GIF by Lauren Kolm

Mason jars went from relic to Pinterest staple because of a clever marketing push

Eileen Reynolds
January 25, 2018

As a kid the only place I ever saw Mason jars was under the Christmas tree, delicately wrapped in layers of tissue and filled with purple jam made from blueberries my grandparents picked from the briary hills near their place in northern Georgia. By spring, the jam would be eaten and the half-pint jars washed and returned, only to reappear again, refilled, under the tree the following year.

My story is not unique. Maybe your grandmother made jam, too, and if you’re like me, you’ve recently spent at least one holiday-frenzied evening frantically Googling “homemade gifts in jars.” It’s hard to imagine a more remarkable cultural transformation than the one the sturdy, utilitarian Mason jar has undergone over the past decade or so—from a half-forgotten single use relic of a simpler time to a multipurpose accessory so beloved among millennials that it’s become a generational cliché. In addition to finding renewed use in canning and food storage, Mason jars have muscled their way into home décor, become a familiar staple of “rustic” millennial weddings, and—perhaps most infamously—emerged as the vessel of choice for craft cocktails served at the kind of pricey-but-casual farm-to-table restaurant frequented by young professionals in gentrifying neighborhoods across America.

The resurgence didn’t happen automatically or spontaneously; rather, it was the product of a recent, calculated effort by one of the largest manufacturers of Mason jars to break out of the little old lady market and into the social media age. To make the leap to millennial chic, the 21st-century marketers of Mason jars didn’t initially target wedding planners or restaurateurs, but instead doubled down on pushing the jars’ original use: canning.

Mason jars got their name from American John Landis Mason, who patented a glass jar with a threaded neck and screw-on zinc lid in 1858. Confectioner Nicolas Appert, who, during the Napoleonic wars, claimed a 12,000 franc prize from the French government for devising a heat-based food preservation method to prevent deadly foodborne illnesses among soldiers, is widely credited as the inventor of canning. But—being French—Appert originally used champagne bottles, which were difficult to seal securely. Mason’s innovative closure method set off a canning boom, with home cooks finally able to safely preserve foods from their farms and gardens. But his patent expired after just a few years, allowing other companies to manufacture and sell jars using his basic design. The Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company, founded in 1884, was one of the most successful of these, and today the Ball brand is licensed by Newell Brands (formed when the Jarden Corporation—born as a spinoff of the Ball Corporation, was acquired by Newell Rubbermaid in 2016).

The popularity of home canning began to wane in the 1950s with the rise of refrigeration and mass produced foods, and by the 1990s, the Ball brand was in a bit of a rut. Research showed that most home canners were—you guessed it—older women, and that younger consumers shied away from the process because they thought it was too complicated, time-intensive, or even dangerous. But the recession of 2008, coupled with growing suspicion of industrial agriculture and renewed interest in eating local, provided an opportunity. In 2010, Jarden hired the ad agency Barkley to revamp the Ball brand’s image, targeting millennials in particular through Facebook, Pinterest, and a redesigned website, freshpreserving.com, that features step-by-step canning guides, pleasing photos that show the product in action (users can upload their own alongside the professional shots), and even a “pectin calculator” that spits out customized recipes.

Photo by Sorin rechitan via Getty Images

Crucially, Barkley based its influencer-focused advertising push on research finding that, compared to other shoppers, millennials are more likely to consult friends, family, coworkers, and online reviews when making purchasing decisions, and more likely to post about products they’ve bought afterward. They enlisted Martha Stewart to plug Ball products on her show, and in 2011 launched a social media-friendly National Can-It-Forward Day that featured instructional videos live-streamed from Seattle's Pike Place Market and instructions for holding canning parties at home. For those who still weren’t convinced, 2012 brought the introduction of the Ball Brand FreshTech Automatic Jam & Jelly Maker, which cooks and stirs together jam for you in just 30 minutes—all you have to do is dump in the ingredients.

Barkley called the campaign “Shine Through,” after the idea that Ball brand canning products could be a vehicle for expressing personality and creativity. The craziest part about this strategy is that it worked perfectly. Soon, Jarden (now Newell), which doesn’t release exact sales figures, was boasting of the best years in the history of the Ball brand, with enough jars sold annually to encircle the Earth. Of those, 70 percent were used for canning, with the remaining 30 percent presumably going to other “creative” uses, from salad transporters to chandeliers.

Though much has been made of a perceived millennial preference for old timey products and processes, Barkley partner Jeff Fromm, who wrote about the Ball reboot as a case study in his 2013 book Marketing to Millennials, told me that he doesn’t believe nostalgia or its corollary—an obsession with seeming “real” or “authentic”—are primary drivers of Mason jars’ newfound popularity.He insists that it’s the “self-expressive” possibilities of the Mason jar—it’s a relatively inexpensive blank canvas for customization and personalization—that have made it ubiquitous in millennial homes.

Photo via Istock/Getty Images

That makes sense when you think about Mason jars as wedding party favors or soap dispensers or radios, but Fromm says even canning itself can be seen as an act of self-expression. “The reasons for canning have evolved,” Fromm says. “Historically, it revolved around big-batch preparation and storage needs for food to be eaten later.” But now, instead of putting away enough summer vegetables to last a whole winter, home canners, especially in urban environments, are turning to Mason jars for very specific, small-batch needs—pickles for a particular dinner party, say, or cherries for a certain cocktail.

