October 7, 2013

As a home canner and preserver, dozens of jars leave my home every year filled with foods carefully crafted in my kitchen. Yet, hardly any make their way back. Two of my friends are meticulous about returning jars, but others have been very casual (egregiously) disposing of them as I watched. Here we are — a hard frost is not far away, and with it the last of the fresh produce. I’ve got a couple of projects still to complete and I’m scrounging for jars and matching lids. It’s a rag-tag collection, at best. My pantry is replete, swelled with filled jars. The holidays are coming, parties and gatherings where I will arrive with a host’s gift. Sometimes, it’s jars to correspond to the meal. A brunch means jams and jellies. A barbeque calls for pickles. A housewarming means soups and beans, tomatoes and fruit. Sometimes salsa, pickled peppers and chips for an impromptu cocktail hour. And then, sometime in the spring, I gaze at the same shelves and wonder, Where are all those jars?

The Freund Company put together this timeline of the Ball Jar in history which I just LOVE. This year was the 100th anniversary of the Ball Jar and there have been plenty of cool articles, but I couldn’t help but think that the company thrives in good part because no one ever returns the jars. It’s not that I’m cheap, but something about buying those new jars over and over gets to me. I always tell friends to return the jars for exchange. I’ll happily trade a full jar for an empty one.

IMG_1217I’ll admit to rescuing boxes of jars set out for recycling (not quite as bad as dumpster diving,) adopting dusty boxes from neighbors cleaning out the corners of their attic (scavenging) and scouring Craigslist for listings of Grandma’s old canning supplies. Often, those dusty boxes hold a ragtag collection of glass jars ranging from those that held Duke’s mayonnaise, Bonne Maman jams and Welch’s jelly (decorated with the Flintstones), reminding me of the days before everything came in plastic. Many of those are considered unsafe for canning these days, but a few decades ago, people canned in whatever they had. And stored beans and pasta and rice in jars that had contained mayonnaise and tins that had held coffee. It must be hard to imagine, but once there was a world before ziplock bags.

Back to the jars. There are collectors of jars who buy, sell and trade on Ebay. Among the more than 4000 entries are modern and vintage ball jars of all shapes and sizes as well as more unusual shapes produced by Kerr and Atlas, two early jar manufacturers who were absorbed by Ball after a patent dispute. Only some of the vintage jars for sale on Ebay are suitable for canning, but most canners will use them at home only, and wouldn’t dream of giving them away. The antique blue glass jars, and the even more rare green and amethyst colors, were $1 each at flea markets just 10 years ago. Now they sell for $30 and more on Ebay. How do I know all this? I am one of those lunatic collectors. But I have never paid more than $20 for a jar. Scout’s honor. Because that would be crazy.

IMG_1164In addition to the Ebay marketplace, there are 4500 entries on Etsy for handmade products in the ball jar category: items made out of ball jars (e.g. chandeliers, pincushions) items that look like ball jars (greeting cards, coasters, aprons) and items that accessorize the ball jar ( lids with built in flower frogs, sifters, straws.) Some of these items are like outsider art , many are remarkably clever.

And every year, canners go out to buy more cases of glass jars. Last year, Ball saw a 31% increase in jar sales. Every year the cycle begins again. If Ball had asked me what they should do to celebrate their anniversary, I might have suggested a new tagline etched into the bottom of each jar: Return for Refill.


Here’s the pantry. Whew! It’s been a busy summer. Lately, I’ve been cooking from some great new cookbooks and having a blast. More soon.


44 Responses to “so many jars (musings on the mason jar)”

  1. iHeartQuilting

    Your pantry looks great. I just obtained three heavy bushels of apples to use for BBQ sauce, applesauce, and pies, and whatever else we can come up with. I am a fairly new canner, and when I first started, I was given over 3 cases of jars from a woman I had just met at a quilt shop. We were in line for a book signing and started chatting and she discovered I wanted to start canning and I discovered she no longer wanted to do it. So she passed her well-loved jars onto me, and I try to selfishly keep those for our food, since I really like them.

  2. Margot C

    That pantry of jars may be the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a long, long time! You are marvelous!

  3. davebngdave

    I’m looking at your pantry and all I can think of are those high density moving shelve systems in records rooms. You know the ones with the big hand wheels on the ends that allow you to move them apart to create an aisle? (Not to give you ideas or anything. And, yes I zoomed in to see that yours are on wheels.)

