Put A Lid On it: Mason Jars and Home Canning in America

As a Historic Preservation major at the University of Mary Washington, I spend a lot of time studying objects from the past. Through my courses, I have learned that common, everyday objects are often able to reflect the values of the people that created and used them. I kept this in mind during my internship in the Archaeology Lab at Ferry Farm this semester. While looking through the collection, I came across one of these everyday items, an item that I use every day, the Mason Jar.

Though there are many uses for Mason jars today, these glass jars were originally designed for home canning and have been preserving food in America for over 150 years. Using the idea that everyday objects such as the Mason jar are able to reflect the values of the people using them, let’s take a look at the evolution of home canning and the Mason jar throughout its 150-year history to see how the value of the Mason jar may have changed.

Patent for Mason Jar, 1858. Source: Suiter Swantz IP

The 1850s marked the beginning of home canning’s popularity in America, and the glass canning jar as we know it today was first patented by John Landis Mason in 1858.[1] Mason’s first jars were sealed using a zinc screw-on lid. With this design, the zinc was able to come into contact with the contents of the jar, affecting the food’s taste.[2] This issue was remedied in 1869 when Mason sold his patents to Lewis Boyd the creator of milk glass lid liners.[3] Together Mason’s glass jar and screw-on lid with Lewis Boyd’s patented milk glass lid liner created an affordable canning jar that was able to be sealed without interfering with taste. Here at Ferry Farm, we have a few examples of these milk glass lid liners in our collection.

Home Canning. Source: National Agricultural Library

While canning food during this early period served as a practical way to preserve surplus food, during the early 20th century its value shifted to something a bit more patriotic. During World War I and World War II, home canning became a way for American’s, primarily women, to support their country and troops on the home front.[4] By growing and preserving food at home in their ‘war gardens’ (or ‘victory gardens’ as they were called after the war), they were ensuring that the available food supplies were able to get to the troops.[5] This also became a way for communities to band together and help support one another during periods of rationing food supplies.[6]

Home Canning During War. Source: National Agricultural Library

After World War II, canning at home decreased in popularity due to the increased accessibility of home refrigeration and the rise of the supermarket.[7] Though it may have lost its widespread popularity, canning continued to serve as a way for gardeners to preserve their pickles, jams, and other produce. During the beginning of the 21st century, the Mason jar became widely popular once again, but for its looks rather than its use in canning.[8] It became the symbol for the ‘rustic farmhouse’ aesthetic and a popular do-it-yourself crafting item for everything from wedding decor to light fixtures. Mason jars also became a more sustainable, economic replacement for plastic food storage and even drinkware.

Homemade Mason Jar Light Fixture. Source: Etsy

Recently we have seen a revival in home canning in response to the pandemic. As people had more time at home, and supply issues caused produce scarcity in supermarkets, many turned to their gardens once again. The popularity of the Mason jar may ebb and flow, but it is an object that has been a staple for many Americans for over 150 years. Do you have a Mason jar at home? What do these canning jars mean to you?

Danielle Arens

Archeology Intern

[1] FRUIT JARS… A History Worth Remembering by Melissa Milner https://www.fohbc.org/PDF_Files/Milner_FruitJars.pdf

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Making Sense of Mason Jars: A Qualitative Exploration of Contemporary Home Canning Pennington, P. Suzanne. https://www.proquest.com/docview/1474906609/fulltextPDF/5AF40FBE73384694PQ/1?accountid=12299

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/brief-history-mason-jar-180975546/

[8] Ibid