Brent Reams, an assistant public relations manager at Newell Brands, told me that, according to a recent survey, more than half of Americans have at least one Mason jar in their homes. “Home canning is still the primary usage,” the survey found, “but there is also an increasing interest in using Mason jars for beverages (36 percent of jars sold), food storage (46 percent), and décor and crafting (29 percent).” Surprisingly, Reams also said that the Ball brand team has not geared marketing efforts at the restaurant industry, which makes charting their path to your neighborhood gastropub—compared to figuring out how they ended up at your cousin’s Instagram-worthy farmhouse wedding—somewhat less straightforward. But the company did release Mason jars with handles in 2014 (the better to drink with, one assumes).

According to the Georgia Humanities Council’s New Georgia Guide, the now mostly-defunct chain Po’ Folks Southern restaurant chain, a pioneer of mass-produced “home cooking” founded in 1975 and named after Bill Anderson’s country song of the same name, was serving iced tea in Mason jars as early as in the 1980s—presumably because that’s what “po’ folks” were thought to do at home. Other nostalgic Southern places going for a homey, just-like-your-mama’s-kitchen vibe undoubtedly brought out jars a decade or two before the trend made it to, say, San Francisco. But what allowed Mason jars to make the leap out of Southern kitsch—or did they ever, really?

In Soul Food, African American culinary historian Adrian Miller writes that in poor households where cups weren’t available, drinks like red Kool-Aid were often served in a “washed out, used jelly jar.” But when I asked Miller about this possible link to the present-day fad for cocktails in jars, he clarified that most of the people he spoke with in his research were referring not to Mason jars families had on hand for home canning, but rather store-bought vessels for factory-made spreads. And although some “upscale” African American restaurants may have embraced the Mason jar trend, his research suggested it definitely wasn’t something that started with black cooks. “Your typical soul food joint is going really cheap—it’s just a lot of Styrofoam, plastic, and paper,” he said. “Mason jars would just mean more dishes to wash and more expenses for the restaurant.”

In an era that’s also brought the rise of artisanal moonshine, isn’t there something icky about higher-end restaurants imitating habits once adopted out of poverty? What would someone raised in a household where glassware was out of reach make of being served a $15 cocktail in a Mason jar? “I can’t remember anyone ever really groaning about it,” Miller said, noting that the practice is now so common that it elicits more of an eyeroll than charges of cultural appropriation. “At most it’s this annoying thing, in restaurants going for a kitschy hillbilly aesthetic—the equivalent of a barbecue joint with license plates on the wall,” he said. “They think it’s what people want.”

In retrospect, 2013 was probably when Mason jars, especially those used for drinking, crossed over from hip to cliché. That year, Jarden released blue “vintage-inspired” Ball brand jars, the first in its limited-edition “heritage collection” celebrating the Ball brothers’ 1913 release of the “perfect jar”—a three-piece jar, lid, and band set all made by the same manufacturer. In The New Republic, essica Grose identified the Mason jar craze as a symptom of a culture of DIY shortcuts that devalue real expertise, and Country Living issued a rebuttal that defended the “homemaking hack”-inspiring Mason jar as a “true icon, not just of country style, but of made-in-American ingenuity.” Food critic John Kessler and chef Hugh Acheson feuded on Twitter about whether cocktails should be served in jars in restaurants; when Kessler complained about the practice, Acheson called him “crotchety,” and Kessler followed up with a column in the Atlanta Journal Constitution arguing that the jars were difficult to pick up with one hand, and that the thick curved edge interfered with appreciating the nuances of a cocktail. (Acheson was tapped, perhaps not coincidentally, to host the Ball brand’s Can-It-Forward Day at the Brooklyn Borough Hall Farmers Market in New York City the following year, and both men were later interviewed for a 2015 Southern Foodways Alliance podcast about Mason jars.)

But even if Mason jars peaked, they didn’t go away. In the Acheson-Kessler debate, I know that the Acheson position—that it’s what inside the container that counts, and only snobs get worked up about glasses—is the correct one. But I have from time to time found myself drifting into the Kessler camp.

In Brooklyn, where I live, the places most likely to serve you a drink in a Mason jar aren’t necessarily Southern or particularly nostalgic. What unites them, more than any particular cuisine, is that they are what I call “Are you familiar with how we do things here?” restaurants, after the question the friendly server poses with an overbroad smile. They’re asking because if this is your first time visiting, there’s really a lot to explain, from the provenance of various ingredients—from the garden out back or the farm upstate—to the unusual size of the dishes, which are large and meant to be shared, maybe, or else small enough that you’ll need to order a lot of them. I keep coming back to ad executive Jeff Fromm’s point about customization and self-expression: Are millennial restaurateurs, like millennial dinner party hosts, turning to Mason jars to show off what is special and different about the experience they offer?

photo by naomi rath via getty images

Remember that even if your aesthetic is rustic, doing things just so comes with a cost: The Knot.com’s Real Weddings survey reported a surge in spending in 2016, and attributed the rise to couples “splurging on personalization.” In restaurants, of course, the guests foot the bill. And in the “Are you familiar with how we do things here?” place, the savings from using Mason jars instead of glasses and Kraft paper instead of tablecloths aren’t passed on to you, and in addition to paying a premium for heirloom tomatoes and house-made cocktail bitters, you’re also asked to invest time and energy in processing the restaurant’s personal narrative. Mason Jars have become part of a shorthand to indicate care and craft, personality and attention, even when the restaurant doesn’t necessarily invest in those things. They’re meant to signal that you’re someplace where the cooks might can a small batch of something just for you, even if they’ve done no such thing. It’s a remarkably fussy use of an object once known for a kind of dowdy practicality—and, personally, I’d prefer a pint of somebody’s grandmother’s surplus jam. 

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