secthead Resources

No Spoiling Here


Written by Stephanie Yu, Curatorial Intern


mason1The Mason jar—simple in design, yet innovative in the food preservation world. Nowadays, they've become more versatile in usage, as they can be used not only for canning, but for arts and crafts and beverage services. The jar in front of me is aqua in color, and unlike the others I have seen, the lid is still attached. Unscrewing the lid, I hold my breath. Would the jar smell like nothing because someone had let the jar air out days ago? Would it smell like the fruit that was previously canned in the jar? The lid is off, let's take a small whiff. Maybe I should have held my breath longer. The air just smelled stale.

Some of you may be wondering how the Mason jar got its start. Prior to the 19th century, it was difficult to preserve perishables. Methods for doing so included drying, salting, smoking, fermenting, pickling, and storing in a cool, dry place. Napoleon is thought to have a strong effect on the canning industry as he offered the French population a large sum of francs to develop a new way to preserve food as the government was having a difficult time sending unspoiled food to its armies. Thus, although it took nearly a decade and a half to perfect the method, Nicolas Appert responded to his request by developing a method involving a wax sealant, wire, and boiling.


Though Appert created a successful method in preservation, it proved to be unsuccessful in other ways. Not only was the glass opaque and thus difficult to see the contents within, it would also crack under the hot temperatures. People attempted to use bulky tin cans for canning, but the food would react badly with the metal, creating a less-than-ideal flavor while spoiling the food inside. Thus, when John Landis Mason created his new jar, it was a success. These jars were not only clear so one could see what was inside, but it came with a new zinc threaded cap with a shoulder-seal on the jar. This method proved to provide an excellent seal as the cap screwed onto the lid with a rubber seal securing the position. This type of jar made home canning easier and more affordable to the general population as it allowed for easier reuse. For his jars, he had two different patents, one for the jar "Mason's Patent Nov 30th 1858" and the other for his removable rubber ring.

mason2Mason never capitalized on his success, and passed away in an impoverished state in 1902 after his patent expired in 1879. Other competitive manufacturers began to create their own versions of mason jars and create a profit, particularly the Ball company, but also the Whitney company who manufactured this jar. With new technology, mason jars were relatively cheap as they were mass produced. Thus, if you would like to collect antique mason jars today, you can easily buy one at a relatively low cost.


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