Monday, December 9, 2013

Well preserved: the birth of the Mason jar

Few realize it, but New Jersey's southern counties could take a legitimate place among the pantheon of influential sites in preserved food technology. As we learned this summer from our visit to Upper Deerfield Township, Seabrook Farms was a pioneer in flash freezing vegetables and became America's largest frozen food processor. However, the groundbreaking work of Clarence Birdseye and C.F. Seabrook was preceded by another technology that helped millions of homemakers preserve the bounty of their farms and gardens without refrigeration.

Yup, the Mason jar was born in New Jersey, invented in 1858 by a Vineland native named John Landis Mason. To be fair, he was already established as a metalsmith in New York City when he came up with a practical way to extend the shelf life of preserved produce, but he returned to his native state to bring the concept to reality. It wasn't loyalty, just practicality that brought him back: he needed a good jar, and South Jersey's glass industry was in its heyday, with several factories using the local sand to turn out a superior product.

Mason was building on the work of Frenchman Nicolas Appert, who, nearly 50 years earlier, had theorized that the act of heating food would sterilize it to prevent spoilage. It wasn't known why -- Louis Pasteur wouldn't perform his groundbreaking work in germ theory until the 1860s -- but inventors quickly sought ways to capitalize on Appert's findings. The tin can was introduced as a storage option a few years later, but the technology wasn't practical for those who wanted to preserve their own food, nor was the food inside the cans visible. Others had come up with canning methods using cork and wax, both of which proved problematic.

Going a step farther, Mason designed a porcelain-lined zinc lid that would form a protective seal as the food cooled within the glass container. That, however, required a jar that could receive the lid effectively. Mason chose to work with Samuel Crowley, whose glassworks were on the Mullica River not far from Batsto. Outlining his concept, Mason asked if Crowley could make a jar with a threaded mouth that could accept a screw-top lid. Not long after, master glassblower Clayton Parker produced the prototype jar, and a month later, Mason received the patent for the jar that bears his name.

Having proven that the practicality of his concept, Mason returned to New York and went into business with partners there to manufacture his new invention. He eventually returned to New Jersey, moving his family to New Brunswick and working with the Consolidated Fruit Jar Company, which gained rights to his invention. According to the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, he later patented a soap dish and a life raft, but to my knowledge, those have fallen into oblivion.

Today, "Mason jar" is one of those iconic names that has stuck to a group of products, despite the fact that other manufacturers have become far more prevalent. Some still use them for canning, others as beverage glasses. However you come upon them next, take a moment to raise a drink -- or some preserves -- to the man from Vineland who made them possible.

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