Slurpees in mason jars
Authenticity, Repurposed, in a Mason Jar
By CLAIRE MARTINAUG. 16, 2014
Part of Douglas M. Leybourne Jr.’s vintage jar collection. In the 19th century, he says, such jars “meant survival.” CreditAdam Bird for The New York Times
Maybe you’ve sipped a beer from a Mason jar. Or fished out a pickle swimming in brine from one. Or dined under illuminated clusters of them, dangling in chandelier formation, at a restaurant — especially if you dined in Brooklyn.
You might like to use Mason jars to stash your dwindling supply of Cheerios or to chill fresh lemonade. Or maybe the one that’s perched on a glass stem and marketed as the “redneck wineglass” is more your speed. (Not to worry, martini drinkers, there’s a version for you, too.)
But until several years ago, the simple Mason jar was more likely to be found in the nooks of grandmothers’ pantries than on retailers’ shelves. It was salvaged from near extinction by businesses eager for a homespun aesthetic in a sturdy, affordable package — many of them hoping to lure the millennials who have fetishized the jars in photographs on Instagram and Pinterest.
All of this has given a boost to Jarden Home Brands, one of the country’s leading manufacturers of Mason jars. It says that sales of one of its Mason jar lines, Ball brand jars, have doubled since 2001, and that overall sales for the company’s home-preserving products have jumped 25 percent in the past two years.
Eric Prum, left, and Josh Williams created the Mason Shaker, a cocktail shaker that incorporates a Mason jar. CreditOzier Muhammad/The New York Times
Though the Mason jar has become a symbol of hipness, it started as a necessity. In 1858, John Landis Mason found a way to preserve fruits, vegetables and other perishables when he devised a lid that screwed to the threaded-glass lip of a jar over a rubber ring that sealed previously boiled contents.
“A hundred and fifty years ago, these jars meant survival,” says Douglas M. Leybourne Jr., a Mason jar expert and collector, and the author of books in a series called “The Collector’s Guide to Old Fruit Jars.” “You have a house full of people, and it’s wintertime. You couldn’t go down to the store — there wasn’t one.”
Initially, the jars were handblown and infused with substances like iron oxide and cobalt, producing shades of amber and a hue that Mr. Leybourne calls “Vicks VapoRub blue.” (These jars now fetch up to $30,000 apiece on the collectors’ market.) But, eventually, manufacturers dispensed with the colors in favor of a clear view of the food inside.
After Mr. Mason’s patent ran out in 1870, about 500 other jar makers adopted it, including Ball and Kerr, which for decades stamped their glass creations with the date of the original patent — Nov. 30, 1858 — and marketed them as Mason jars.
Billions were sold.
“The demand was incredible,” says Mr. Leybourne, who himself has a collection of more than 2,000 vintage fruit jars.
The jars retained their popularity throughout the early 20th century, with sales spiking during the Great Depression and World War II, when the federal government urged people to cultivate victory gardens so more food could be allocated for the troops.
In the 1950s and ’60s, however, the jars’ market began to fade. “That’s when canning took a turn south,” says Chris Scherzinger, president and chief executive of Jarden Home Brands, based in Daleville, Ind., which currently makes Ball- and Kerr-brand Mason jars.
The culprit was science, specifically refrigeration and the new value placed on mass-produced food made by “men in white coats,” according to Nancy F. Koehn, a historian and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.
The rise of grocery products like Tang, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and TV dinners threatened to extinguish the canning tradition and take down the Mason jar industry as well. Up through the 1990s, “there was a level of, I think you’d say, category maturity, where it was very low or no growth,” Mr. Scherzinger says.
People sought out the comfort and utility of the jars during the Y2K panic of late 1999, when many people feared that computer systems would fail at the dawn of the year 2000, bringing down electricity and water services. Ball-brand jar sales surged that year, but leveled off again when predictions of exploding nuclear power plants didn’t pan out.
The turning point in the recent history of the Mason jar was the start of the recession in 2008. “People stay home,” Mr. Scherzinger says of that time. “They don’t go out as much. They kind of go back to what the core of their roots are.”
