The evolution of fruit or canning jars parallels the science of food preservation, which itself was an attempt to address a critical need. For centuries, rural farmers and the poor struggled to find ways to preserve food for the winter. Soldiers, too, were often left on the battlefields without proper nourishment due to the lack of food-storage solutions. Indeed, in 1809, Napoleon offered 10,000 francs to anyone that could devise a way to ensure that his soldiers scattered across Europe were supplied with fresh food.

Nicholas Appert was up to Napoleon’s challenge—though his invention was a far cry from the Mason fruit jar that came later. Appert devised a means to hermetically seal jars, which are just bottles with wider mouths. The jar would be heated, then vacuum sealed. Interestingly, the heat killed the bacteria in the food product, but at the time people did not know that bacteria was the cause of spoilage.

While Appert’s invention marked progress, it did not help home canners—the process was extremely expensive and difficult. The only options for them was to use tin cans and solder them shut, or to plug their fruit jars—a term used by bottle maker Thomas Dyott—with corks, a practice that dated to the Colonial Era.

The build up to John Mason’s November 30th, 1858, patent for the Mason jar, which ultimately revolutionized food preservation, began with Robert Arthur in 1855. That’s when Arthur introduced a wax seal on a metal jar. These jars or cans, however, could not be reused, were expensive and bulky, and they left food with a metallic taste. Thus, they never caught on, although these Arthur cans are rare and highly collectible today.

Another concurrent method of sealing also included wax poured over a glass jar by the home canner. These jars date to the 1850s and remained popular through 1912, but they were especially difficult to open.

And then, to the rescue, came New Yorker John Mason. The key to the success of his Mason jar was the invention of a machine that could cut a thread into a glass jar’s lip. This made screw-on zinc lids, which improved the jar’s food-preservation capabilities, possible. A rubber ring on the inside surface of the lid completed the seal.

Mason jars were quickly a hit. They were affordable, reusable, and allowed very little moisture to escape. This meant that farmers and other rural residents no longer had to smok...

Crowleytown’s Atlantic Glass Works in Crowleytown, New Jersey, is often credited with producing the first Mason jars, which were embossed with the words “Mason’s Patent Nov. 30th. 1858.” But only a year later, Mason sold that patent and others to The Sheet Metal Screw Company, which was run by Lewis. R. Boyd. Boyd added a milk-glass cover for the zinc lid in order to stop food from contacting the metal. Boyd and Mason later partnered at the Consolidated Fruit Jar Company, which produced countless jars between 1859 and 1910.

In the last half of the 19th century there was a slew of inventions related to home canning. Many of these focused on avoiding metal-food contact. Beginning in 1863, Keystone Glass Works manufactured Kline Stoppers, which used a vacuum seal with a glass stopper. Henry William Putnam introduced the “Lightning jar” in 1882. It used a glass lid with a metal clamp. The clamp solved the problem of vacuum sealing—finally, a jar whose lid was easy to remove.

Soon thereafter, the Ball brothers introduced their Ball jar, which was so popular among consumers—and collectors today—that it became synonymous with “fruit jar” or “Mason jar.” In 1897, Ball invented the semi-automatic glass-making machine, which made jar sizes standard.

While Ball jars were the most widely produced fruit jars, they were not the only ones. In fact, there have been countless fruit jar designs developed in the century and a half since Mason’s innovation. Some of the more memorable ones include Atlas’ E-Z Seal jar, which was a offshoot of the Lightning jar and featured a raised lip. These were manufactured from the end of the 19th century through 1964.

Kerr is another popular brand of fruit jars. In 1903, Alexander H. Kerr opened the Hermetic Fruit Jar Company, producing some of the first wide-mouth jars, which were easy to fill and empty. At first Kerr used a metal lid with a gasket, but by 1915 he had introduced a way to make these jars reusable.

After World War II, home canning fell out of fashion, although the jars themselves became increasingly popular among collectors. Clear and aqua jars are the most readily available, while colors such as greens, amber, milk, and blue are scarcer and more sought after.

For collectors, dating a jar can be difficult. There are some clues, however. For example, if a jar has a pontil mark, then it likely predates the Civil War. Jars with mold seams, evidence of being machine-made, are post-1895, while the side seams on jars began to disappear around 1915. Purple jars (the color is the result of sun exposure to the manganese dioxide in the glass) were made prior to World War I because during the war manganese dioxide, which was scarce, was replaced by selenium.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Historic Glass Bottle Identification

Historic Glass Bottle Identification

Bill Lindsey's fantastic bottle identification and information site. Loaded with detailed descriptions and diagrams… [read review or visit site]

Feeding America

Feeding America

This archive of 76 influential American cookbooks from the late 1700s to early 1900s, assembled by the Michigan St… [read review or visit site]

Antique Bottle Collector's Haven

Antique Bottle Collector's Haven

There's a ton of information here, but as with bottles, you have to dig to find the best stuff. Start with the famo… [read review or visit site]

Tupper Diva

Tupper Diva

Kristian McManus’ fresh, airtight collection of Tupperware catalogs and related ephemera from the 1950s and 6… [read review or visit site]

Bottle Cap Index

Bottle Cap Index

Assembled by Gunther Rademacher with the help of several other contributors, this collection of over half a million… [read review or visit site]

Norbert Lamping's collection of 600+ ceramic bottle stoppers, Hutter stoppers, swingtops, swivel stoppers, and ligh… [read review or visit site]

