Good Life

Arts & Antiques | Canning history is glass half full

A 19th century half-pint glass fruit canning jar recently was appraised at $60.
A 19th century half-pint glass fruit canning jar recently was appraised at $60. Photo provided

In the early 1800s, the French military, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, offered a prize to the person who devised a method to preserve food for long periods of time. French inventor Nicolas Appert was responsible for introducing the heat seal process of canning and he won the prize.

Later, glass jars came of age. In the late 1850s, when the Mason fruit jar was patented by tin smith John Mason, everything changed in the world of canning. The Mason jar solved the food preservation problem with the use of a lid and rubber seal. Mason’s patent was for the machine that cut tin into threads, making it easy to manufacture a jar with a reusable screw top lid. Mason’s sealing mechanism — a glass container with a thread-molded top and a zinc lid with a rubber seal ring — was patented Nov. 30, 1858.

With Mason’s method, bacteria were killed by heating the jars in hot water and sealing the jar while still hot. The heat-seal process gave glass jars an important place in the collectibles realm. Today, collectors look for glass canning jars, also called fruit jars for canning and for kitchen decoration in the antiques market.

But if you think one canning jar is no different from another canning jar, think again.

In 1882, Henry Putnam, of Bennington, Vt., invented a glass canning jar that used a glass lid and a metal clamp closure. The jars were called lightning jars because they could be opened in a flash. The glass lids were popular because they did not present as many contamination risks as the common zinc lids.

Many companies produced glass canning jars, including Lustre, Climax, Atlas, Swayzee and Samco.

A Buffalo, N.Y., family named Ball, headed by William Charles Ball and his five brothers, produced paint and oil storage cans. After a fire destroyed their Buffalo facility, the Ball Co. began producing glass storage jars in Muncie, Ind. Like Mason jars, Ball jars soon became a household name. While the majority of glass canning jars sell in the $10 to $75 range, a Ball Perfection half-pint glass fruit canning jar sold recently for $600 at auction.

While Mason and Ball took great strides in the arena of glass canning jars, Alexander Kerr made canning easier with his introduction of wide-mouth, easy-to-fill, self-sealing canning jars. His jars allowed a threaded metal ring to stay in place during the heating process. These jars could be quickly filled and re-used, too.

When it comes to valuable glass canning jars, look for jars in clear condition with no chips or cracks, with the embossed pattern decoration and lettering advertising the origin and maker of the jar, and the original accessory lid, seal ring or clamp.

Happy canning and collecting.