Behind The Spectacular Rise Of The Mason Jar

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"Behind The Spectacular Rise Of The Mason Jar"

Maybe you can’t remember the first time you noticed that your drink came in a Mason jar. It was a drink you had definitely ordered before, a drink that used to come in a normal drinking glass. Now, it’s served in the down-home aww-shucks laid-back vessel-of-the-moment. You were probably at that new place, the one that just opened on U Street, or in the Mission, or on Bedford Ave., or in Silver Lake, or in that part of Hoboken that wants to be Williamsburg. Then you saw them at another bar, another restaurant, another friend’s cozy studio apartment that she hopes will seem “more home-y” and “less cookie-cutter” if she accents her Ikea coffee table with a Mason jar vase.

Surely Mason jars aren’t everywhere. That would be ridiculous. It’s just that you just started looking for them. Their ubiquity is an illusion; you’re a victim of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. This is all in your head.

Unless Mason jars are not in your head. Unless Mason jars are, in fact, everywhere.

There are Mason jars for canning, obviously. There are Mason jars for jam. Then there Mason jars repurposed as lanterns and soap dispensers and tiki torches and iPod speakers. Mason jars as storage for sugar, spices, candy, matches, cupcake liners, loose change. Mason jars at weddings—good God, the Mason jars at weddings, from the cocktail hour to the reception; it won’t be long before the groom stomps on a Mason jar during the ceremony—and engagement parties and bridal showers, and then they return again, at the baby showers, the first birthday parties. Ombre Mason jars, American flag Mason jars, distressed Mason jars, glittered Mason jars. Mason jars on every design blog, Mason jars in all the magazines, endlessly refreshing pages and pages of Mason jars on Etsy, on Instagram, on Pinterest. Go ahead and scroll, scroll until your index finger curls back in on itself in a permanent come-hither bend, and you will never reach the bottom of the Pinterest page of Mason jars. The limit does not exist.

Or perhaps it does. Have we reached peak Mason jar? The signs are all around us: backlash on the wedding blogs, market saturation. Just as this story went to press (went to internet?) the ultimate marker of a trend cresting appeared: a New York Times feature on the Mason jar with the word “Brooklyn” in the lede and three mentions of “millennials.” Can this tool of preservation survive association with so many mocked demographics — the aforementioned millennials, hipsters, brides-to-be — and continue its march to drinking vessel domination? Or is the Mason jar reaching the end of its reign?

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CREDIT: Screenshot from Pinterest

Ball Mason jars have been around for for over a century. Jarden Home Brands has been selling the Ball jars, essentially the industry standard, since it took over the 130-year old business from the Ball Corporation in 1993. It’s all very fitting for a company that produces a such a hipster item: Jarden was into Mason jars before Mason jars were cool. Initially a competitor to John Landis Mason’s jars (more on him later), Ball eventually became to Mason jars what Kleenex is to tissues. The Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Co. started operations in Buffalo, New York in 1884. A fire wrecked the Ball factory, forcing the Ball brothers, of whom there were five, to leave New York and set up shop in Muncie, Indiana.

Jarden’s been selling Ball Mason jars for 130 years. Their most successful year to date? 2013.

Mason jar graphic According to Steve Hungsberg, director of marketing at Jarden Home Brands, “In just the jars we sold last year alone, laid end-to-end, they’d go 90-percent of the way around the Earth.” It looks like 2014 might be the year they circumnavigate the globe: “We’re 13-percent over last year’s figures.”

Hungsberg has worked in consumer packaged goods for his entire career. “I’ve worked in canned soup, frozen pizza, hot dogs,” he said. But he’s never seen anything like the Mason jar frenzy. “I am stunned at how much people love these.”

He attributes the rise of the jars to “a perfect storm of different factors. With the economy taking a nose dive in recent years… people have wanted to focus more on the homestead, [they] want to be more economical and know more about what is going into their food. That plays into this locavore movement: people want to feel good about what they’re doing, reduce their carbon footprint, grow food themselves or get food from local farmers’ markets.” On top of all that, there’s social media. “Take a look at the rise of Pinterest especially, which looks like it was built on a foundation of Mason jars.”

