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A PRIMER ON FRUIT JARS
BY DAVE HINSON
COPYRIGHT 1996 BY DAVE HINSON
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
The discovery that fed our troops became the discovery which
helped pioneer our nation!
The hermetic preserving of food... This revolutionary
invention allowed families to prepare for the winter by
"putting up" what they had in abundance in the fall.
Families often traded a jar of this for a jar of that, preparing
for the lean season with relative abundance. The invention of the
fruit jar, or mason jar as it was called, made life a little
easier; best of all it made Winter meals far more nutritional and
Imagine that you live in a different place. This place has
none of the modern essentials to which you are accustomed. There
are no fast food restaurants, there are no grocery stores, there
are no super-highways and there is no electricity. Everyone works
In this mythical place you save and use everything. Nothing
goes to waste. Life is simple, but the problems you face are
varied and challenging. In many parts of the nation winters are
often harsh and bitter cold; there is no forced-air heating to
keep your family warm. In order to survive the winter, you must
prepare for it beforehand.
You arent rich, so the few material goods that you own
are used over and over again. The tools you own are few and
therefore have many uses. Every container, every scrap of metal,
every bit of wire has a purpose.
This is the household of the 1800s. Someday, life will be
better, easier - but not today. Despite the hardships of the
time, most still look to the future with great optimism. Men and
women are learning how to master their environment through the
invention of machines. Many have made their fortunes by using
their creative ingenuity and inventing something new.
Some of the greatest advancements in science have come about
as a result of the necessities that wars and hardships create.
One of the greatest challenges that armies faced in the early
nineteenth century was feeding troops. It was through this need,
generated by war, that the hermetic preserving of food came
In order to give French troops the competitive edge, Napoleon,
in 1809, offered 10,000 francs to the man who could come up with
an idea to assure delivery of wholesome food to soldiers. Nicholas
Appert - a French chef of the time - is generally credited as
the father of hermetic preserving. Appert won Napoleons
challenge by introducing the concept of preserving food
hermetically. In 1810, Appert published his discovery in a book
entitled L Arte de Conserver les Substances Animales et
Despite a great need, however, home canning didnt become
commonplace until the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Until someone invented better containers, fifty years later,
around the time of the civil war, homemakers used crude glass and
earthenware vessels sealed with corks, plugs or parchment. This
method didnt work well, but it was better than the
alternative of the time -- using tin cans and soldering them
The term fruit jar may predate the invention of what we know
today as the modern mason or canning jar. Colonial bottle maker Thomas
Dyott is credited with coining the term - possibly referring
to the vessels sealed with corks and parchment mentioned above.
In 1861, Louis Pasteur wrote that microorganisms in un-sterilized food were responsible for food spoilage. Up until this time, even though people boiled the vessels in which they canned their food, few understood why it worked. The common belief was that air caused spoilage and hermetic sealing of food and removal of air from vessels prevented spoilage. However, once Pasteurs discovery was understood, scientists, manufacturers and food preparers began developing more reliable means of food preservation by sterilizing the food as well as the container.
In 1855, pioneer Robert Arthur had an idea for a better
vessel in which to preserve food. Originally produced in metal,
his patent called for a wax, (commonly called cement,) which the
manufacturer poured around the mouth of the container. All the
food preparer had to do was heat the lid and press it into the
cement. A few others patented similar techniques of sealing tin
cans without soldering.
However, these metal cans didnt fare well with
homemakers because one couldnt use the cans over and over
again. They were big, heavy and bulky, and cost a lot of money.
The acids in foods reacted with the metal, and the results were
somewhat less than tasty. If youre lucky enough to find an
original example of one of these containers today, however, it
would be worth several hundred dollars.
