When I was a kid, my mother spent days in the late summer turning our garden's fresh fruit into preserves. I remember a pantry that held mismatched glass jars filled with strawberry, blackberry, and raspberry preserves. Mom never bought any canning equipment or containers. Instead, she re-used empty pickle and mayonnaise jars, which she decorated with little square labels listing the content and date.
Modern-day home canners would surely shake their heads over Mom's methods, which she applies to this day. For them, part of the success of preserving foods lies in the jar, in particular the mason jar. The mason jar is sturdier than most commercial jars and is better suited for preserving safely.
The mason jar was invented out of necessity. There were no refrigerators, no quick-stop corner stores. Food had to keep through long winters. It was preserved by pickling, drying, and smoking. For storage, early families used earthenware jugs sealed with corks, plugs, or parchment and tin containers that had to be soldered for sealing.
It was war that eventually led to the discovery of a new way to preserve food. Napoleon offered 10,000 francs to the person who could deliver nourishing food to his soldiers. Nicholas Appert, a French chef, won Napoleon's challenge by preserving food hermetically using jars sealed with pitch.
Then a small revolution in home canning took place in the mid-1850s, when John L. Mason, a 26-year-old tinsmith from New York City, filed a patent for a reusable glass jar -- the mason jar. What was special about Mason's jar was its seal. The neck of the glass container was threaded so the top could screw on. The screw-on top plus a zinc lid with a rubber ring provided a tight seal.
Others had tried to improve seal mechanisms before Mason. A wax-sealed tin can eliminated soldering but didn't do much to improve the food's quality. (The acids in the foods tended to react with the metal and made the food inedible.) In addition, it did not make preserving foods more affordable because the cans were limited to one-time use. Things changed once glass jars, which were first sealed with a tin lid and wax, became common. Those jars, called the all-glass wax sealer cement jar (wax was commonly referred to as cement) or "standard" fruit jar, remained popular even after Mason's invention.
Mason sold several of his early patents to Lewis Boyd and his Sheet Metal Screw Company. Boyd, who is most famous for inventing a white "milk glass insert" for zinc screw lids which reduced the risk of food and metal reacting in a non-tasty way, produced the mason jar for many decades, even after Mason's patent had expired.
Mason's jar made life during his time much easier. A family's survival depended on the availability of food. Reusable glass jars made preserving food affordable and the tight-sealing lid was one step to guarantee that food could be eaten even months after it was preserved.
Today, old canning jars are collectors items. (eBay lists close to 1,000 items under the term "mason jar," which cost from a penny to $700.) Grocery-store aisles are packed with commercially preserved foods, and home canning has become a hobby. Mason jar is now a generic term for any home-canning glass jar, some of which still use the basic sealing mechanism patented by Mason on November 30, 1858.