What is one of the most iconic American product designs of all time, that is simple in design, affordable, practical, indestructible, and pint-sized? Here are some clues: It’s a kitchen item celebrated by florists for its versatility, beloved by brides for its nod to Southern charm, and used by both beachgoers on the Alabama Riviera and foodies in Brooklyn bars. It would be easy to overlook Patent No. 22,186, but we should respect and remember the profound impact the Ball Mason jar has had on our culture.
The history of the Ball Mason jar is a fascinating story of five brothers who saw a need in their country for a safe way to preserve foods and, by using their abilities, changed the family meal and lives forever. A pint-sized history lesson reveals that John Landis Mason first patented the glass jar in 1857, but the Ball Brothers Manufacturing Glass Company licensed the Mason jar and in the process made the Ball Mason Jar one of the most iconic product designs of all time. For three centuries—through challenges and opportunities, economic prosperity and financial trials, disappointments and successes—the company has endured. And, furthermore, there has been only one trademark etched on the bottom of each jar, “Made in the U.S.A.”
Ironically, the Ball Mason jar, which was once viewed only as a primary kitchen product, is now more at home at weddings, bars, and chic events than on a pantry shelf. Pretty flower bouquets, perfumed candles, organic salads, and iced tea are placed inside the jars much more often than the expected canned fruits and vegetables.
An increased emphasis on environmental and economic issues related to healthy food production has created a resurgence of interest in canning, which promotes the original intent of the jars. Google “Popularity of home canning” to find numerous statistical facts supporting this claim. Only in recent years have I started canning, so I’m part of the data verifying the Ball Mason jar’s current “in vogue” status.
Canning may be making a huge comeback, but homemade jellies, jams, pickles, string beans, and tomatoes have always been part of the DNA of generations of women in my family who were like the industrious Little Red Hen of storybook fame: They grew their food, canned their food, and shared their food with others. Grandmother Jaye, who had nine children, probably canned out of necessity. My mom had four girls who loved nothing more than her hot biscuits filled with homemade preserves and jellies—fig, pear, plum, dewberry, scuppernong (a “big white grape”), strawberry, and peach. Many troubles—big and small—found their relief in a piping hot biscuit filled with these goodies.
After every last spoonful was scraped from the jar, it was washed and stored in a box to be reused the next season. In fact, often jars were passed from one family member to another. A Ball Mason jar is practically indestructible. Think about it: Do they ever chip or break?
The process of canning involved everyone in my family. Whether it was shaking a pear tree to bring down the ripened fruit or picking figs, my sisters and I were in charge of gathering the fruit. During the days of late spring, my sisters and I scoured fence rows or ditches beside roads for dewberry patches. We heeded Mother’s words concerning snakes that found the brambles of the bushes to be their cooling place, for Daddy’s leg bore the long scar of a rattlesnake’s fangs when he was a young boy. We had heard the story many times of how he lay near death’s door for weeks fighting off the poison from this lowly serpent.
As we picked the berries, I repeated the Uncle Remus stories my teacher had read aloud to my class. I tried to retell the tale with the same excitement and cunningness in my voice that Miss Farish used as she read Br’er Rabbit’s plea with Br’er Fox: “Please, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch.”
My sisters and I returned home victorious from our searches, but with fingers pricked by thorns and stained purple from eating more berries than we had placed in the syrup buckets and dishpans we carried. Mother placed the berries in a big pan and smothered them with Domino sugar. A dishtowel was placed on top of the pan for the berries to sit overnight on the table to macerate.
While cooking, Mother stirred and mashed the berries until the juice had thickened enough to coat a spoon. Then Daddy helped Mother strain the seeds and pulp through a large flour sack catching the berry juice in a pan before the Ball Mason jars were submerged for a water bath.
Years later, even my father had learned to can from start to finish. After Mother’s death, Daddy tried to fill her void by being a mother to us. He immersed himself in doing the things she had always done. Daddy, who had never opened a can, was suddenly canning pear and fig preserves.
There are few sights as pretty as sunlight streaming through Ball Mason jars filled with fruits and vegetables floating in their juices. The radiating, translucent shades and hues of colors can never be captured in the many paint samples hanging on a Home Depot wall.
The Ball Brothers story should be included in children’s history books, for their story is one of American greatness. Surprisingly, few students—or even adults—know about their dedication to a dream that became a reality. The spectrum of colors in the filled Ball Mason jars sitting on my kitchen island is as pleasing to the eye as the memories of great Americans, school days, and family times are to the heart. The rainbow of colors in the jars also reminds me of the Bible story of God’s faithfulness to Noah and to future generations of people. That’s something pretty remarkable for a pint-sized jar!
Gwenyth McCorquodale has been teaching since the age of 7, when she taught her three younger sisters the letters of the alphabet. Gwenyth retired from Judson College in Marion, Alabama, where she served as professor of education and head of the department of education. She has written books, articles for national and international journals, and for her hometown newspaper, The Monroe Journal.