A short history of the Mason jar

A collection of mason jars filled with preserved foods

The inventor of the Mason jar was an American tinsmith from New Jersey named John Landis Mason. Before Mason came up with his brilliant idea, food preserving was very problematic.

The invention of canning food is attributed to a French chef from Paris, called Nicolas Appert.

During the Napoleonic wars, providing food for the troops was difficult so the French government offered a reward of 12,000 francs to anyone who would solve the problem of food preservation.

In 1806, Appert discovered that food could be used for a longer time if packed in glass containers, which would be sealed with tin lids and wax, and put into boiling water.

Up until 1858 jars had a flat top and people used wax to seal the lid on the jar. This process was complicated and if not done properly it would allow bacteria to get in and spoil the food.

The Mason jar offered a simple and safe solution with the threaded neck and the zinc screw-on cap with a rubber ring. Another thing is that they are made from glass, so people could see the contents.

John Landis Mason.

The interesting thing about his famous invention is that Mason invented the lid first and the jar came later. He patented his invention in 1858 (US Patent Nr. 22,186) but his patent expired in 1979.

Competitor companies started making Mason jars after the patent had expired so Mason didn’t make any money out of it. He died in poverty in 1902 in New York.

John L. Mason’s May 23, 1871 United States trademark registration.

From the time it was patented until today, the Mason jar has been produced in a variety of shapes and designs. So many of them were produced and used through the years that many of the early examples can still be found.

Antique Mason jars. Author:FiveRings. CC BY 3.0

In the second half of the 19th century several new designs of the caps were introduced. One of the most popular was the wire bail, invented by Charles de Quillfeldt in 1875.

This closure used a glass lid and a wire to seal it. It became widely used because people didn’t really like when metal came in contact with their food, so the glass lid was a great solution.

The method of sealing was called “Lightning” and the extensive usage on fruit jars led to the appearance of the name Lightning fruit jar.

New Mexico. Mrs. Fidel Romero proudly exhibits her canned food.

Another breakthrough happened in 1915 when the one-piece zinc cap was replaced with a two-piece lid designed by Alexander Kerr. Kerr’s invention was a jar lid with a rubber surface, held down by a separate metal ring.

This design was produced by the Ball brothers and the Ball Perfect Mason jar became one of the most common of the kind. This is why many of the Mason jars produced in the 20th century have the Ball company logo on them.

In a period of ten years, between 1939 and 1949 more than three million Mason jars were sold. Kerr’s design is still in use today.

A collection of mason jars filled with preserved foods.

In the early 20th century Mason jars were all over the United States. During World War II, Mason jars were massively produced because the US Government encouraged people to grow their own food and canning was the primary way of preserving it.

Ball Mason jar. Author: kiera.chan. CC BY-ND 2.0

Several years after the war had finished, major developments in economy and technology began. People started moving into the cities and buying refrigerators that offered freezing as a way of keeping food, so home canning became less important.

A Kerr Mason jar. Author: User:Themightyquill. CC BY-SA 2.5

In the late 1960s and 70s the Mason jar made another comeback, this time with the popular DIY (Do It Yourself) movement when people became more aware of the food they were eating and strove for a more natural style of life. Today we are witnessing a variety of Mason jar uses. Canning is maybe what they are least used for.

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Today the jar may be seen used as a vase, turned into a lantern, a snow globe and many others; there are bars and coffee shops that serve drinks in Mason jars. Antique Mason jars can be found at auctions and their value depends on age, color, rarity, and condition.