The world is currently crazy about mason jars, but it’s not the first time. The last time the jars were found in such abundance was the around the 1940s ― an estimated three million canning jars were sold during that period ― when the jars were used to preserve the summer’s bounty for enjoyment (or survival) when nothing would grow in the winter. Today, mason jars are being repurposed into everything from salad containers to vases to toothbrush holders ― and occasionally they still preserve food.
Because of the mason jar’s renewed popularity, we see them everywhere. But how many of us know anything about them, really? Like, why they’re even called mason jars to begin with, and why they’re everywhere? The answer is pretty simple (and a great piece of trivia).
Mason jars were invented by Philadelphia tinsmith John Landis Mason. He named the jars after himself and patented his design in 1858. Despite how many jars exist in the world today, Mr. Mason sadly did not attain wealth and glory with his invention. He sold off the patent before the design took off.
There are a few characteristics in the design of Mr. Mason’s jar that made them so popular. For one, it was the first time bleached glass was used, allowing canners to see what was inside. (This is especially important in determining if canned food is still safe to use for consumption.)
And then there’s the most important feature: the top. Mason jars have a two-part top ― a lid with a rubber ring on the underside, which creates a vacuum seal (which is so integral for safe canning), and an outer band with screw threads that are reusable. The lids can only be used to seal once, but the jars and bands can be reused many times. It might seem like a simple feature today, but before his patent folks were preserving food with glass jars that were sealed with a thin, flat lid and wax, which was messy, not reusable and not entirely reliable. Mason’s lids were a huge step up.
The first people to capitalize on Mr. Mason’s brilliance were the Ball brothers in 1884. Their Ball brand jars are still used today. Chances are you’ve had a cocktail out of one at least once or twice. And, maybe you even used them to make preserves.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that canning enjoyed its early popularity in the 1950s.