Mason-Jar-Collage-1

Photo courtesy of NewNostalgia 

Mason jars are everywhere. They sit on city bar tops, filled to the brim with overpriced cocktails. They sparkle as the centerpieces of suburban weddings. Instagram and Pinterest are plastered with pages upon pages of possible uses for Mason jars ranging from quirky to ridiculous.  Traditionally used for home canning for over a hundred years, Mason jars have suddenly become synonymous with the “hipster” subculture and modern D.I.Y. fervor. So how did these heavy, awkward, breakable jars get from grandma’s pantry to the millennial’s kitchen cabinet?

 

Mason Jar

Jar, ca. 1871, glass, metal. The Farmers’ Museum Collection, Cooperstown, NY, F0439.1985a. Photography by Victoria Lee

Though the essential practice of preserving foodstuffs has occurred for centuries, John Landis Mason’s 1858 patent for the Mason jar changed home canning forever.  Unlike its predecessors, the Mason jar featured screw-top bands threaded with zinc with steel lids that could create an airtight seal. Advancements in mass production during the late 19th century allowed for the jar’s widespread availability, and its transparency and reusability eased an arduous chore for many women.  In country homes all over the U.S., women were canning, preserving, brining, and pickling a variety of fruits and vegetables to eat throughout the off-season. [1]

The jar’s immense popularity waned when refrigeration and freezing began to supersede canning in the 20th century. However, the best thing this jar preserves is its own relevancy.  The Mason jar experienced several resurgences, including during both World Wars when canning was a way to supplement food rations and became a matter of national importance and pride. During the 1970s, Mason jars and canning became part of the protest against processed foods and signified a “return to the land” mentality. Today they are more popular than ever. [2]

Dozens of articles written in the past three years have hypothesized about the rise of the Mason jar.  Some suggest that the 2008 recession brought Americans back to their roots, the jar a humbling symbol of domesticity. [3] Others attribute this boom to a pervasive cultural attitude that is increasingly distrustful of processed food and extremely aware of the dangers it poses to our bodies and environment. More scathing social critics cite the millennial obsession with quirky, ironic style statements and cravings for a more authentic, less commercialized life. Just by picking up a jar one can evoke an effortlessly rustic, self-sufficient lifestyle without any of the dirty work. [4] Though the cultural significance continues to transform, it is remarkable that in 150 years the Mason jar transformed from a tool for survival to a hip, albeit naively nostalgic style choice.

[1] Nancy Carlisle and Melinda Talbot Nasardinov, America’s Kitchens (Boston: Tilbury House Publishers, 2008).

[2] Ariana Kelly, “The Mason Jar Reborn,” The Atlantic¸September 24, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/09/mason-jar-history/403762/

[3] Claire Martin, “Authenticity, Repurposed, in a Mason Jar,” The New York Times¸August 16, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/business/authenticity-repurposed-in-a-mason-jar.html?_r=1

[4] Jessica Goldstein, “Behind the Spectacular Rise of the Mason Jar,” Think Progress, August 19th, 2014, http://thinkprogress.org/culture/2014/08/19/3472419/behind-the-spectacular-rise-of-the-mason-jar/

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