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How Mason Jars Went from Thrifty to Hip

One jar that can be used to store pickles, serve cocktails and, with some craftiness, light up a room (just not all at the same time)

The Mason jar can even be used to serve oatmeal -- though other containers might be better suited for this particular stunt. (Lew Robertson/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The glass container with a screw-on metal top called a Mason jar may conjure memories of shelves full of pickles and jams or it may provoke a craft-mania to shape the jar into a lantern or soap dispenser. Others may feel the urge to fill it up with a cocktail. Any of those uses are well within the cultural history of the Mason jar. This iconic container has a long history, writes Ariana Kelly for The Atlantic

The Mason jar has a threaded neck and screw-on lid that seals, patented by Scottish farmer John Landis Mason in 1858, reports Hilary Greenbaum and Dana Rubinstein for The New York Times. What made Mason's invention different than the other canning jars of the day was that they were transparent. “Being able to see what you have on hand and what’s going on inside the bottle, that’s what’s really important,” Megan Elias, the author of Stir It Up: Home Economics in American Culture, tells The Times. Mason added the rubber seal in 1869, cementing the jar’s appeal as an easy canning container. 

For the short growing seasons of the northern U.S. the jar was critical in preserving the harvest over the winter. When Mason’s patent expired, the jar lived in several iterations, notably the Ball and Kerr jars. Mason jars remained popular during World War II, as a way to preserve the bounty of the government-encouraged Victory Gardens. 

Yet the rise of refrigeration in the post-war years pushed people to freeze rather than can. As the jar became less of a necessity, the culture surrounding it changed, Kelly writes. She notes that her mother and aunt canned with Mason jars in the 1960s and 70s, as part of a back-to-the-land movement. And now, the jar is back. Kelly explains its newfound popularity:

Half a century later, the Mason jar is having another moment. Thanks to writers like Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, and Alice Waters, many people are much more aware of the food that they’re eating and the high costs — environmental and economic — of transporting it to their plates, encouraging a return to locally grown produce and activities like canning. Whereas tinned food now connotes poverty, Mason jars, with their pleasing shape and transparency, suggest a kind of wholesome luxury.

The current popularity has pushed the canning jar into areas it has never ventured before. Perhaps iced-tea and moonshine end up in Mason jars because that was the closest glass container at hand. But now cocktails at fancy bars feature the jar. The jars are popular enough that the Ball Corporation saw an opportunity to kindle brand nostalgia with a reissue of jars with blue-tinted glass. (Colored jars originally blocked light from spoiling the contents — manufacturers make several shades of green, blues and some in amber.) 

Some uses, perhaps inadvertently, serve to highlight the varied history of the jar. An article on Gawker by Aleksander Chan about 7-Eleven’s decision to sell Slurpees our of Mason jars with mustache straws sparked a discussion about who exactly drinks out of a jar previously associated with preserves.

Predictably, the comment thread devolves into judgment and subsequent calling out of that judgment. However, whether people use the container because of its functionality, handiness or because it evokes those qualities and thus lends an aura of authenticity, the Mason jar shows no signs of disappearing any time soon. 

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