Most Mason jar enthusiasts are women, said Hungsberg, and they typically fall into two categories. “There’s the stereotype, the grandmotherly figure, who has been doing this her whole life and wants to pass it down to the new generation,” he said. The other group is “probably 25-35 age range,” he said, who love food, “want to do what’s best for their family, especially those who have kids,” and are part of “this D.I.Y. culture.” While it might seem like the vast majority of Mason jars are used as cocktail glasses, Hungsberg’s research suggests that “roughly 70-percent of the jars that are being bought are used for canning.” The canning crowd tends to be more rural and suburban, he said, while non-canning usage is concentrated in cities. “There’s no one place i’d say is a hotbed.”

Elements of this widespread passion for Mason jars are a little puzzling. A Mason jar is clunky and somewhat cumbersome; versatile, but also limiting. They can’t be stacked to save space, like Tupperware or drinking glasses that are narrower at the base than at the lip. They’re breakable. They are heavier and wider than the average wineglass. What’s the continuing appeal?

“I think a lot of it comes down to nostalgia,” said Hungsberg. “In times when the economy is not so great, people turn to nostalgic things. It’s appealing to know these enduring symbols. The Ball jars have always been made in America. All of those things are appealing to people.”

As for whether Mason jars will be “over” anytime soon, Hungsberg is betting the jars will stick around. “I think if we were something like Sillybandz, where they just came out and were hugely popular, yeah, the gravy train is probably going to end. But [not] when you’ve been around as long as we have.”

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CREDIT: Jarden Home Brands

It is 1795. The accepted methods of food preservation are pickling, salting and drying—unreliable, unsustainable means for an army on the move. Napoleon Bonaparte, rapidly rising in the French military, does not like things that are unreliable. His troops are more likely to die from scurvy and starvation than they are to die in battle. To ensure his men will have rations they can safely consume, Napoleon offers a prize: 12,000 francs to anyone who can devise a better way to preserve food.

Fifteen years pass before confectioner and distiller Nicolas François Appert claims the cash. Now known as “the father of canning,” he discovers, over the course of a decade, that food wouldn’t spoil if boiled and then stored in airtight glass containers. His lids are made of wax and wire. They are sticky, sloppy, and potentially a breeding ground for bacteria, the kind of bacteria that could kill a person. Not ideal.

It takes almost fifty years for John Landis Mason, a New Jersey native, to patent the design that would endure: a glass jar sealed with a threaded zinc cap and jar mouth. The new model is easy to use and reuse, and is quickly improved upon in 1869 with the addition of a removable rubber ring for a more powerful closure.

Mason’s patent expires in 1879. Canning continues to grow in popularity, but what smarts Mason has in innovation he lacks in business sense. He loses many of his patent rights to competitors and dies, penniless, in New York in 1902.

Over a hundred years later, Ball hosts an International “Can It Forward!” day, celebrating the art of canning and utilizing many a Mason jar to do so. The event is based, of course, in Brooklyn.

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CREDIT: Screenshot from TheKnot.com

Kim Forrest is the wedding style and decor expert at Wedding Wire, one of the largest wedding planning and vendor-to-couples matching sites in the U.S. Before coming to Wedding Wire, she worked at Brides.com. “To be honest, I’m from New York,” and until she entered the world of wedding planning, “I’d never seen a Mason jar before. And now I see them every day of my life.”

The wedding industry is a billion dollar behemoth worthy of ten million think-pieces and trend stories all its own, but for the purposes of this particular take, here are the bullet points. Based on the “Real Weddings” survey conducted by The Knot, the nation’s most-read wedding planning site and magazine, of 13,000 people who were married in 2013, 17-percent of couples described their nuptials as “casual,” up 5-percent from 5 years ago, an increase that brought with it the rise of buzzwords like “rustic,” “D.I.Y.” and “vintage.” More burlap, more itty-bitty pennants, more chalkboard signs, and — you guessed it — more Mason jars.

