In the mid-1970s, my parents fled the New Jersey suburbs to build a house in rural New Hampshire, where my mother tended a large vegetable and herb garden. The growing season in New Hampshire is spectacularly short—sometimes only eight weeks—but my mother tried to take full advantage of it, growing dill, thyme, sage, mint, rosemary, and at least six varieties of basil, as well as tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, squash, beans, peas, peppers, broccoli, chard, and zucchini.
She would harvest the herbs throughout the summer, tying small bundles together with twine and drying them along a clothesline that ran the length of the basement. The vegetable plants produced less regularly, but from mid-July onwards we could reliably eat fresh produce every evening, and by August we had a surplus. At that point my mother would begin canning what we couldn’t eat, storing the vividly colored contents in transparent Mason jars that would reappear throughout the fall and winter—like a bit of summer preserved in amber.
Food starts to degrade the moment it is harvested. Like other kinds of preservation—drying, curing, pickling, freezing—canning maintains foods against the natural processes of this decay. The two most common methods, water bath and pressure, are appropriate for different types of food. Highly acidic foods—like fruits, jams, and pickles—respond well to the water bath. Vegetables, meat, and poultry, however, need to be pressure canned, a process in which the contents are heated to more than 240 degrees Fahrenheit to destroy bacteria.
Integral to this process is the Mason jar, which was created in 1858 by John Landis Mason, a New Jersey native. The idea of “heat-based canning” emerged in 1806 and was popularized by Nicholas Appert, a French cook who had been inspired by the need to preserve foods for long periods during the Napoleonic wars. But, as Sue Shepard writes in her book Pickled, Potted, and Canned, the products of this technique were often compromised by imperfect seals: Appert originally used champagne bottles, which he secured with the improbable mixture of cheese and lime. He soon exchanged champagne bottles for glasses with wider necks, and by 1803 his canned goods were being successfully distributed to the French Navy. Mason’s design, which possessed a 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 transparency of the glass that Mason used also made the contents appealingly visible.
In the early 20th century, mass production made Mason jars ubiquitous in America. One of the most prolific manufacturers was the Ball Corporation. One often sees jars etched with this name, in lilting cursive, opposite an engraved cornucopia and measurement markers. Printed discreetly near the bottom is the label: “Made in U.S.A.” Particularly useful for people who lived in areas with short growing seasons, canning and Mason jars were integral elements of farming culture, where jams and pickles were judged and awarded prizes at fairs and festivals. In these contests, color and beauty were often scored—a glinting ruby red, for example, was a testament not only to the quality of the fruit but the integrity and sophistication of the labor that went into transforming this fruit into jam. Jams and pickles and various kinds of sauces were also exchanged as gifts, and vestiges of that culture remain in the jars of preserved goods people sometimes give each other at holidays.
Mason jars experienced a renaissance during World War II, when the U.S. government rationed food and encouraged people to grow their own. In the aftermath of the war, however, economic and industrial developments displaced canning as the primary form of food preservation. Large numbers of people began leaving farms for the city, refrigerators became ubiquitous, and canning was supplanted by freezing. As transportation systems improved, fresh fruits and vegetables became available year-round (even in New Hampshire), lessening the need for food preservation. Tin canning, based on Appert’s glass-canning technique and patented in 1810 by the Englishman Peter Durand, industrialized the food-preservation process, making its benefits available on a massive scale and at relatively cheap prices. (While millions of Americans were purchasing Mason jars during World War II, soldiers overseas were eating daily rations of tinned food.) In the early 20th century, the invention of the plastics bakelite and nylon paved the way for the billions of plastic containers used in contemporary industrial preservation.
My mother and aunt started canning in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the Mason jar experienced another resurgence. This time, it was as part of the back-to-the-land DIY movement, a reaction to the perception that both food and life were increasingly processed. People seeking a return to a more natural lifestyle filled their kitchens and cellars with goods preserved in Mason jars.
Half a century later, the Mason jar is having another moment. Thanks to writers like Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, and Alice Waters, many people are much more aware of the food that they’re eating and the high costs—environmental and economic—of transporting it to their plates, encouraging a return to locally grown produce and activities like canning. Whereas tinned food now connotes poverty, Mason jars, with their pleasing shape and transparency, suggest a kind of wholesome luxury.
