John Landis Mason made preserving food a lot easier
Winter was an especial hardship for early American settlers. It was cold, of course, but perhaps an even bigger problem was the inescapable boredom. A lot of this had to do with the monotonous diet pioneers were forced to adopt. With no fresh crops, their fruit and vegetable consumption was limited to what they could manage to preserve at harvest time.
They dried and pickled produce, or buried it in cold cellars under charcoal, straw, corn husks, or sawdust, which, with luck, would keep pests away. Yet these methods didn’t work for all types of edibles; besides, they often changed the flavor drastically, and in many cases a good portion of the food perished anyway.
Glass jars offered a partial solution. Farm families packed food in them, heated them, and then sealed them. The difficulty lay in obtaining an airtight seal. Corks or paper-wrapped corncobs worked with narrow-mouthed jars, which were fine for berries and peas. Wide-mouthed jars had to be sealed with a layer of wax or lard, which created difficulties. Americans struggled with various unsatisfactory ways of preserving food until John Landis Mason made it easy.
Mason was born in Vineland, New Jersey, in 1832. At the age of twenty-five he moved to New York City and started a metalworking shop, where he built screw-capped cans according to his own patents.
He also began thinking about the problems of food preservation that he had seen while growing up on a farm. He knew that glass was ideal for the purpose—it was chemically inert, impervious to air, easily reused, transparent—and he decided to apply his experience with metal screw caps to the manufacture of glass containers.
What he came up with was a wide-mouthed jar whose threaded neck would accept a glass-lined zinc cap. A rubber ring between the cap and the jar’s rim ensured a tight seal. In his famous patent of November 30, 1858, which contains one drawing and one page of text, the advance that Mason claims consists of nothing more than leaving a small blank space above and below the thread on the jar’s neck in order to make a good seal. This seemingly trivial point is the sole subject of the specifications; perhaps Mason thought that simply combining the glass jar and the screw cap, two familiar objects, would not have been enough to justify a patent.
Mason’s first jars were far from perfect. The caps were difficult to open but easy to bend out of shape, and despite the glass lining, they often imparted a metallic taste to the food. Still, Mason jars were popular from the start, though the Civil War curtailed production for a time and the expenses of hand-blowing limited the market.
After Mason’s patent expired in 1875, some forty to fifty factories began manufacturing the jars. Many pirated Mason’s name for promotional purposes. Most prominent in the expanded business were the five Ball brothers of Buffalo, New York, who introduced salesmanship and research into the field. Frank Ball also invented and patented the first semiautomatic glass-blowing machine in 1898; the process was fully automated in 1903.
In a story all too typical of nineteenth-century inventors, Mason never got rich from his most important patent. In 1859 he sold his rights to a pair of investors, who eventually disposed of them in a series of byzantine financial manipulations. Despite healthy sales, about all Mason got from the deal were some notes that were virtually worthless by the end of the Civil War.
In the 1870s Mason moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, and married, eventually having eight daughters. He continued inventing and received patents on such things as a folding life raft, a baby bottle, a soap dish, a cigar case, and a brush holder. He never prospered and passed his final years as a widower in a New York City tenement before dying of nephritis as a charity patient in 1902.
An estimated one hundred billion glass screw-top containers have been sold since the 1850s under at least four hundred names and variations. For decades many of them were embossed with their inventor’s name and America’s most publicized patent date: “ MASON’S PATENT NOV. 30 1858 .” This is why, for as long as they are sold by Ball or Kerr or Knox or any other company, glass canning containers will always be known by the name of their luckless father.