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Is the Mason jar really all its blown up to be?

Emily Harrison By Emily Harrison Published on February 16, 2016

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Just ten years ago, the only time we saw mason jars were in our grandparents pantries filled with preserves and sauces. The moment it was time to serve, their contents were emptied into glass dishes or floral bowls. It was unheard of to present the contents still in the jar. The jar had served it purpose: preserving. Now, time to wash it and reuse for the next batch.

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The Mason jar was created in 1858 by John Landis Mason. The idea of “heat-based canning” was not a new concept at that time. In 1806 Nicholas Appert, a French cook who had been inspired by the need to preserve foods for long periods during the Napoleonic wars, had tried his hand at it but the seal was never perfected until Mason’s design. The ribbed neck and a screw-on cap that created an airtight seal, helped to refine a canning process that had been prone to error. The glass that Mason used also made the contents visible.

Particularly popular for people who lived in rural areas Mason jars were integral elements of the farming and village culture. Jams and pickles were judged and awarded prizes at fairs and festivals. Jams and pickles and various kinds of sauces were also exchanged as gifts and very warmly welcomed.

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The Mason jar frenzy is rolling down hill like a snowball, picking up food stylists, bloggers, interior designers and even chefs. It’s getting bigger and bigger and the end does not seem in sight.

Today, we see them everywhere. They are no longer restricted to the village fair culture. People in capital cities are drinking their lattes out of them, celebrities arranging flowers in them for center pieces, ad agency employees using them as penholders…the list is endless.

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According to the New York Times, the Mason jar emerged as a “hipster-drinking vessel”. Other observers believe that the Mason jar has become emblematic of gentrification: Holding a cocktail, it’s removed from its original context—which is rooted in functionality—and made into an icon of ironic contrast. To be ironic, is to be cool.

With all the hype surrounding them, the question has to be asked: Are they all they are blown up to be?

Mason jars were designed for a specific purpose and they still work very well at it and have done for over 150 years. When someone repurposes a mason jar, while the project may look very cool, some aspect of the jar's functionality is nearly always abandoned. The rubberized lid meant to create a seal, for example, is rendered useless in many repurpose projects such as the penholder and coffee mug.

Here are just a few more repurposing uses that the Mason jar really is not practical for:

Spice jars: It may look very tidy and pretty but the lids keep the smell of the spice for a very long time. It is hard to wash it out.

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Plant holder: Again it looks very innovative and modern but very unpractical as there are no drainage holes and they would be very hard to add.

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Bathroom storage holders: Bathrooms are damp and humid rooms in the house and with no lids the cotton balls, soaps and brushes will get damp and maybe even unusable.

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Inserting straws: If the most functional part of a mason jar is the lid then why would you make a hole and put a straw through it?

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They have become so trendy and popular that handles have been added for ease of drinking. Is this not enough to prove that they are not practical for drinking?

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Practicality aside, there is also the cost issue. Stores have caught on to the trend and buying decorated jars is not as pleasing on the wallet as it is on the eye; 12 original jars go for about $10 against $24 for four with a Valentine’s Day theme printed onto them.

However, on the up side, we cannot dismiss (albeit the criticism above) the popularity of the repurposed Mason jar. Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and numerous websites inundate the population with ideas for decoration, design and gifts that actually work. Repurposing them is economical and there is some sort of satisfaction rendered when a DIY project is a success.

Another turning point was in 2008. The financial crisis resulted in people going out less and making more and more food at home. This in turn led to a rise in the amount of canning carried out by the younger generation. Steve Hungsberg, Director of Marketing at Jarden Home Brand, says  “I think a lot of it comes down to nostalgia...In times when the economy is not so great, people turn to nostalgic things. It’s appealing to know these enduring symbols. The Ball jars have always been made in America. All of those things are appealing to people.”

Mason jars are solid. They will endure and stand up to the test of time. They are a symbol of home-life, authenticity and as Hungsberg states, they remind of us of the past and the good times with family. 

There is also the environmental impact that consumer goods have on society. We live in an era of plastic. Plastic plates, Tupperware, cups, etc fill up our day. This over consumption and waste makes the Mason jar a welcome comeback. The environment can thank those who have made this happen; be it the ironic hipster, the green foodie or the granddaughter reminiscing back to the good old days. We can reuse and repurpose them making the need for Ziploc bags and paper coffee cups less of a burden on the environment.

An aversion to processed food has intensified and has contributed to the rise of the Mason jar. More people are focused on self-sufficiency and obtaining as much value as they can from what they purchase. Chris Scherzinger, president and chief executive of Jarden Home Brands, which currently makes Ball- and Kerr-brand Mason jars says “they want to get their hands dirty; they want to be involved in the process, selection and the making of their food…And canning is an extension of that.”

In conclusion, as much as we can attribute the Mason jar’s repurposing to a few failed attempts, these failures by no means outweigh the overriding popularity of the Mason jar in our society today. And if this article has taught us anything is that the original function of the Mason jar is still in tact and the repurposing of it can only be described as a reflection of it continuing success both aesthetically and practically.

British Canadian with a passion for travelling, languages, food and all things books. And most importantly, a loving wife and Mummy to two wonderful boys.

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