As Summer gives way to Fall and our garden yields its final crops of the season, preparations begin to preserved the harvest. Over the years we’ve collected several boxes of canning jars. While unpacking them for cleaning we discovered our assortment of canning jars have not only different names, but different sizes, shapes, and colors too! We wondered what’s the difference between Ball Jars, Kerr Jars, and Mason Jars?
The earliest glass jars were called wax sealers, because they used sealing wax, which was poured into a channel around the lip that held on a tin lid. This process was complicated and error-prone, but was largely the only one available for a long time, and widely used even into the early 1900s. In 1858, an inventor and tin smith from New York City, John L. Mason, invented the mason jar. He invented a machine that could cut threads into lids, which made it practical to manufacture a jar with a reusable, screw-on, lid. The ease of use and affordability of Mason jars helped home canning spread across the nation, not only among farmers, homesteaders and settlers, but also urban families, who began family traditions of canning sauces, pickles, relishes, fruit and tomatoes.
In 1882, Henry William Putnam of Bennington, Vermont, invented a fruit jar that used a glass lid and a metal clamp to hold the lid in place. These “Lightning jars” became popular because no metal (which could rust, breaking the seal or contaminating the food) contacted the food and the metal clamps made the lids themselves easier to seal and remove (hence the “Lightning” name) . There were many similar glass lid and wire-clamp jars produced for home canning all the way into the 1960s. Many can still be seen in garage sales, flea markets and on specialty food jars today. The Atlas E-Z Seal is a type the Lightning jar. The difference is a raised lip to help keep the jar from cracking. This was called the “Strong Shoulder” and was similar to the mason jar. The cracking was a common problem with shoulder seal jars. Hazel-Atlas Glass Company were in business from the late 1800’s until 1964.
Meanwhile, in Buffalo, NY, William Charles Ball and his brothers (Lucius, Lorenzo, Frank C., Edmund Burke, and George Alexander) were in the business of manufacturing wood-jacketed tin cans for the storage of oil, lard and paints. In 1883, the Ball’s changed from tin to glass containers and then, in 1886, to glass fruit jars. The Balls began acquiring smaller companies, and mass producing and distributing jars across the country. They quickly became the leaders in the industry. Alexander H. Kerr founded the Hermetic Fruit Jar Company in 1903 and among their first commercial products were the Economy and Self Sealing jars. The Economy jars were among the first wide-mouth jars, and thus, were easy to fill. They also incorporated aspects from two 1903 patents held by another inventor, Julius Landsberger: a metal lid with a permanently attached gasket. This made the lids easy to use and inexpensive. Mr. Kerr later invented a smaller, flat metal disk with the same permanent composition gasket. The lid sealed on the top of a mason jar; a threaded metal ring held the lid down during the hot water processing. This allowed re-use of old canning jars together with inexpensive and easy to use disposable lids. The jar we know today was born in about 1915! This two-part lid system transformed home canning safety and is still in use today.
Antique canning jars are eagerly sought by collectors, and are bought and sold not only through antique stores, but also online auction sites and retailers. The value of a jar is related to its age, rarity, and condition. The age and rarity of a jar can be determined by its color, shape, mold and production marks, and closure. Most antique jars that are not colorless are a shade of aqua known as “Ball blue,” named for the prevalent jar maker. Colored jars were considered better for canning use, as they block some light from reaching the food, which helps to retain flavor and nutritional value longer. More rarely, jars will turn up in amber, and occasionally in darker shades of green. Rarer still are cobalt blues, blacks, and milk glass jars. Vintage jars are great on your pantry shelf to hold dry good or for simple decorative purposes.
Canning jars are also popular for decorating purposes, today you can find painted folk art jars, lamp jars, primitive grubby jars, and a wide assortment of other styles and uses. Hand painted glass jars make great collectibles. They can be used as vases, candle holders, canisters, drinking glasses and more. How about turning those old jars into a terrarium or a herb garden! Pint, quart, or even gallon size canning jars have found their way into our homes and serve more purposes than just food preservation these days. A quick search on the computer for “canning jar art” will yield a large crop of ideas worth harvesting! Learn how to make grungy canning jars with our tutorial: How to Make Primitive Grungy Jars.
Written by Tamara Pearce, owner of Pearce’s Craft Shop KKL Primitives