The History Center on Main Street, 83 N. Main Street, Mansfield PA 16933
Tri-Counties Genealogy & History by Joyce M. Tice
A Very Brief History of Canning Jars
Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
Tioga County PA
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Looking Back
For Mountain Home Magazine
The Canning Jar – More Than Meets the Eye
Joyce M. Tice
October 2007

Photo Caption: Part of the author’s canning jar collection. It includes several Ball Blue Books dating back to 1930.

In 1795 Napoleon offered a 12,000 franc prize for a method to preserve food for the military. Chef Nicholas Appert, whose background included both pickling and brewing, won the prize by developing a method of heating food in glass containers and sealing them with pitch.  In 1810 an Englishman named Peter Durance invented a method to use metal containers to preserve food. In both cases, it was for military advantage that the processes were developed.


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Food canning works by creating enough heat to kill all organisms and enzymes that could spoil food and sealing out any new ones from entering. The earliest home canning involved a glass jar with a tin lid and sealing wax. The parts were not re-useable because the sealing wax acted a bit like cement. Even so it was a step forward from earlier preserving methods of drying, pickling, salting and smoking and offered a way to preserve a greater variety of the summer’s harvest.

In 1858 tinsmith John L. Mason developed a way to cut threads into a metal lid. Mason paired the threaded and gasketed lid with a matching threaded glass jar that was re-useable. Home canning became a new sensation. This Mason jar design was in use for decades. You will still find them commonly in antique stores. If you see 1858 on the Mason jar, that is the patent date and not the date of the jar’s manufacture.

The Lightning jar was invented in 1882. This is the familiar jar with both glass top and container and the wire clamp to hold the top on. The jar rubber was the sealing element. This was a common model until the 1960s, and some are still in use.

In 1915 Alexander H. Kerr, whose company was founded in 1903, developed the glass jar with a gasketed flat metal lid held in place until sealed with a threaded metal ring. This model is still in almost universal use today.

The Ball brothers were container manufacturers who switched to glass jars in 1883. This is the name that dominates the home canning industry to the present day.  Ball had bought out many smaller producers over the decades. The Ball Corporation no longer makes canning products. Kerr, Golden Harvest, Bernardin and Ball brands are presently all manufactured by Alltrista Corporation.

Before company consolidations reduced the variety of canning jar brands, hundreds of smaller companies made their own versions of the canning jar types mentioned above. Older jars come in all sizes, shapes, colors and prices. I recently managed to dig out a couple of Drey brand jars from several boxes of used mixed contemporary jars and purchased them for a quarter each. They often are offered for $10 to $15 each if sorted by dealers first.

Canadian brands often have a crown on them, and there are several brands of those. There are square ones and amethyst or amber ones, and red ones – for budgets much larger than mine will ever be. Even as recently as 2002-2004, Ball brand put out some lovely jelly jars in a Collector’s Series. These are no longer available and already go for very inflated prices on ebay or specialty stores that kept an inventory of them.

If you keep your eyes open and get lucky you can build an interesting collection of canning jars for modest prices. Or, if you have money to spare, you can spend as much as $2000 on rare ones that I have seen listed in the price book. The diversity you find will surprise you.

From Ladies Home Journal May 1906
See Also Elmira's World War One Era Canning Club
Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
Tioga County PA

Published On Tri-Counties Site On 01 JAN 2008 
By Joyce M. Tice
Email: Joyce M. Tice


The History Center on Main Street, 83 N. Main Street, Mansfield PA 16933