At the same time, an aversion to processed food was intensifying. More people became focused on self-sufficiency and eking out as much value as they could from what they bought — and at a reasonable cost. Jarden sells a case of a dozen 16-ounce jars for $11.99 on its website. (Generic 16-ounce jars in the Mason style can go for less: $5.22 on one site.)
Cellia Smith worked on the packing line at a Jarden Home Brands factory in Muncie, Ind.CreditChris Bergin for The New York Times
“Everywhere I look as I study consumers, I see this growing quest for more and more control,” Ms. Koehn says. “Control not only over where stuff comes from and what it’s made of, but how it’s made.”
The personalized food movement, as Mr. Scherzinger calls it, began to emerge. According to him, 82 percent of Jarden Home Brands’ customers have their own gardens, and many patronize farmers’ markets.
“They want to get their hands dirty; they want to be involved in the process, selection and the making of their food,” he says. “And canning is an extension of that.”
The darlings of that movement are members of the millennial generation, and Jarden has aggressively marketed to them. It has stepped up its presence on Facebook — its page has attracted more than 500,000 fans — and its website offers a Pinterest-like look, with boxescontaining product photos, videos and recipes.
Mr. Scherzinger also says the idea of publishing your own content online has parallels to the canning of food products. “It’s a natural extension of the idea of participation and creation,” he says. “I can’t create my own iPhone, but I can certainly create my own food.”
The jars’ revival has also been stoked by entrepreneurs who are incorporating them into product designs. Eric Prum and Josh Williams, two friends who graduated from the University of Virginia in 2008, just as the economy was starting to decline, had been in the habit of storing cocktails in Mason jars for the catering business they started as students. In 2012, they created and began selling a cocktail shaker they called the Mason Shaker.
“The functional side of it is that the Mason jars are heavy in weight, and they can withstand cocktail shaking and muddling ingredients,” Mr. Prum says. Beyond that, the glass is clear, which means that customers can see its contents while they froth up their drinks.
He also liked that Ball-brand Mason jars, which they went on to use, have always been made in the United States. It was a priority to provide jobs to American workers at a time when unemployment was climbing, he said. The two men’s company, based in Brooklyn, has sold more than 100,000 Mason Shakers since its founding, through its website and retailers like Williams-Sonoma, Anthropologie and Sur la Table. The retail price is $29.
But big corporations are also jumping on the trend, stuffing sugary, high-calorie treats into Mason jar knockoffs — and causing some to wonder whether the jar’s 150-year run as a symbol of wholesomeness may be nearing its expiration date.
Red Lobster now serves strawberry shortcake in a plastic version of the jar. And this summer, after picking up on Mason-jar chatter on social media, 7-Eleven began selling a plastic replica outfitted with plastic neon lids and straws as receptacles for its Slurpees. Laura Gordon, vice president for marketing and brand innovation at 7-Eleven, says the jar’s “combination of simplicity and an emotional, fun nostalgia” makes it “a perfect fit for us.”
The Slurpee-filled plastic Mason jar is part of 7-Eleven’s strategy for courting younger consumers. “We really do believe the millennials are striving for a combination of what’s real and also that moment of going a little bit against the grain so they can show their individuality,” Ms. Gordon says. The company sells the jars for $2.99, and she says “they’re going fast.” A recent article on the blog LAist about the 7-Eleven promotion carried the headline “7-Eleven Killed the Hipster: You Can Get Slurpees in Mason Jars With Mustache Straws.”
Mr. Leybourne, who has spent the last 20 years cataloging vintage Mason jars and other fruit jars in his books, isn’t bothered by some of the less conventional uses for the item he calls a functional antique.
“They’re an excellent storage jar,” he says. “I saw a half-gallon one filled with M&Ms.”
To Ms. Koehn at Harvard, the marriage of the solid, built-for-the-ages Mason jar and the scientifically engineered Slurpee is “strangely interesting.” The quest for authenticity in the midst of the digital revolution draws people to the comforting rhythms of home life, she says.
Many people, she says, will “want the damn jar more than they want the Slurpee.”