Glass made the revolution in canning complete. Sealed with a
tin lid and wax, the all-glass wax sealer, cement jar, or
"standard" fruit jar remained popular throughout the
remainder of the 19th century. The jar would seal fairly reliably
when the user poured wax over a tin lid resting in a groove in
the jars lip. The "wax sealer" is a later
variation of the first fruit jars which used corks covered with
wax. Wax sealers were, of course, made of glass, (avoiding the
problems with metal containers above) reusable and much more
This jar was not without its drawbacks. Opening the wax sealer
was difficult because you either had to chip the wax away or melt
the wax off of the jars top. The first wax sealers date
back to the 1850s, and probably as early as the 1830s. Despite
the imperfections, wax sealers enjoyed a long life - glassmakers
produced the jars as late as 1912.
The familiar term mason jar came after its inventor Mr. John
L. Mason, (26 years of age at the time he filed his famous
patent,) a tin smith from New York city. Like the wax sealer, the
mason jar is reusable. The improvement was in the sealing design,
a glass container with a thread molded into its top and a zinc
lid with a rubber ring, effecting a seal between the lid and the
jar. This jar carries the familiar embossing: "Masons
Patent Nov. 30th. 1858."
The mason jar is historically important because it freed farm
families from reliance on inferior containers, and from using
pickling, drying, and smoking food to prepare for the winter. The
ease of use and affordability of Mason jars helped promote home
canning across the nation. Urban families used Mason jars to put
up garden food, especially tomatoes, fruits, relish, and pickles.
Collectors often find jars carrying the classic 1858
embossing, along with other monograms, numbers, letters, and
styles. American manufacturers, and others world wide produced
these jars with the characteristic 1858 embossing as late as
about 1920. Historians believe Crowleytowns Atlantic Glass
Works, Crowleytown, New Jersey made the first of this long series
of mason jars.
In 1859, Mason sold five of his early patents, including the mason jar, to Lewis R. Boyd and Boyds company - The Sheet Metal Screw Company. Boyd is most famous for patenting a white "milk-glass" insert for zinc screw lids to theoretically lessen the chances that food would come in contact with metal. In 1871, for a brief period of time, Mason became a partner with Boyd in the Consolidated Fruit Jar Company. Consolidated hired other glass makers to blow their jars, including the Clyde Glass Works, Clyde, New York, the Whitney Glass Works of Glassboro, New Jersey, and the A. & D. H. Chambers Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Even after Masons patents expired, the manufacture of these jars continued for well over half a century. The companies that produced the Mason jar between 1859 and 1910 are too numerous to mention.
OTHER POPULAR 19TH CENTURY CLOSURES
Dating back to the time of the civil war, (patents related to
this jar date from 1861,) manufacturers used a "thumb screw
clamp" and glass-lid design on several different jars. The
large yoke-shaped cast metal clamp holds down a glass lid which
fits over a grooved mouth or into the jar neck. Around the lid
the user laid an India rubber gasket which effected the seal. The
Millville Atmospheric Fruit Jar, patented by John M. Whitall,
Philadelphia, became popular after the Civil War. Again, this jar
is significant in that metal never touches the food.
Patented in 1863, the Kline Stopper remained popular through
the 1870s. A gasket sealed the jar between the solid glass
stopper and the inside of the jar mouth. As the jar cooled a
vacuum formed, pulling the stopper into the mouth of the jar.
Needless to say, this system proved frustrating when it came to
pulling out the stopper. Adam R. Samuel, at his Keystone
Glass Works in Philadelphia, manufactured many of the jars
employing the Kline patent.
On May 10, 1870, Mr. Mason was issued another patent (102,913)
for a new kind of threaded-top jar. This time, the jar employed a
glass lid and a screw band. As in the "thumb screw"
jars above, the glass lid avoided the problem of food reacting
with bare metal. Many of these jars were produced by the
Consolidated Fruit Jar Company of New York and of New Brunswick,
In 1882, Henry William Putnam of Bennington, Vermont,
invented a new kind of fruit jar by adopting a bottle stopper
patent by Charles de Quillfeldt. The Lightning jars became
popular because the glass lids prevented food contact with metal,
the metal clamps were cheap to produce and the lids themselves
were much easier to seal and remove. The name Lightning suggested
that the jars were quick and easy to use. Variations of the glass
lid and wire-bale scheme of the Lightning jar were produced for
home canning into the 1960s and are still found on novelty jars
The earliest advertisements for the Lightning jar date back to
the year 1885. Mr. Putnam was the man behind the marketing of the
Lightning jars and making them popular. Mr. Putnam held exclusive
ownership of the patents for many years.
