A familiar object in Americana is celebrating a big anniversary this year — 150 years. I’m referring to the Mason jar – that clear or sometimes blue-tinted pint or quart-sized jar we all have in our homes. This unassumming little piece of kitchen ware was patented in November 1858 by John Landis Mason. Little did he know that 150 years later his invention would wreak havoc and mayhem in rural flea markets and urban antique stores and be popular with collectors. In fact, some of these jars have sold at auction for thousands of dollars. I personally have a case of these jars in my basement and I know for a fact they’re worth about $11.92. I’m keeping them as an inflation hedge.
As a child, I would frequently find my grandfather down in his basement puttering around. He had lots of Mason jars on shelves – most of them had things like nails and screws in them, but one always had a clear liquid. He told me it was turpentine to clean his paintbrushes. One day I saw him take a swig from this jar and I thought to my child self, that’s a funny way to clean a paintbrush. I waited for him to spit out the turpentine onto a paintbrush, but instead he swallowed it. When asked sometime later by my Grandmother if I had seen Gramps, I told her he was in the basement drinking turpentine. She got the biggest smile on her face. I didn’t get it.
I have Mason jars in my home – I used to collect the blue ones each time I would find them at the local antique shop. Our house filled up with Mason jars and then I was forced not to simply show them for decoration but actually put stuff in them for storage. Now my house is filled with Mason jars with seashells, buttons, coins, and pencils. There are a few empty Mason jars atop one of my kitchen cupboards just because I like to look at them.
The main use for these jars is something called canning. I never understood that, either. My grandmother used to cook the bejeezus out of beets, put them in these jars, then put the jars in a huge pot of boiling water. Then she would put lids on the jars and the jars would stay on the kitchen counter for a few days doing heaven knows what. Then the jars would be gone and about 6 months later they would appear again and we’d have to actually eat the disgusting beets. Seems to me this process should have been called jarring, not canning; cans had nothing to do with it.
With the advent of supermarkets, putting food in jars and storing them on a shelf is something of a lost art. Unless you are Amish, there is little reason to spend hours in a hot kitchen on a hot August day filling little glass jars with things that need brine. I’d sooner drink turpentine.