Early Canning Jars. April 27, 2015

Mason Jars

During the first years of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the French government offered a hefty cash award of 12,000 francs to any inventor who could devise a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food. In 1809, Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner and chef, observed that food cooked inside a jar did not spoil unless the seals leaked, and developed a method for sealing food in glass jars with a cork and sealing wax. The reason for the lack of spoilage was unknown at the time, since it would be another 50 years before Louis Pasteur demonstrated the role of microbes in food spoilage. However, this early canning process was largely irrelevant to the average person, which largely remained a military technology created to feed Napoleon's massive armies.


Early canning jars were called wax sealers because sealing wax was poured into a channel around the lip that held on a tin lid. This process was complicated and error-prone, but it was largely the only one available for a long time, which likely contributed to its lack of popularity among the masses.

But in 1858, John Mason patented his design for a glass jar that sealed tightly via a threaded zinc cap and jar mouth, making the canning process easier and the parts reusable. The original patent did not cover the cap itself (as caps were not a new invention), but rather the improved screw threads, which gradually vanished towards the rim, and the relatively flat-shoulder sealing surface. And this is also about the time that home canning became a viable food preservation method.

After the expiration of Mason's various patents in 1870s and 1880s, other manufacturers began reproducing the household staple with their own variations and improvements. There were many hundreds of different variations and types of Mason-style fruit jars, and scores of subtle variations in the cap itself, spanning a time frame from 1857 until the mid-20th century, and in modified form, to the present. One of the most commonly encountered jars made during the first half of the 20th century are the many variations of the Ball Perfect Mason jars, which were made from about 1913 until the mid-20th century.

During WWII, families were encouraged to grow their own food in "Victory Gardens." Americans purchased over 3 million canning jars in the decade between 1939 and 1949. But as life moved from rural to urban and supermarkets proliferated in the 1950s, the family garden and home canning became less commonplace, and household refrigerators became the favored method of food preservation.