A Short History of the Mason Jar

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Ivan Negin)

Mason jars are everywhere. They line the shelves of artisan grocery stores, filled with homemade blood orange marmalade or pickled fennel; they store your sugar and spices (and everything nices); and they serve as lanterns, candles, and vases at weddings. There are entire cookbooks dedicated to Mason jar salads. Brooklyn bars serve beer in them and, perhaps, so do you.

But how did it get to be so? Here is a short history of this iconic and ubiquitous jar.

The Original Mason Jar Is Born

In the days before refrigeration, it was a challenge to keep food from spoiling. Early efforts by the French in 1806 involved finicky, messy wax seals on dark jars, which wasn’t too effective. And that method was far too complicated for widespread home use.

That all changed in 1858, thanks to John Landis Mason, a 26-year-old tinsmith hailing from Philadelphia. He patented the Mason jar — yep, it’s named after him.

His design featured a couple of key innovations. For starters, there was the one-piece screw-on cap made of zinc, which created an airtight seal that kept bacteria and bugs out as hot liquids cooled. Then there was the molded, clear glass, which meant that people could now see the contents of their jars! Obviously, that had enormous appeal.

The Two-Piece Lid and Mass Production

Mason’s patent expired in 1879, which left his design open to tinkering. The big change was the two-piece lid, designed by Alexander Kerr in 1915, which is still in use today.

The Ball Brothers took the initiative to mass-produce Kerr’s design (which is why you’ll find many Mason jars have the Ball logo etched onto the side) and, from 1939 to 1949, Americans snapped up over three million jars.

The Age of Refrigeration

Mason jars were especially appealing to those in parts of the country with shorter growing seasons, as they made canning, pickling, and jamming easier and safer. However, as refrigeration swept the nation in the 1950s, Mason jars fell out of favor.

Fresh fruits and vegetables were now available year-round, lessening the reliance on canning. And as tinned foods were easier to produce for the mass market — soups, vegetables, and a certain processed ham product that rhymes with “scram” — use of the hefty glass Mason jars receded.

Boom Times Return for the Mason Jar

That could have been the end of the story for the Mason jar, but it wasn’t. As American food culture looked to retreat from overly processed foods in the 1960s and ’70s, the jars were again in vogue.

Filled with preserves or pickles, showcasing fresh blooms, or repurposed as a light fixture, Mason jars represent a more wholesome, simpler way of life. But there’s more to these vessels than just their timeless aesthetic and nostalgia. They speak to our awareness of the environmental, economic, and health costs of consuming processed foods.

These jars are reusable and durable, they don’t easily chip, they’re dishwasher-friendly; they can hold hot or cold liquids, and they don’t retain odor. The uses are nearly endless, as any quick search on Pinterest will show you.

I’m betting they’re here to stay.

Are you a fan of the Mason jar or are you on team quart container?