Old Spice Collectibles

Old Spice Collectibles

Lather up with Creighton Fricek's complete chronology of collectible Old Spice shaving products. Start with the bot… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Very Rare A.p. Donaghho, Parkersburg, Stoneware Canning Jar (odd Size)Very Rare Strong Olive Amber Ball Perfect Mason Half-gallon Rb#274 C.1915-1923 Vge Ball Perfect Mason Yellow Amber Jar W/ Original Genuine Porcelain Lined LidPhoenix Surgical Fruit Jar Amber Milwaukee WisconsinRare Antique Canning Jar Sealer From Pennsylvania With Cobalt Stripes -- MintMonster "skilton Foote & Co’s / Bunker Hill Pickles" Great Color!Vintage Trade Mark Lightning 1/2 Gal Two-tone Amber Yellow Fruit Jar Putnam 291Antique Primitive Red Wing Stone Mason Fruit JarHemingray Glass Co Masons Patent 1858 Hgco Monogram Half Gal Canning Fruit JarHero Cross Glass Lid Wire Bail 1894 Pint Blue Aqua Canning Fruit Jar Antique VtgVintage Amber Masons Jar Patent Nov 30th 1858 W/mason Cross & Porcelain Line LidMillville Atmospheric / Whitall Patent June 18 1861 Canning / Fruit Jar Beaver Fruit Jar - Canadian 1/2 Gallon - GreenVtg Honey Amber Mason's Fruit Jar Patent Nov. 30th 1858 Half GallonVtg Amber Glass Mason's Improved Cfj Co Half Gallon Fruit JarVtg Olive Green Ball Perfect Mason Quart Canning Jar - 9 Zinc/glass LidVintage Blue Ball Perfect Mason 1/2 Pint Fruit Jar, Zinc Lid Very Nice ConditionElectric Fruit Jar, World Globe Aqua Pint, No Base MarkingsStandard Fruit Jar Reference Book By Dick Roller 1983 First EditionBlue /green Ball Perfect Mason Half Pint Canning Fruitjar With Ball Zinc Lid #7Mason Jar Gold Silver Rings Bands Pendants Tokens Buttons Civil War Bullets Vintage Trade Mark Lightning Amber Qt Fruit Jar W/whittle Marks & Lid Putnam 226Vintage Salesman Sample Square Ball Perfect Mason Jar Zinc Lid Rubber Seal Nice!The Victor Patented 1899 - Aqua Pint Mason Fruit Jar - Air BubblesAntique 19th C Stoneware Decorated Maryland Small Canning Jar Crock 8.5/8"The Howe Jar Scranton Pa 1888 Canning Fruit Jar Antique Vintage Whittled Quart Rare! Olive Green Ball Perfect Mason Quart Jar Rb #274 Base:#4 C1915-1923 Nice! 19thc Whitall + Tatum Glass Museum Specimen Jar W Original Sheeps Wool ContentsAntique Mason's Patent Nov 30th 1858 Dark Green Scco Fruit Jar, Ground Lip! Qt.Antique Salt Glazed Canning Jar Crock With Cobalt Decoration 10.5” *Vintage Olive Green Improved Mason Quart Jar With LidRare Ground Top Half Gallon Fruit Jar With Tin Lid, Rb 1187-1?Vntg Ball Perfect Mason Fruit Jars - Salt Pepper Shakers Zinc Lids Original BoxPint Sun Trade Mark, Mason Jar Aqua, Jp Barston On BaseAmber Lighting Quart Canning Jar Putnam 11Half Gallon Mason's Z Patent With L & W BaseMason Jar Bathroom Set Custom Order Malibubarbie98Mocha Java Coffee Antique Smalley Jar Original LidVintage Holt Howard Pixie Jam Jelly Jar Pixieware 1958 Pink Base Condiment Spoon90's Limoges France Peint Main Trinket Box Jar Plum Jam Spoon Inside Fruit ClaspTeal Blue Mason's Patent Fruit JarProtector Fruit Jar LidOld 1800's- Solid- Cfjco. Midget Pint Lid For Fruit JarDazey Butter ChurnPint The Clyde In Script Canning Jar - Red Book 620Lot Of 6 Vintage Blue Ball Perfect Mason Pint Jars With Zinc Lids1800's-solid Cfjco. Lid For Fruit JarSet Of 2 Mason Jar Hanging Wall Decor Antique The Mason Ball Canning Jar Green 3 Dot Pint Clear Insert & Band For Beaver Ball/mason/canadian Canning/fruit Jars-rb#423-2718 Ball And Kerr Mason Jars Large 32 Ounce Mixed LotBall Mason Aqua Pint Fruit Jar With Zinc Lid3 Different Ball Quart Mason Jars Triple L Offset Seam Blue GreenVtg Trade Mark Lightning 1/2 Gal Amber Fruit Jar W/heavy Whittle Marks Putnam432Trade Mark Lightning Putnam 79 Mason Jar 1/2 Gallon With LidGlobe Aqua Half Gallon Fruit Jar With Aqua Lid And Metal BailVintage Ball Blue Mason Jars 1qt & Zinc Lids (2) Both Lucky/unlucky #13 MoonshinMason's Midget Cfjco. Improved With Lid.Mason's Midget Cfjco. Patent Nov.30th 1858Lot Of 10 Vintage Blue Ball Perfect Mason Quart Jars With Zinc Lids