Before a New Jersey-born son of a Scottish farmer named John Landis Mason patented his jar in 1858, home-food preservation was a tricky affair. Modern heat-based canning, pioneered by a Frenchman in 1806, was too cumbersome for most home cooks, many of whom relied on cork-and-wax contraptions to seal food, often imperfectly, into vessels whose opaque walls rendered the contents invisible.
The Mason jar was different. With its threaded neck and screw-on lid, “the canner could form a seal as hot liquids cooled,” writes Mary Ellen Snodgrass in The Encyclopedia of Kitchen History. Mason jars, made of a manganese-bleached glass, were also transparent. “Being able to see what you have on hand and what’s going on inside the bottle, that’s what’s really important,” says Megan Elias, the author of “Stir It Up: Home Economics in American Culture.”
Mason never capitalized on his success. He assigned his patent rights to another company and died a charity case — the invention that bore his name helped spark a home-canning revolution that lasted until the 1950s.