POPULAR CLOSURES OF THE 20TH CENTURY
In March of 1924, the University of California College of
Agriculture put out a booklet on home canning. Figure 3 on page
nine of that booklet included pictures of popular jars of the
time including the following four jars below.
The Atlas E-Z Seal and Atlas Strong Shoulder jars: The Atlas
E-Z Seal is a variation of the Lightning seal jar already
described. The "Strong Shoulder" jar is a variation of
the old shoulder seal mason jar. However, this jar sealed on a
raised lip to help keep the jar from cracking - a common problem
with shoulder seal jars. This concept led to the term
"Strong Shoulder" as used by the Atlas company for
their jars. The Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, makers of the
E-Z Seal and Strong Shoulder jars, was in business from the late
1800s until 1964. These two jars date from the 1920s. The
Hazel-Atlas company specialized in producing fruit jars.
One of the most significant advancements in the history of
home preserving came with the invention of the Economy and Self
Sealing jars. Alexander H. Kerr founded the Hermetic Fruit
Jar Company in 1903. Mr. Kerr arranged for the production of the
Economy jar utilizing patents, (two 1903 patents held by another
man, Julius Landsberger of San Francisco,) calling for a
metal lid with a permanently fastened composition gasket.
The lids were easy to use and inexpensive. The Economy jars
had wide mouths and were easy to fill. In August of 1915, Mr.
Kerr invented a smaller, flat metal disk with the same permanent
composition gasket attached. The lid sealed on the top of a mason
jar; a threaded metal ring held the lid down. Now the homemaker
could re-use her old canning jars while taking advantage of the
easy-to-use Kerr lids. (The Illinois-Pacific glass company made
the early Economy jars from 1903 to 1909.)
THE BALL COMPANY
A history of fruit jars wouldnt be complete without
mentioning the Ball Company. Although the company did not
necessarily advance the technology of home canning, per se, it
did make a major contribution to the industry by becoming the
most prolific producer of jars.
In the early 1880s, William Charles Ball, 35, and his
brothers Lucius, Lorenzo, Frank C., Edmund Burke, and George
Alexander began making wood jacketed tin cans at Buffalo, New
York, for the storage of oil, lard and paints. In 1883 the
brothers switched to glass oil "cans" and then, three
years later, to fruit jars. After fire destroyed their plant in
Buffalo, the brothers moved their operations to Muncie, Indiana,
where natural gas had been discovered. The city offered free gas
and a generous amount of land to rebuild the company.
The Ball Brothers seemed to possess all of the talents we
associate with successful business people today.
They built a fruit-jar empire by mass producing and
distributing trainloads of jars across the country. They
aggressively took over several other smaller companies in order
to maximize their hold on the industry. One good example was in
1909 when Ball took over the Greenfield Fruit Jar and Bottle
Company in order to gain control of the Owens automatic bottle
making machine license, a significant business opportunity they
passed up some years before in favor of their own jar making
machine. After all, factory automation significantly reduces
labor costs, even back then. The Owens machine did just that by
cutting labor costs and dramatically increasing production.
(Refer also to the October 1996 Bottles and Extras article
"The Three Rivers Glass Company.")
WORLD WAR TWO AND THE EVENTUAL DECLINE OF HOME CANNING
As part of the war effort, home canning became vital during
the Second World War. On the home front the government encouraged
Americans to grow and can their own food. Home canning reduced
the consumption of steel and tin, vital to the war effort. As the
public became more self sufficient, government and industry could
funnel more resources into winning the war.
