Unpaved Roadshow: Fruit jars helped feed the troops and the nation

In 1809, Napoleon realized that his soldiers on the battlefields were malnourished, due to lack of food storage solutions. Malnourished soldiers are not ideal fighters so, being the consummate pragmatist, he offered a reward of 10,000 francs to anyone who could invent a way to supply his soldiers with fresh food on the battlefield.

Color and closure mechanisms help determine the value of antique fruit jars.North American Glass
Color and closure mechanisms help determine the value of antique fruit jars.

Although glass jars had been used for food storage for centuries, it was Nicolas Appert who answered Napoleon’s challenge. He devised a jar that could be hermetically sealed. After being heated, a vacuum seal would be created, killing any bacteria that lingered in the food product. Ironically, though, it was unknown at the time that bacteria caused spoilage. His invention marked progress, but was too expensive and unwieldy for home canners, pioneers who had to survive bitter winters on stored food. Up until then, they relied on tin cans and soldered them shut to protect their food or on stoneware crocks.

Glass jars revolutionized home canning. The earliest method of preserving food in jars began in 1850 when home canners poured wax over a glass jar and as the wax cooled, a seal was formed. These early fruit jars were difficult to open, however, since the wax needed to be melted or chipped away before the lid could be pried off. (Despite the inconveniences, these wax-sealed fruit jars continued to be made and used until 1910.)

Then in 1858, 26-year-old John Mason came to the rescue with his patent for PP. It freed them from having to smoke, salt or pickle food for winter storage. Urban families used the jars for putting up produce from the bounty of their gardens. These jars were embossed with Mason’s Patent Nov. 30th, 1858. (Collectors should know that just because a jar is embossed 1858 does not mean that it was manufactured then.)

Just after Mason’s invention, scores of companies were vying for a spot on America’s kitchen shelves. In 1861, the Millville Atmospheric Fruit Jar was patented, with its distinctive closure of cast-iron with a thumb screw. The front of the aqua or cobalt blue jar is embossed with Millville Atmospheric Fruit Jar and the back embossing says Whitall’s Patent June 18th, 1861. These are very hard to find and have brought as much as $24,000 at auction.

Some other popular fruit jar inventions include the Lightning jar, patented in 1862. It featured a glass lid with a metal clamp. In 1863, Keystone Glass Works produced the Kline Stoppers, which used a vacuum seal with a glass stopper.

Finally, in 1897 the Ball brothers introduced their Ball jar, which, today, has become synonymous with the Mason jar. They introduced the semi-automatic glass-making machine and built a fruit jar empire. Trainloads of their jars were distributed across the land.

Home canning became vital during the Second World War. On the home front, Americans were encouraged to grow and can their own food, since home canning reduced the consumption of steel and tin, vital to the war effort. After World War II, home canning fell out of fashion, as more profitable farms began to replace the small farm in America. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the rise of the supermarket made safe food conveniently accessible.

As the art of home canning is quickly disappearing from the popular culture, fruit jars have become ubiquitous in decorating schemes and are popular and functional collectables. Collectors of antique examples must be aware that there are reproductions galore of Ball jars and the myriad jars manufacturer between 1850 and 1910. Clear and aqua jars are the most readily available, while colors such as greens, amber, milk, and blue are scarcer and more sought after. There are some clues that can help collectors date their fruit jars. For example, those with a pontil scar likely predate the Civil War. Jars with mold seams, evidence of being machine-made, are post-1895, while the side seams on jars began to disappear around 1915. Purple jars (the color is the result of sun exposure to the manganese dioxide in the glass) were made prior to World War I because during the war manganese dioxide, which was scarce, was replaced by selenium.

Ball jars are sought-after. Changes in the logo design help collectors date their jars.
Ball jars are sought-after. Changes in the logo design help collectors date their jars.

It is easier to date a jar by examining the overall appearance. If the base of the jar has a round ring in it and the lip is smooth, it was probably machine made sometime after the turn of the century but probably before the 1930s. If the jar has a large, rough and jagged ring on its base, it was probably made between 1900 and 1930 when the Owens machine was in popular use. Machine-made jars after the 1930s have a more modern look and frequently have small scars on the bottom indicating they were made on more modern, sophisticated machines.

Jars with rough ground tops were made before 1900. This was the result  of the glassmaker grinding the top to eliminate the “blow-over,” a gob of glass at the top of a jar that was used to attach a blow pipe when the jar was blown by hand into a mold. The blow-overs were removed and the top was then ground flat.

As in the case of most antiques, the better the condition of the jar, the more it will be worth. Chips and cracks will diminish the value of old canning jars significantly while a jar in good condition with its original lid will be worth as much as 50 percent more than a similar jar without the lid.

Jar shape can also make a difference in the value. Square jars, for example, were made by many manufacturers as early as the 1890s, but they were never as popular as the regular canning jars. Being somewhat rarer makes them a little higher in value.

Perusing the internet for antique canning jar values may give the collector an idea of the worth of canning jars: teal half-gallon 1858, $5,000; quart-sized Cadiz jar, $1,000; Vacu-Top canning jar, $5; Ball Ideal Aqua, $24; Millville Atmospheric Fruit Jar, $120.

Antique canning jars are relatively affordable and potentially valuable historical containers. They are pretty to look at, easy to find and fun to research.

Michelle Galler is an antiques dealer, design consultant and realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in Washington, Va. Contact her at antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com.

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