All text via the NY Times:
By HILARY GREENBAUM and DANA RUBINSTEIN
NY Times Published: April 27, 2012
Before a New Jersey-born son of a Scottish farmer named John Landis Mason patented his jar in 1858, home-food preservation was a tricky affair. Modern heat-based canning, pioneered by a Frenchman in 1806, was too cumbersome for most home cooks, many of whom relied on cork-and-wax contraptions to seal food, often imperfectly, into vessels whose opaque walls rendered the contents invisible.
The Mason jar was different. With its threaded neck and screw-on lid, “the canner could form a seal as hot liquids cooled,” writes Mary Ellen Snodgrass in The Encyclopedia of Kitchen History. Mason jars, made of a manganese-bleached glass, were also transparent. “Being able to see what you have on hand and what’s going on inside the bottle, that’s what’s really important,” says Megan Elias, the author of “Stir It Up: Home Economics in American Culture.”
Mason never capitalized on his success. He assigned his patent rights to another company and died a charity case — the invention that bore his name helped spark a home-canning revolution that lasted until the 1950s.
By the early 20th century, industrial advances made jar manufacturing faster and more economical. Competitors like the Ball brothers were, according to Quentin Skrabec’s biography of H. J. Heinz, making mass-produced Mason jars widely available. Mason jars made it possible to preserve green beans and apples and peaches that could be eaten in January. Settlers in the Pacific Northwest filled the jars with wild huckleberries. “By autumn, every housewife had hundreds of quart and half-gallon jars stored in the basement or root cellar,” writes Paul Conkin in “A Revolution Down on the Farm.”
World War II caused another spike in Mason-jar production. The government, which had rationed foodstuffs and the tins used to hold them, encouraged Americans to cultivate victory gardenso and preserve what they grew at home. Between 1939 and 1949, Americans bought more than three million canning jars. But the Mason-jar heyday did not last. In the postwar years, Americans left farms for the suburbs and houses with refrigerators. Farmers learned how to freeze their bounty, and even in those days, Elias says, many didn’t live far from a supermarket.
Today original Mason jars are prized collectibles. There are lots of them, which, the historian Andrew F. Smith points out, “is a testament to the number of Mason jars that were in fact used.” In contemporary America, Mason jars are as likely to hold pencils as apricot jam. But home canning has gained traction among a certain class of urban locavores. “It’s kind of for the foodies,” Smith says.
“Do I think it’s a mass movement?” he adds. “No.”
Bill Lindsey started collecting glass bottles in high school. He now owns well over a thousand, and he writes about them for the Society for Historical Archaeology. Here he discusses the value and legacy of the Mason jar.
What effect did the Mason jar have on the glass-jar industry? Mason jars are the glass-jar industry. The first machine that was successful for making glass containers was making Mason jars.
Are they considered collectible? It’s probably the most common jar, but there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of variations. What really matters most for collectibility is color. Cobalt blue is probably the supreme one; there’s only a few of those around, and they would sell for $10,000 or $15,000 for a jar.
Has it changed much since the original design? There have been a few iterations, but it’s really kind of phenomenal that the same basic design is still in use today. There have been a lot of different patents through the years, but in the end what won was the screw-top Mason jar.
From The Citrus Report