The Mason jar’s resurgence is due, in part, to the variety of ways in which it can be repurposed. Google “Mason jar” and you’ll find numerous sites that evangelize its astonishing utility. Lists of potential applications include oil lanterns, soap dispensers, terrariums, drinking glasses, speakers, vases, planters, and snow globes, in addition to food and drink storage. It’s repeatedly praised for its reusability, its aesthetic appeal, and its purity: Mason jars aren’t mixed up with some of the more nefarious chemicals used to produce plastic.
It has, however, recently taken on a negative connotation of its own. In April of 2013, The Economist printed a brief piece about the gentrification of London, pinning its spread to the ubiquity of the Mason jar: “The frontier of where you can buy a cocktail in a jam jar is moving like German tanks through the Ardennes,” it declared, “from Shoreditch to Dalston; Brixton to Peckham; Bethnal Green to Hackney Wick.”
And in May of that same year, 7-Eleven made headlines with the announcement that it would be selling a line of Mason-jar Slurpee cups with mustache straws, making it possible to drink your Slurpee and be ironic about it, too. Gawker’s piece on the cups, titled “7-Eleven Serving Assholes Drinks in Mason Jars,” inspired more than 200 comments, many of which were exchanges about who uses Mason jars—hipsters, foodies, southerners, weed growers, rednecks—and who has the more rightful claim to them.
“Everyone I know who uses Mason jars is ‘foodie’ and ‘green,’” one commenter wrote, “so there's no way they would touch something like this.”
“Interesting…” began the next response. “Everyone I know who uses a Mason jar (for drinking purposes) is a redneck and only uses it to drink beer and/or tea.”
“That's why the hipsters and organic foodies are doing it,” responded another, “because it's ironic!”
That, in a nutshell, is why the Mason jar has become emblematic of gentrification: Holding a cocktail or a Slurpee, it’s removed from its original context—which is rooted in functionality—and made into an icon of ironic contrast. Used to serve a drink in Hackney Wick, the Mason jar becomes a vacant signifier. It’s meaningful in its evacuation of meaning—a far cry from delivering the pleasures of summer in the dead of winter, or ensuring that, in a time of need, there will still be enough.
This current incarnation of the Mason jar has a lot to do with the hunger for greater legitimacy: How can I be more real, and more unique in my realness? One of capitalism’s most enduring legacies has been persuading people that they can purchase a singular style. In some areas, like fashion, the effort to be unique has come full circle, so that the best way to be an individual is to dress with utter banality (hence the trend known as normcore). Mason jars—with their enticing aura of thrift, preservation, and personal labor—have become a potent signifier in this quest. Rather than ensuring against scarcity, however, Mason jars confirm the presence of abundance—and suggest that we’re rather fatigued by it.
When I was in college and graduate school, I was constantly attending dinner parties at which we drank cheap wine out of Mason jars, usually the small ones used for jams. My apartment, like those of most of my friends, was assembled from a hodgepodge of thrift-store finds, including a weathered daybed, a leather easy chair with a gaping hole in the back, and kitchenware that looked like it had seen 10 different households. I didn’t think anything of Mason-jar glasses then. It was just a part of being young and poor in the city. Now that I’m older, I find that I can pay decidedly un-thrifty prices to recapture a more minimalist time in my life. Mason jars suggest resistance to the mass production of food and culture; they emphasize the values of self-sufficiency and community. 7-Eleven’s marketing strategy, however, demonstrates how easily resistance to commodification can be commoditized.
In leaving the suburbs and moving to the woods, my parents were making a self-conscious effort to define themselves in contrast to the suburban status quo. Yet living close to the land didn’t make them immune to the forces that complicate a relationship with it. The garden, built on poor soil because it was the only level area of the property, eventually went to seed. Money ebbed and flowed, but mostly ebbed. We started buying our vegetables from the nearest grocery store—still 45 minutes away—and resorting to the cheapest frozen and tinned produce we could find. It was easy to read the end of Eden in the food we were eating.