands, are the top-selling Mason jars in the United States. And it looks like we’re buying more and more of them.
Historically we’ve seen a number of upticks in the popularity of Mason jars. World War II, when frugal housewives were preserving the harvest from their Victory gardens, was a banner period for Mason jars. So was the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 70s, the era of hippies, rural communes, Birkenstocks, and The Whole Earth Catalog.
In the hands of modern-day foodies, the jars are coming into their own once again. According to the National Gardening Association, home and community gardening is at an all-time high. These days some 35 percent of all American families have food gardens, which means some 42 million families poised to can their own food.
And their best pick is still the Mason jar.
Looking for canning recipes? Try Liana Krissof’s creative Canning for a New Generation, check out some classics here, or visit Punk Domestics for instructions for everything from pickled okra to kumquat marmalade.
Or join Ball canning brand Friday, as it hosts the 6th annual Can-It-Forward Day on Facebook Live, where it will share demos and recipes from 10 a.m to 3:30 p.m. EST.