Collectible fruit jars preserve the past

As we begin our journey into the 21st century, there are many things we now take for granted that were of great importance to our forebears. One of them is the home canning jar or fruit jar. Although far fewer people are doing their own home canning at the beginning of this century than did at the beginning of the last, the early years of home canning had an effect that touches many aspects of our present life.

It was the perseverance of the 19th-century housewives to preserve food for their families to be used through the non-growing months that brought us to where we stand today in food preservation. Those early fruit jar pioneers paved the way for the tinned and bottled foods that we buy so easily at the supermarket. Many of the jars they used are marvels of engineering. Fruit jar development made it possible for the commercial canners to develop ways to provide us with canned fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be unavailable during much of the year.

Today’s collectible fruit jars were the indirect result of Napoleon’s desire to rule all of Europe – and possibly the world. Food for his armies was a problem as they moved farther from home, finding cattle hidden and crops burned before them. So Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs for the development of a way to preserve foods that could be carried with the invading troops. The prize was won by Nicolas Appert, the father of home canning, who discovered that foods tightly corked in a bottle and subjected to heat by boiling would keep for long periods of time. His work led to the development of the fruit jar as we know it today.

The name “fruit jar” comes from the fruits that were put up in open-top jars and bottles and sealed with combinations of corks and wax. It was the sugar content in the syrup that kept these fruits from quickly spoiling, rather than Appert’s method of destroying the bacteria by boiling. Commercially-made fruit jars date from the 1850s, with the first known patent for an “Improvement In Bottle Fastenings” that was granted to James Spratt, of Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sept. 6, 1853. Spratt’s patent called for a glass stopper to be sealed in the jar mouth with “cement,” or sealing wax. The stopper had a hole in the center through which the steam could escape during the boiling process; this hole was to be stopped with a drop of cement when the processing was complete. It sounds quite feasible for the time, but unfortunately, there are no known examples made precisely to this patent.

One of the earliest jars recognized as a fruit jar is the wax sealer. These jars, which were made in different forms, have a grooved channel around the mouth opening. A tin or pottery lid (in the case of some pottery jars) was placed on the jar with the side walls of the lid descending into the groove. It was then sealed with a hot wax that dried much harder than the later paraffin that was used for jelly. Wax seal fruit jars were made by many, many glass companies over the years, probably up until about 1915, and the wax to seal the jars was still being sold as late as 1929.

On Nov. 30, 1858, John L. Mason received what must be the most famous fruit jar patent known. It was for a disappearing screw thread on a bottle or jar; the raised thread tapers and disappears before reaching either the upper lip or the lower shoulder of the vessel. This patent date was to be embossed on millions of fruit jars, both hand-blown and machine-made, over the next 50 years or so. After Mason’s patent rights expired in 1879, the “Nov. 30th 1858” date became generic on fruit jars made by numerous glass companies.

Jars conforming to Mason’s Nov. 30, 1858 patent, probably with the embossed date, were being made by some unknown glass house as early as June 25, 1859, when an ad for “Mason’s Patent Sheet Metal Screw Top Preserve Jars” appeared in the Pittsburgh Dispatch.

There are hundreds of different “1858” jars, made in sizes from half-pint (extremely rare) to four-gallon (made for exhibition purposes), and their colors range across the spectrum, including clear, sun-colored-amethyst, aqua, green, amber and blue. These colors also come in many shades, such as green-aqua and blue-aqua, light green and emerald green, light honey amber and dark amber, cobalt blue and teal blue, and all the shades in between. Many of the glass companies also added their monograms, initials or other identification to the jars, further increasing the variations. Unfortunately, most of the 1858s found by new collectors will be clear or aqua and of nominal value due to the number still being found. The teal blue half-gallon jar has a market value today somewhere above $5,000; the amber 1858 quart, about $125-$150; and the midget keystone 1858 pint, about $35. Aqua “Mason’s Patent Nov. 30th 1858” quarts, ground or smooth lip, are valued at only about $5 to a collector, and they are often difficult to sell at that price.

In 1870, John L. Mason again hit the mark with his patent for a glass top-seal lid and screw band, granted on May 10 of that year. This “Mason’s Improved” closure, as it was called, was intended to eliminate the taste of zinc picked up by the canned food from the zinc shoulder-seal caps. With this new patent, the food could only come in contact with the glass lid or the rubber gasket beneath it.

