From Homegrown to Hipster: The Historic Evolution of the Mason Jar

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You were once most likely to spot a Mason jar in your grandmother’s pantry, but now the humble canning vessel isn't out of place in the finest farm-to-table restaurants or cocktail bars. How exactly did it become so cool?

Over at The Atlantic, writer Ariana Kelly explores the jar’s unlikely popularity, tracing its origins all the way back to 1858. Back then, individuals canned their summer harvests and stored them away for the winter months. The process prevented food from decaying, but it wasn’t fool-proof. Vegetables, meat, and poultry needed to be pressure-canned, which involved heating the jars up to very high temperatures to kill bacteria. The problem with this method: the jars didn’t have airtight seals.

John Landis Mason refined pressure canning by inventing the now eponymous Mason jar. The new jar’s ribbed neck and screw-on cap kept out germs, and the transparent glass showcased its contents in an aesthetically pleasing way. By the early 20th century, the Mason jar was mass-manufactured by companies like the Ball Corporation, allowing it to become a staple of agricultural life.

World War II ushered in the advent of Victory Gardens, which helped the Mason jar's star continue to rise—for a brief time, anyway. By the '50s, its status as a staple of the American kitchen was threatened as new technology (tin canning, freezers) and innovations in transportation made families less reliant on growing and preserving their own food. The development of bakelite and nylon made plastic containers the standard for industrial preservation, thus sealing the jar's fate.

Or so it seemed. By the 1960s and '70s, the DIY, back-to-the-land movement had taken hold, and Mason jars and canning experienced a revival. Like most movements, the DIY movement has ebbed and flowed over the years, recently returning with a vengeance after prominent intellectuals like Michael Pollan have evangelized the importance of eating local, fresh-grown foods. Once more, the Mason jar started reappearing in kitchens (and wine bars, and home decor shops) across America.

Steve Hungsberg, director of marketing for Jarden Home Brands—the company that sells Ball Mason jars—attributes their renewed success to both the locavore movement and good, old-fashioned nostalgia.

Are you a fan of Mason jars, but not so keen on their hipster adopters? Take this knowledge to heart: Unlike most trendy items, they're also timeless. Once they’ve had their moment, they’ll likely return to relative obscurity—and back into the hands of the canners that originally favored them for their ease and functionality.

[h/t The Atlantic