Mason jars are something that can last for generations if cared for well. They are often part of the homestead heritage that gets passed down with an estate, and they seem to be a mainstay at antique shops.
Today jars are popular for all sorts of things – from artistic collections to toothbrush holders to vases and more – but for a family doing simple homesteading in times past, jars were more utilitarian. Canning was a popular and essential food preservation method and the knowledge of how to preserve food in jars was often passed down from generation to generation along with the supplies.
In my grandmother’s house, there was a room under the stairs to the basement lined with shelves perfectly spaced to hold one layer of quart jars. Those not being used were washed and shelved upside down to keep the dust and debris out of them. Those that were full were organized by type of contents and date that they were canned.
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My grandma, like many of her generation, saw food shortages as a real possibility. During WWII, my grandfather’s family lived on a farm in Europe and many of the children were grossly malnourished as they couldn’t keep enough food for the ten children when so much was being taken to supply the war efforts. Experiences like this stuck with my grandparents for the rest of their lives so that even when they had plenty and lived in a small city lot in Cleveland, they still lived as if the risk of not having enough was ever on the horizon. They planted every square foot of their backyard with edibles and treated canning not as a hobby but as a food supply.
I was reminded of my grandma’s cellar recently. My husband came home from work one day and reported his co-worker had bought a house with a “canning room” in the basement, full of empty jars. He had no use for them and was looking for someone to give them to. Because this man had purchased some of our Phillips Farm canned goods, he thought we would be the perfect recipients of his stash of off-the-grid living supplies.
We went over to this man’s home one evening soon after and followed him down into his basement. As I stepped into the small room, I was overtaken with memories of my grandmother’s house. The ceiling was low, the walls white. Simple wooden shelves lined the space from floor to ceiling, spread out just perfectly to hold single rows of quart jars. Because it was a basement, the air was cool and a little bit damp. I wondered as I stood there what had happened to all my grandmother’s jars when she passed away. That was my homestead heritage, but I’m not sure where it ended up in the dispersing of things that always happens at those times of life.
We loaded the jars, boxes and boxes of them, into the car. We even had to make a few trips back to get them all. It wasn’t until I got them home and began to unload the boxes that I saw what variety there was in this woman’s collection. It was obvious she had been accumulating jars for decades. They were all clear glass quart jars but they represented various brands, thicknesses of glass and designs through the years. I pulled out some of the most unique to research their stories.
My Oldest Jar
I found this pale blue Ball pint jar in an antique shop a few years ago and now I use it to store my cinnamon sticks. It is obviously old, with bubbled glass and a logo that feels almost smooth – like it’s been worn down from years of use. The front of the jar has the date 1858, but I learned in my research that this doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about when the jar was manufactured. It simply refers to when the Ball brothers secured the patent for this design. I did find a wonderfully helpful chart online, though, that shows how the logo changed for the Ball Company throughout the years. Using this, I was able to date this jar to 1895-1896. That was when the first cursive script logo was used. Another distinguishing feature is the line underneath is not connected to the word: Ball. That means this jar has been used for 120 years! The rim is a little chipped so I wouldn’t use it for actual canning, but otherwise it is still perfectly functional.
The Jar That Started It All For Me
I have had this classic blue Ball jar since I moved into my first apartment. It was one of my first finds at the local Goodwill to help make my small downtown apartment feel more like home. I have always used it to store dry goods. Referring to the great logo chart I found, this jar has only the cursive script Ball logo without a line underneath, which means it was made between 1923 and 1933.
The Jar That Sealed the Deal
I also found a good number of jars from the Kerr Company in my newly inherited collection. I didn’t know much about this manufacturer so I looked them up. I learned in my reading that Alexander Kerr did a lot for canning as we know it today. Not only did he make the first wide-mouth jars but he also invented the two-part self-sealing lids that we all use today! Where would we be without him?
My Commemorative Jar
This jar came to me in the collection from my husband’s co-worker. It is a commemorative jar for the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial. On one side it says “Mason” and on the other it has a picture of the liberty bell and the years 1776 and 1976. I learned that this jar was made by the Anchor Hocking Company of Ohio. If you look at the bottom of the jar, you can see their distinctive logo featuring the H and the anchor.
My “Staples” Jars
I got a whole collection of about twenty of these glass top jars from my mom, who found them at an estate sale. I call them my “staple” jars because I use them to store my dry staple foods like coffee, sugar, rice, beans, couscous and bread crumbs. I have a whole shelf in my kitchen lined with them. I learned that these type of jars with the glass lid and wire clamp were originally manufactured in 1882 as fruit jars. They were also sometimes called “lightening jars” because they were quick to open and close. Obviously they weren’t intended to seal food for long time storage. The ones that I have were made by the Ball Company; so I referred to my trusty chart again to see if I could date the logo. Looking at the logo, I noted that it is in the cursive script, with the line underneath. There is no line leading up into the a. Finally I compared the B to the shapes on the chart, and I decided this jar was manufactured sometime between 1933 and 1962.
My Strong Jars
In the collection I received from my husband’s coworker, there were a number of these Atlas “Strong Shoulder” jars. I learned that these were manufactured by the Hazel-Atlas Company of West Virginia. Their logo is often confused with the Anchor Hocking mark. It has an A under and H. I found a useful chart online that shows how you can even identify which plant a jar was made and from what mold, based on the markings on the bottom. Using this, I was able to determine that this jar was made in Lancaster, PA. From what’s been written about these jars, it seems like they had a lot of issues with cracking during the water bath canning process so maybe I will save these for dry storage.
Writing this article, inspired me to learn about my homestead heritage: the useful everyday items that I will have to pass down someday to my stepsons and nieces and nephews. As this next generation grows up, we need to pass down the food preservation methods and the knowledge of how to preserve food in jars so that they will know what to do with the jars they will inherit. My hope is that they will come to realize the happiness to be found in simple homesteading just as we have. I hope that you, too, have found some encouragement to look up some history on your own off the grid living supplies and to appreciate the pieces that have been passed down to you!
Do you have a homestead heritage that includes glass Mason jars? Let us know in the comments below.