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    

Old Amber Quart Fruit Jar - Mason's Patent Nov 30th 1858 - Cfjco Monogram Sharp ** Beehive ** 1/2 Gallon Fruit Jar Bbgmco Glass Lid: Ball Bro's Glass Mf'g Co. Buffalo. N.y. *jarRare 1885-1886 Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Co. Bbmgco. Fruit Jar QuartFostoria American Crushed Fruit Jar And SpoonRare Numbered "4" Midget Mason Jar - Great Lid!Antique Aqua Glass Jc Baker's 1860 Fruit Canning Jar W/ Glass Lid & ClampProtector Half Gallon Fruit JarStunning Early 1800's Storage Jar - Open Pontil - New EnglandBright, No Damage Midget Mason. Side Lug Cap - "mason's 1858".excellent!Jumbo Peanut Butter Small 7 Oz. Jar With Super Nice LidTrademark Lightning 1/2 Gallon- Amber -base 238 Fruit JarBall Jar Miniature Salesman Sample Midget Mason's Patent Nov. 30th 1858 Fruit Jar Zinc Lid Aqua Heavily Embossed C1Mason's Ii Patent Nov 30th 1858 Ball *ground Lip, Whittle MarksAbga Mason Perfect Made In U.s.a. *blueMason's Patent Nov 30th 1858 Qt Fruit Jar - Star Base Emb- Antique CanningQuart Columbia Fruit Jar Light Sca Excelsior Canning Fruit Jar Bottle 7 1/4" RareRare 1929 H.d. Lee Mercantile Boxed Fruit Jar Rings Nice Graphics K.c. MissouriThe Howe Jar Scranton Pa (canning Fruit Jar)Antique Aqua Glass The Howe Half Gallon Fruit Canning Jar W/ Glass Lid & ClampAntique Clear Scg Glass Hansee's Palace Home Fruit Canning Jar W/ Lid & ClampCollectible Pre-1900's Midget Mason's 1858 Fruit Jar. Nice.Ball Perfect Mason Blue Pint Canning Jar Block Letters Mint CondQuart Aqua Bee Hive (jar 39)Seven Ball Jar Zinc Lids Large Wide Mouth Porcelain InsertExceptional Quart Golden Yellow Fancy Fruit JarMason's Small Lettering Jar Patent Nov 30, Midget, Rb #1787-5, AquaAqua Blue Pint Size Mason's Keystone Patent Nov. 30th 1858 Fruit Jar Boyd's LidJ&b Fruit Jar Wrench#13 Pint Ball Blue Perfect Mason Pint Fruit Jar With Zinc LidAntique,ceramic,c 1895 Randalstown Northern Ireland, Duneane Cream Pot Jar CrockGlobe Fruit Jar #46 Quart Size Amber GlassRare Olive Green Pint Ball Perfect Mason Fruit Jar W/zinc LidGlobe - Quart, Clear Fruit JarWoodbury Fruit Jar Lid With Original CloserVintage Holt Howard Pixieware Jam & Jelly Condiment Jar With Santa Head SpoonCountry 78, Uncle Dave Macon And His Fruit Jar Drinkers, Vocalion 5148, V Antique Blue Queen Glass Jar Quart Size10" Gal Aqua Millville Atmospheric Fruit JarVintage Genuine Boyd's Mason Green Quart Fruit Jar W/ Boyd's Cap ~ Rb #495~1Midget Pint Size Fruit Jar Mason's Cfj Co Improved W Lid & The Best Marked BandAqua Blue 1/2 Gal. Mason's Patent Nov. 30th 1858 Fruit Jar A. & D. H. ChambersLot Of 3 Vintage Quart Aqua Canning Jar Embossed Masons Patent Nov 30th 1858 Smokey Improved Everlasting Fruit Jar (squatty Pint) With Light Amber SwirlsLight Sca Improved Everlasting Fruit Jar (squatty Pint)Clear Improved Everlasting Fruit Jar Quart With Light Amber/greenish SwirlsBall Blue Pint Jar #13 With Zinc LidAntique Aqua Glass Fruit Keeper Fruit Canning Jar W/ Lid & 1886 Dated ClampSparkling Clean And All Original Sun Trademark 1/2 Gallon!Large Amber Color Masons Jar Dated Nov 30th 1858Hartell's Glass Air-tight Cover Half Gallon Fruit JarAntique Ball Brothers Improved Style Pint Canning Jar - Reworked Perfection Mold116 Vtg Zinc Porcelain Mason Canning Jar Lids LotPint Midget Clear Crystal JarNip Scentsy ~ Plug In Warmer / Night Light ~ Chasing Fireflies Mason Jar+ 2 BarsGlobe Quart Size Fruit Jar Golden Brown Tone Pat. 1886 - But DamagedMason’s Patent - Quart Clear, Quart Aqua, (2) Fruit JarsVtg 2 Blue Glass Canning Mason Jar Lid Wire Bail Style Rare 2-tone! Amber Swirl