How the must-have hipster vessel of DIY authenticity also became a foreboding signal of the economy.
Late this summer, after the pandemic turned everyone into an amateur gardener and home cook, a frenzy erupted on Facebook. Food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson first spotted it while perusing a private Facebook group called Recipes of North Dakota — everyone was talking about mason jars. “For many of them, food preservation is a part of their daily life,” says Wassberg Johnson, who grew up in Fargo. They were keeping tabs on where they saw canning jars and lids, trying to nail down a fast-moving target. “It was this live tracking of them — this store in this town, this hardware store had them — where can you get them?”
In Brooklyn, Ashley Rouse, founder and CEO of Trade Street Jam, was frantically searching for mason jars, too, so she could sell her jams, which come in flavors like strawberry chipotle fig and blueberry lemon basil. “I need 30,000 small jars, and I can’t find them,” she says. “We’d normally get them from huge manufacturers, pallets at a time, but those places ran out. I’ve never seen that happen.”
At the same time, mason jar sellers were watching them fly off the shelves. Keela Buford, a representative of The Jar Store, a national distributor of glass jars and lids, said her company had seen enormous spikes in sales in mason and canning jars starting in March, with mason jar revenue, in particular, climbing 46 times over what it was in 2019.
Meanwhile, over on the Ball Preserving & Recipes Facebook page — Ball is arguably the most famous brand, with its signature script logo emblazoned on its folksy glass jars — people were downright panicking. On October 1, Ball’s social media team posted a seemingly innocuous conversation starter (“It’s time to show off your canning haul! Whether you made just a handful of jars or a whole shelf, share a picture of your accomplishment with us!”), only to be greeted with jarring rage. “EXACTLY HOW DO WE DO THAT WITH NO SUPPLIES?????” one woman responded. “I have been canning for 40 years and have NEVER had to buy early, never had to hoard, just went out and bought flats, rings and jars in August when the crops were ready. So are you actually going to get any of this into STORES before everything rots?”
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The ground warfare was getting ugly. With the sudden nationwide dearth in mason jars — and lids, in particular, since you can’t reuse them for canning — fake sites were cropping up, using Ball branding to sell goods shipped from China (Ball jars are primarily made in Indiana and Ohio). And the price-gouging was out of hand: On Amazon, a set of 12 jars was priced at nearly $50, almost five times what the set would have sold for at Walmart — that is, if Walmart had any in stock.
Newell Brands, the maker of Ball as well as popular mason jar brand Kerr, produces the largest quantity of mason jars in the U.S.. In early October, the publicly traded company, which reported revenue of $9.7 billion in 2019, assured CNN that it was increasing glass production, finding new lid manufacturers, and expanding facilities in an effort to replenish stock. The official Ball site issued a statement about fraudulent sites, reminding people to buy only through authorized third-party retailers and that “appropriate legal action is being taken to have these sites removed.”
It’s a very 2020 drama, with get-off-my-jar conflicts between old salt-of-the-earth canners and Pinterest-y urbanites, along with alleged scammers, possible lawsuits, and the hyper-proliferation of internet disinformation. But Marisa McClellan, a canning expert and cookbook author who’s a brand ambassador for Ball (yes, even mason jars have brand ambassadors these days) says we’re simply in a cycle that — along with economic recession — tends to happen every 10 years or so. In times of economic insecurity like the last recession in 2009, when McClellan started her Food in Jars blog, people turned to canning to soothe their fears, and mason jar sales took off.
This pattern happened in the Great Depression and World War II, when canning surged and there were mason jar sales spikes and lid shortages; again during the back-to-the land movement in the 1970s and ’80s; and again as people prepared for the Y2K disaster that never came. Now, in a time of pandemic, employment upheaval, political turmoil, a growing distrust in our established systems, the jars are once again in high demand.
In other words, there may be no better barometer of the state of our economy than the mason jar.
The origins of the mason jar can be traced to 18th-century France. The Napoleonic Wars were raging, and General Bonaparte had a problem. How did you get food to troops scattered across land and sea? In 1795, the government offered a prize of 12,000 francs to whoever could invent a food preservation method that would allow reliable transport of food to the far-flung military.
It took Nicolas Appert, a French chef, confectioner, and distiller, more than a decade to come up with it. He used glass containers — Champagne bottles in his first experiments — reinforcing them with wire, boiling them to preserve fruits, vegetables, and more, and sealing them with corks and wax. In 1810, he published his findings in a bestselling book, The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years, and founded the first commercial cannery, La Maison Appert, which operated from 1812 until 1933.
