Mason Jar History

This early Mason jar is decorated with “THE GEM” in one line embossed on one side of the upper body. The jar has a glass lid, with nine patent dates, and metal screw-band top seal. The pale blue-green body, formed in a mold, is round with a tapered-shoulder. The Hero Glass Works, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, manufactured the mason jar.

Food and Human Survival

Harvesting and preserving food has always been crucial to survival. From the earliest periods of history people have sought a method by which food could be made resistant to spoilage.

Before the 19th century, foods were dried, smoked and salted, preserved in sugar, or stored, such as vegetables and grains, in a dry cool place. As methods of gathering food supplies and their protection improved, settlements eventually developed around the availability of adequate supplies of food — and towns emerged and cities grew. The proper preservation of food was a major factor in building civilizations, while its scarcity destroyed them.

Even though we continue to have incidents of food-borne illness, most of these come from the mishandling of food and not from food preservation. Very few cases are a result of properly hermetically sealed and processed foods.

New Discoveries Revolutionize Food Preservation

Early in the 19th century, the process of hermetically sealed cooked food was developed in France . By 1809, the Frenchman Francois (Nicolas) Appert had the background to solve the problem, having been a pickler, an expert confectioner, a brewer, a distiller, and a chef. In 1810, Appert established the principles for the preservation of certain foods in hermetically sealed glass containers, which he himself designed for the procedure. The bottles were filled with fruit and heated. Then they were sealed and placed in a water bath and heated gradually for specified lengths of time and then cooled. Applying heat to food in sealed glass bottles made it difficult for organisms to develop.

Appert really had no explanation for the success of his work. He believed the exclusion of air and the application of heat were the major factors in keeping the foods in his experiments from spoiling. He wrote:

Absolute prevention of contact of external air is necessary after the internal air is rendered of no effect by proper applications of heat by means of a water-bath. Although his explanation proved wrong, his methods worked. Appert’s experiments had taken place in a time when chemistry was still young and 50 years before Louis Pasteur and the science of bacteriology.

Food In a Tin Can

Also in 1810, the Englishman Peter Durand patented the idea of airtight tin-plated iron cans, instead of glass jars, for food preservation. Cooked meat, fruit, and vegetables could now be hermetically sealed in tin containers.

The first tin cans were patented in the United States in 1825, but it was not until around 1839 that tin cans were widespread in the United States, and about 10 years later were being mass produced. Now vitamin loss, bacterial spoilage, and enzyme changes were better controlled in providing an abundance of prepared food. A huge industry was underway. As the quality of commercial production improved and the cost became competitive, home canning declined.

The Mason Jar

Although hundreds of men and women obtained patents for fruit jars, probably the most well known in the industry has been the Mason jar. Many independent manufacturers included the name Mason with their logos on some jars. It became a common term for the fruit jar. The field of food microbiology made important breakthroughs by the mid-19th century. Previous jar sealing methods included waxed paper, leather, or skin, followed by cork stoppers and wax sealers. The breakthrough came with the development of the zinc cap for the shoulder-seal jar.

In 1858, John Landis Mason developed and patented a shoulder-seal jar with a zinc screw cap. The “Mason jar” had a threaded neck which fit with the threads in a metal cap to screw down to the shoulder of the jar and in this way form a seal. In 1869, a top seal above the threads and under a glass lid was introduced to the jar. The screw cap pressed tightly against the inverted lid, with rubber seal underneath, thus effecting an excellent seal. Preserving food in a glass home canning jar had now been taken a step further. A type of this closure still is in use today, although augmented with various other closure designs.

As the quality of commercial canning production improved, populations moved from the rural to the urban life, and as home freezers appeared, home canning of foods declined.

However, home gardening has been on the rise. This is one of the reasons for the rate of home canning in Tennessee being high. Recent surveys assure us that the Mason jar is still in use today. The glass top or the zinc lid are no longer recommended for home canning. The two-piece metal lid is the healthiest choice.

Source: Frank H. McClung Museum – The University of Tennessee.