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.