Appert may have gotten credit for his method, but food preservation had long been a crowded field. Though the science of it was little understood, “you can find people who are bottling fruit without sugar back to the 1680s at least,” says Danille Christensen, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech. Throughout the 1800s, inventors experimented with different sealing and fastening methods on containers including glass and tin. The birth of the mason jar came in 1858, when, at the age of 26, New Jersey tinsmith John Landis Mason invented and patented the design, with its square shoulders, continuous threaded neck upon which you could screw the zinc lid, and a rubber ring that allowed for an airtight seal. A year later, Mason transferred several of his mason jar patents to other parties, and they ultimately became the property of Lewis R. Boyd, who owned The Sheet Metal Screw Company, and who had developed a milk-glass cover for the zinc lid to prevent food from contacting the metal.
The Ball script embedded in the jar changed the story, says ‘Canned’ author Zeide, catapulting the vessel from mere commodity to something much bigger.
During the Civil War, due to food shortages and limited resources, the process of preserving food for future use, whether in jars or cans, took off, with everyone pretty much using any “materials they can get their hands on,” says Anna Zeide, PhD, author of Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry, and a colleague of Christensen’s at Virginia Tech. Mason jars were in hot demand, and when Mason’s patents expired in the late 1870s, others were free to produce and sell mason jars. Small manufacturers sprung up around the country, often stamping their own jars with the date of Mason’s original patent, November 30, 1858.
“The 1880s to the 1920s is the heyday of the making of these fruit jars,” says Christensen. “There were hundreds of different companies producing them, which brings out the rise in regional loyalties. If you’re in the West you like Kerr, in the East you like Ball.”
But you can’t really talk about mason jars without talking about the Ball brothers. In 1880, they received a $200 loan (about $5,000 in 2020 money) from their uncle to start a company. Originally they made wood-jacketed tin cans. In 1884, they began producing glass home-canning jars with a version of the famous Ball logo on them. During the natural gas boom of the 1880s they moved their company from Buffalo to Muncie, Indiana — the town gave them free natural gas for doing so — and in 1897 they created the first semiautomatic glass-making machine, which could be operated by semi-skilled laborers. (Prior to that, jars were hand- or mouth-blown.) Fully automatic machines came in 1900, which meant the glass-blowing could be done independently of human labor. Jars became more uniform, cheaper to produce, and more accessible to the average person.
The Ball script embedded in the jar changed the story, says Canned author Zeide, catapulting the vessel from mere commodity to something much bigger. “No one knows who makes metal cans. We never think about who makes the paper box our cereal came in. But when a company embeds itself as a producer of the container, the container itself has the brand.”
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From the late 1890s to the 1940s, Ball set about acquiring at least a dozen regional glassmakers as well as zinc mills (to make lids), paper mills (for packaging), and tin, steel, and eventually plastics companies. They built facilities for rubber production (for sealing rings for the jars) and continued to innovate with more products. By 1918, the end of World War I and the start of the last big flu pandemic, pretty much every small town had a canning kitchen where, in partnership with the cooperative extension system that provided agriculture-based educational programs through designated land-grant universities, extension agents taught people how to can safely. There’s even evidence of organizations delivering canned food to flu-stricken households, says food historian Wassberg Johnson, but by the time the second or third wave of flu hit in October, most of the canning for the year had been completed.
During the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, mason jar sales rose again. In 1931, with the U.S. population at 124 million, Ball was producing 190 million jars a year. According to an ad in 1934, “more than three-fourths of all jars in use are branded ‘Ball.’”
During World War II, Ball turned to making products for the military, producing more than half of the battery shells used by the U.S. forces. By the end of the war, the company was so massive and powerful, it was deemed part of a cartel of companies in the glass container industry and hit with an antitrust case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately barred the company from acquiring more glass manufacturers without court approval.
But in 1949, demand for canning jars sank again, and the company had its first net operating loss. The ’50s brought home freezers and suburbia and a rise in supermarkets; no longer did people need to can. In an attempt to diversify, Ball created an aerospace and technology arm, the Ball Brothers Research Corp., which would eventually build satellites for NASA.
Though they slowed the growth of their glassmaking enterprise, Ball kept on producing mason jars until the ’90s, with billions of them in play by the end of the 20th century. As for Mason, he died in 1902 in New York City with little to his name other than his legacy.
In late October, at a True Value Hardware store in New York state, the two long shelves that usually stock mason jars were empty except for five large canisters with plastic-sealed, push-top lids marked “not for home canning” that retailed at $13 each. They’d had trouble getting mason jars since August, the clerk explained. What you could get, just a few feet away, were plenty of other products sold by Newell Brands, which started as a manufacturer of curtain rods in the early 1900s and, after going public in 1972, went on to purchase an array of companies including Rubbermaid, Elmer’s, Paper Mate, FoodSaver, Sharpie, Mr. Coffee, and Calphalon.