Dr. Julian Toulouse was put in charge of allocation of all
metal used in making lids for jars and bottles. Dr. Toulouse was
at that time the chief chemist for the major Owens-Illinois glass
Company of Toledo, Ohio. (He was also the producer of such famous
fruit jars such as the Presto, Good House Keepers Mason and
others.) Dr. Toulouse spent thirty-seven years as chief chemist
for the corporation.
In an effort to cut down on the unnecessary use of metal,
glass lids temporarily replaced the tin and zinc lids which had
been used up until 1941. This era also saw the popularization of
the smaller "63" closure which cut the size of the jar
mouth, again conserving metal. The "63" lid also
allowed homemakers to re-use coffee and other packing jars,
further conserving resources to aid the allies in the war. The
following illustration is from the Office of War Information,
Farm Security Administration, showing stacks of home-canned food.
The motto of the time: "be prepared."
The decline of home canning began after the end of the war. Home canning declined as large, more profitable farms began to replace the small farm in America. Fewer small farms meant fewer farmers and fewer people to work the farms. The 1950s and 1960s saw the rise of the supermarket, the fast food restaurant, and the frozen TV dinner. As we move into the final years of the 20th century we find that the art of home cooking itself, let alone the art of home canning, is quickly disappearing from the popular culture.
TIPS ON COLLECTING
There are several ways to date an antique jar or bottle.
Probably the most important is the presence or absence of a
pontil scar. The pontil scar - a ring of glass or a black
and red iron-like indention on the base of a bottle or jar -
indicates that a glassblower held the item on a pontil rod (when
the glass was hot) while the neck and/or lip was shaped and
finished by hand. Typically, American pontil scarred bottles
predate 1855 or so.
Another age determiner is the presence of mold seams.
Many of the earliest bottles or jars were freeblown (that is,
blown without the aid of a mold) therefore have no mold seam.
Seams which stop short of the lip indicate that the bottle was
blown into a mold then finished by hand by adding a top or
tooling the lip into shape. Machine-made jars (dating after about
1915) have mold seams extending from the bottom up to and across
the top of the jar.
Another way to tell the general age of a jar is to examine it
from top to bottom. Is the top smooth to the touch or is it rough
and ground off? Look at the base of your jar. If the base of your
jar has a round ring in it and the lip is smooth, your jar was
probably machine made sometime after the turn of the century but
probably before the 1930s. If the jar has a large, rough and
jagged ring on its base, it was probably made between 1900 and
1930 when the Owens machine was in popular use. Machine-made jars
after the 1930s have a more modern look and frequently have small
scars on the bottom indicating they were made on more modern,
Most jars with rough ground tops were made before 1900. The
ground lip resulted when the glassmaker ground the top to
eliminate the "blow-over." The blow-over was a gob of
glass at the top of a jar that the glassblower used to attach a
blow pipe when the jar was blown by hand into a mold. The
blow-overs were removed and the top was then ground flat.
When manufacturers produce glass, chemicals (clarifying
agents) must be added to clarify the batch in order to turn it
from its original color of aqua-blue or green to clear. Prior to
the start of the First World War, manufacturers used Manganese
Dioxide as their chemical agent of choice to clarify glass.
When a jar or bottle turns purple from sunlight, manganese
dioxide is the substance in the glass that reacts with sunlight
to cause the color change. Russia was the primary source of this
When the First World War broke out, our source of manganese
dioxide was cut off by German blockades. This sudden loss left
glass manufacturers in a quandary and forced them to use another
chemical, selenium, to clarify glass. After the close of
the war, manufacturers did not return to the use of manganese
dioxide. Selenium does not cause glass to react to sunlight like
manganese does, thus glass clarified with selenium does not turn
purple. Knowing this fact and the history above, collectors have
another way to date their glass collectibles. If your jar is
purple, it is a pretty good bet it was made before W.W.I.
Buying damaged jars or jars with reproduction closures.