The Mason’s Improved jars were also made by many glass companies, both for Mason and by just about everyone when Mason’s rights to this patent were voided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1876. Strangely, their life span was less than either the zinc-cap closure jars or the Lightning-style jars, apparently being dropped by the major glass companies around 1920.

One of the next major developments in fruit jar closures was the Lightning-style glass lid and wire clamp arrangement patented by Henry W. Putnam on April 25, 1882. This closure was actually adapted from a bottle patent issued to Charles de Quillfeldt in 1875. Putnam acquired rights to de Quillfeldt’s patent and adapted it for use on fruit jars. The jars he produced, embossed “Trademark Lightning” on the side, with “Putnam” on the base, gave the generic name “Lightning” to jars that used this closure after Putnam’s rights expired.

Lightning closures can be found on dozens of jars bearing such names as Atlas E-Z Seal, Ball Ideal, Chef, Daisy, Empire and on through the alphabet. Most of these jars are affordable for new collectors, but many can still provide a challenge to find. Lightning closure clear fruit jars were made for home canning by both the Atlas Glass Co. and the Ball Brothers Co. until about 1960.

These closure styles accounted for the vast majority of fruit jars used up until about 1930, but there were plenty of other odd-ball closures patented and produced that bring joy to today’s jar collectors. Everybody, it seems, knew how to build a better mouse trap—or fruit jar—and many of them put their ideas into tangible form. Fruit jars were produced with almost every kind of fastening device imaginable.

Rarer jars and closures are represented courtesy of Jerry McCann’s Fruit Jar Annual. The H&S, the Gilberds, the Van Vliet, the Doane’s, and the Peerless all sport unique jar closures that were marketed, apparently with some small degree of success; otherwise we would find no examples of them today. The jars in today’s collectors’ market represent an extremely small percentage of what was produced 100 years ago. About 21,000 of the glass-screw-capped Cadiz jars were produced in its first month of production in 1884; today the half-gallon Cadiz jar is worth $500-$800 and the quart $1,000. Very few of these old jars survived.

The jar closure in the Stark Jar is the exception to the closures usually found in 1900s jars. The Stark Jar was produced in the late 1920s, but it was never marketed because of the Depression. Some years back a cache of about 1,000 jars that had been in storage for about 75 years was discovered. With its glass lid and flat metal clamp and spring closure, it’s certainly the most picturesque of the 1900 jars. Although most of the offerings of the 20th century look fairly similar, with their screw threads, a nice and challenging collection can still be built from their ranks.

Although the heyday of odd closures and great color variations is past, there are still more modern jars that are quite collectible and just as much fun to hunt for—more fun possibly, for there’s a greater chance of finding a jar from the 1930s or ’40s than there is of discovering an 1884 Cadiz jar in your neighbor’s basement or at a flea market. And, in the end, we should be collecting because we enjoy the pieces we collect, not because of their monetary value. As the very old, desirable antiques of all kinds become scarcer, we have to look to the later collectibles unless we have a very rich uncle to support our habits.

Why not give jar collecting a try? Jar collections can be tailored to fit any budget, and you’ll find lots of other collectors to correspond with. You’ll have an amazing jaunt through the history of canning and preserving and, best of all, you can have a lot of fun building and learning about your fruit jars.

For more information

One of the fascinating things about collecting fruit jars is that you can still add to your collection by perusing the flea markets and garage sales.

The support is there in the form of books and jar columns, and twice a year Muncie, Ind., hosts the Midwest Fruit Jar & Bottle Club’s fruit jar and bottle show, a veritable feast for jar collectors.

Price guides available include Jerry McCann’s Fruit Jar Annual (Phoenix Press, 5003 W. Berwyn, Chicago, IL 60630) and Doug Leybourne’s Red Book of Fruit Jars #8 (Douglas M. Leybourne Jr., P.O. Box 5417, North Muskegon, MI 49445). The Fruit Jar News is a monthly six-page newsletter dealing entirely with fruit jars and their go-withs ($14 per year, FJN Publishers Inc., 364 Gregory Ave., West Orange, NJ 07052).

The monthly column “Fruit Jar Rambles” is carried in the Antique Bottle & Glass Collector magazine (A.B. & G.C., P.O. Box 180, East Greenville, PA 18041).

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