In 2016, Atlanta-based Newell Brands got into the mason jar business when it paid $13.2 billion to acquire Jarden — “jar” and “den,” get it? — formerly known as Alltrista, the company spun off by Ball in 1993. Alltrista owned the trademarks to Kerr, Ball, Bernardin, and Golden Harvest — four of the major brands still being produced, which it was marketing to a whole new generation of mason jar lovers.
By the 2010s, America had largely bounced back from the Great Recession (and its canning boom), and mason jars had begun to capture a new kind of cultural currency. Thanks to the Etsy-Pinterest lifestyle crowd, jars became the must-have hipster vessel, with sales further buoyed by an increasing environmental and health consciousness: You could avoid BPA plastics while demonstrating your commitment to reusing and recycling as well as making your own handicrafts. (Mason jar salad, anyone?)
The mason jar is really about our ability to see what we want to, what we need to, in it.
Mason jar makers had long marketed the containers for other uses besides canning, recognizing not only the ebbs and flows related to the economy and preserving one’s food, but also the fact that people who bought jars could reuse them indefinitely. “Jars stick around,” says Christensen, “so you have to keep producing new demand for them.”
When there’s not a natural demand based in self-preservation, you’ve got to juice existing trends, or look for new ones: mason jar candles, mason jar lamps, mason jar terrariums, mason jar flower vases, painted mason jars, and the requisite mason jars at weddings. It worked. Mason jars took off as a down-to-earth luxury item, an emblem of a new generation striving for — and selling — DIY authenticity. In 2014, Jarden reported that sales of Ball jars had doubled since 2001, with overall sales for the company’s home-preserving products jumping 25% in the previous two years.
In 2016, when Newell took over, it introduced an “elite series” of jars meant for a new audience of non-canners who would be willing to pay more for fewer, stylized items that revealed more about their aesthetic than anything else. In June of 2019, Ball’s 135-year-anniversary, the company reintroduced aqua blue collector’s edition jars (a four-pack for $8.99) reminiscent of those produced at the turn of the century, which were blue due to the mineral content in the sand used to make them. To some in the canning community, this was a polarizing move. They read it as pandering to the hipster crowd, ignoring the real canners for the newbies, or worse, those who didn’t plan to can at all.
There have also been grumblings that since Newell acquired Ball, it’s suffered the consequences of a conglomerate scooping up a heritage brand — that prices have gone up, while quality has gone down. Many of Newell’s handful of Ball Canning ambassadors, some say, are more representative of the “mason jar lifestyle” than they are hardcore canners. On Facebook, people complain of seal failure, lid problems, a decreased focus on recipe development, and a sprawling corporation that isn’t as concerned about those who want to preserve food as they should be. (Newell declined to speak to Marker.)
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Of course, it’s reasonable to have a lot of feelings tied up in the mason jar. Canned author Zeide points out that its lasting appeal is really about deeper things like control, and manifesting your own destiny — or the sense that you can. “When there are these big downfalls of trust in systems of government or economy or institutions, there’s this desire to retain control wherever we can find it,” she says. “Growing your own garden or canning your own food offers a sense of transparency, even if it’s an illusion. You don’t just have to trust in the system.” Transparency is also what makes the jar aesthetically appealing, even when we’re not in economic turmoil. You can see what’s inside, feeling connected to time-honored traditions as you reclaim and repurpose the jars your great-grandparents used to use.
The mason jar is really about our ability to see what we want to, what we need to, in it. When we’re deeply concerned about the future, more people will reach for it as a trusted resource. And when we have ample money and restaurants full of vibrant conversation, the jar will symbolize something else: an homage to a more self-sufficient past, a self-aware wink at sustainability, a way to show off one’s self-selected domestic skills or bougie farm-chic, an attempt to push against all the technology infiltrating every aspect of our lives (even while documenting our use of mason jars with that very technology).
We seem to ping-pong back and forth between using mason jars for practical, sustenance reasons and “impractical” aesthetic ones, but, then, who’s to judge what’s practical or impractical? Even the not-really-mason jars still on the shelves at True Value have enough of the appeal of the original jar — the shape, the inscription of “Ball” and “Mason,” the old-fashioned vibe that pulls at our heartstrings, somehow tempting us to buy one to keep our steel-cut oats or our third wave coffee beans in. Despite the subtle shifts in form and purpose, it’s an object that continues to be a mirror of sorts.
“The jars are persistent,” Christensen says. “They’re heavy tempered glass, they’re made to last, you can see history in them.” Turns out, you can see a bit of the present and future in them, too.