When you are thinking about purchasing a jar, look at the jar
carefully. Look at the lip of the jar and its base. Turn the jar
around, preferably in the light, and look for any scratches,
nicks, chips, or dings. Keep in mind that damage reduces the
value of the jar.
Many jars have reproduction closures; reputable dealers will
mark their jars so fitted. Sometimes, however, people selling
jars (dealers and others) forget to indicate that a jar has a
reproduction closure or simply dont realize that the wire
bale or clamp is not original. Unless you are experienced, it may
be difficult to tell if a clamp is original or not. Here are a
few tips that may help:
Examine the clamps for unevenness or marks left from pliers or
other implements. Does the clamp fit correctly or does it seem to
fit awkwardly on top of the jar? Original clamps are usually made
of heavy material and are frequently rusty or show marks from
wear. Reproduction clamps or closures frequently look new. If in
doubt, simply ask the dealer about the closure.
Usually, jars with reproduction clamps sell for less than
those with original closures. There are a few exceptions, since
some types of original clamps or lids sometimes simply dont
exist. Generally, jars are best with original closures.
LOOK OUT FOR IRRADIATED JARS!
One of the most regrettable things that has happened in recent
years is the introduction of irradiated jars into the market.
Altered artificially by modern technology, these jars come in
dark browns and purples and are sometimes sold for large amounts
of money. Some collectors have been fooled into buying these jars
thinking the colors are genuine. Collectors are becoming hesitant
to buy amber and other colored jars for fear someone has altered
In industrial facilities, radioactive substances are available
that some people have used to expose old glass in an effort to
change its color. Since the radiation in these substances can be
especially potent, the change in color may be astonishingly deep.
If the jar contains manganese dioxide, when irradiated it will
turn a deep (in some cases almost black) purple. If the jar
contains selenium, it will turn an opaque brown color. Sometimes
these deep brown jars are sold, either inadvertently or
intentionally, as real amber jars. If you have any doubts, ask an
experienced collector. One way you can tell if a jar has been
irradiated is to bake it in an oven. A collector in Michigan set
an irradiated jar in a 200° oven for 2½ hours and the color
disappeared. (Placing your valuable old jars in an oven could
cause them to crack, so be careful!)
Fruit-jar collecting can be interesting, fun, sometimes
profitable, and always challenging. In this article you have read
some of the basics of fruit jar history and noted some pointers
which can make your collecting more interesting and successful.
This is just the beginning; finding out the rest is up to you...
The Midwest Fruit Jar and Bottle Club puts on a bottle
show twice a year featuring many great jars and usually a
"fruit-jar get together" where collectors come to share
jars, stories and information. There are several good books out
on the pricing and history of fruit jars and Dick Roller of
Paris, Illinois, edits a monthly Fruit Jar Newsletter.
Fruit-jar people are friendly, helpful and responsive. If you
would like more information about fruit jars, the next time you
are at a bottle show, look up a few - you will be glad that you
did. You can also email this author at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop a
note at Bottles and Extras.
Creswick, Alice: The Fruit Jar Works, Volumes I & II.
Published by Douglas M. Leybourne, Jr. N. Muskegon, Mich., 1995.
Leybourne, Doug: The Red Book of Fruit Jars No. 7. Published
by Douglas M. Leybourne, Jr. N. Muskegon, Mich., 1993.
Roller, Dick: The Standard Fruit Jar Reference. Acorn Press,
Paris, Ill., 1984.
The Fruit Jar Newsletter. Page 617, April 1992.
The Midwest Glass Chatter. Midwest Antique Fruit Jar and
Bottle Club. November 1994 & January 1995. Junne Barnett,
Many thanks to Rick Reinking of the "Washington
Area Collectibles" website, http://www.halcyon.com/reinking/
for all of the photos in this article except for the photos from
the Farm Security Administration Office of War Information
A special thank you to Mr. Doug Leybourne and Mr.
Alex Kerr for their help and assistance in the review and
preparation of this article.