BrookLandAccording to Jamie Miles, editor of TheKnot.com, interest in Mason jars is so fervent that her site added a specific tag for the jars about three years ago. “Mason jars represent this casual, relaxed feel,” said Forrest. “We’re just going to be sitting around, drinking out of Mason jars… I think Mason jars are very indicative of this casual, ‘let’s all be friends and celebrate’ type of deal.”

The Mason jar look is really a Southern one, said Forrest, that spread with the help of Pinterest and wedding blogs. “People take these regional things and think, ‘I can’t do that!’” She can’t think of another wedding trend that matches the Mason jar in its sheer pervasiveness. “Mason jars are a very special case. In the wedding industry, you just hear Mason jars all the time.”

Some ironies: modern couples tend to want “to express their personalities through their weddings,” said Forrest, by adding touches like flowers from home, food with emotional significance to them, and so on. “It’s not one of these weddings in a box; it’s an event that reflects you as a couple.” Millennials are all sparkly, special snowflakes, and the appearance of extreme individuality even in the midst of the most traditional rites of passage a person is likely to experience must be maintained. (For instance: 20-percent of couples have signature cocktails at their weddings, up from 12-percent in 2008.) Mason jars are a part of that, a way to signal to guests that the couple is “different” from all the other humorless, standard wedding-throwers. But now that Mason jars are everywhere, they inadvertently have the opposite effect: they make a “unique” wedding look like everybody else’s event.

And another thing: everyone wants that D.I.Y. look, but not everyone, it would seem, knows what D.I.Y. stands for. Said Miles, “I think it’s funny when brides or couples do see an idea they really love, they think it’s D.I.Y., but they don’t want to do that. They want to pay someone to do that. So it looks homespun and effortless, but in reality, someone had to do that and spend a lot of time on it.” Rustic weddings “might cost just as much, if not more, than a black tie wedding,” Miles added. “It’s more about the amount of people you’re inviting and what state you’re getting married in.” Get hitched in Manhattan, and whether you toast the newlyweds with Mason jars or champagne flutes, you’ll be set back an average of $86,913.

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Maybe it’s that tension between apparent down-to-earthiness and actual high maintenance that is underneath the growing distaste, at least in certain quarters, for the Mason jar aesthetic. Mason jars inspire the same “stop trying so hard to look effortless” ire that a person could feel while shopping at Anthropologie (where, unsurprisingly, Mason jar products are sold). Knockoff plastic versions that come with mustaches attached to the straws are now available at 7-Eleven; if you can’t decide if you should hate them or not, consider that the announcement shilled these hipster wares as “on-trend Slurpee accessories.”

“It sounds, from our social media audience, that everyone is kind of done with this and doesn’t want to see it again,” said Miles. “I’m looking at one of our message boards right now. Someone posted a question about Mason jars… and someone said, ‘First off, I hate the Mason jar Pinterest fad.’ Someone said, ‘I think that Mason jars have been beaten to death by Pinterest.’”

Contempt for Mason jars seems to be growing outside of the wedding scene, too. The jars inspire both “just stop” and “in defense of” pieces. So who to bet on in this fight between exhaustion and enthusiasm? For all the talk about wanting the jars to go away — “Personally, I hope it will die soon,” said Miles — sales don’t show any signs of slowing. And the outcries handful of spoil-sports (no preservation puns intended) aren’t doing much to slow the craft-happy masses responsible for the 58,000-plus results you get if you search “Mason jar” on Etsy.

Yes, you read that correctly: fifty-eight thousand. And if thinking about seeing one more person pin a Mason jar chandelier makes you want to bang your head against your computer screen, maybe just step away from the internet for a while. Stop hate-reading those design blogs and go grab yourself a drink.

There’s this great place not too far from here. You’ll love it! They serve cocktails in the cutest little jars.

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