  4. sharon miro

    Oh, Cathy. How I can relate. My Mom used to say with each jar: “you had better bring that back.” It must have worked. When she died there were close to 1000 empty jars and nearly that many filled with canned goods. Whole cupboards filled with blue and green jars, some dark amber. Half gallons down to 1/4 pints. She never met a jar she didn’t crave.

    We could not bear to throw any away. 🙂

  5. Sharon O'Connor

    I too have tried to put friends on the exchange program wherein if they would only return the empty jar I would gladly replace it with a full jar. I now only give away my precious bounty to those that have proven that they will consistently return the empties.

  6. Daphne

    I give jars away all the time. I always say if they are going to use the jars they can keep them, otherwise return them. I only have one friend that ever returns them. I’m just hoping the others aren’t tossing them. That would be such a waste.

  7. Zora Margolis

    Your pantry is awe-inspiring. When I first started canning, Jonathan and I lived with several other people in an old farmhouse in Southeast Vermont. There was a door in the big country kitchen that led to a walk-in closet-sized pantry, which I filled with jars of tomatoes, pickles, relishes and many kinds of preserves–many made from foraged wild berries, which I had spent the summer feverishly gathering. (Vegetables from the garden were mostly stored in the freezer.) One of our housemates used to take a chair into the pantry and sit for long stretches, contemplating the jar-filled shelves. He said that it gave him a wonderful sense of inner peace.

    • Zora Margolis

      Also during those years we lived in Vermont, the early 1970’s, we used to go to auctions, and boxes of old pint and quart-sized Atlas, Kerr, and Ball bail-top canning jars were among the antiques in our price range that I liked to bid on. They’d cost anywhere from 5 cents to 25 cents a jar usually. It was still possible to buy the replacement rubber gaskets for them, but most people were getting rid of them and switching over to the new style lid and ring jars. I have used them as pencil jars and flower vases over the years, until the bails get too rusty. There are still boxes of them somewhere up in the attic. I’ll never be able to find them until the next time we move.

  8. Nissa

    WOW!!! So impressive!!! I made 12 jars of homemade goodness this year. As my kids get older, canning gets a bit easier. You are an inspiration–so glad I found this blog.

  9. Gin

    As a culinary professional who is licensed to sell her canned goods at local farmers’ markets, I have found one thing that helps bring jars back to me–I offer 50 cents off another jar for every jar a customer brings back! They don’t have to be my jars (I know the other approved canners, and will accept their jars, too, as they will mine). If a customer brings back 6 jars, they get a free jar of jam of their choice!

    Also, I have a lot of friends, who knowing all of this, bring me the stuff cleared out of elderly relatives’ basements, knowing if I won’t use the jars, I will pass them on to others.

  10. Marilyn Mollinedo

    Great post, I empathize as I get few back too but those folks who return jars are the first to get next year’s products.

  11. Gail

    I know this post was absolutely directed at me, for I have a collection of your jars. But, I have several good excuses as to why I haven’t returned them.
    1. I haven’t driven to DC for an extended visit in quite a while
    2. I don’t think you’d like to shlep a shopping bag full of empty clinking jars & jangling rims with you on the train.

    Rest assured that they are safe and sound here.
    And, God forbid I actually use them to can something.

    • Cathy

      Ha! No, Gail, it’s not directed at you at all! I expect you will, eventually, can something and so your collection of jars will, eventually, be property put to use.

  12. domenicacooks

    This is so interesting Cathy. I have a completely different perspective ~ I never expect the jars to come back. I guess I think of them as part of the gift. But then again I don’t can and give out nearly as much as you do. This summer, one of Scott’s cousins returned several jars that had held jam and pickles I had given her over the last couple of years. I couldn’t believe she had actually set them aside and then remembered to bring them up to the cabin to give back to me.

    As for collectors’ jars, I remember the flea markets in Michigan being full of them. One Christmas another one of Scott’s relatives gave me several beautiful vintage jars. I keep beautiful Lake Michigan stones in a couple of them. But others are down in my storage room. I believe I may even have one of those amethyst ones. Am going to check now.

  13. Cathy

    I’m beginning to realize I sounded crankier than I intended in this post. Like Domenica, I actually don’t expect them to come back, but when they do, I am so happy. And like Daphne, I just hope they aren’t getting tossed. If they are repurposed, that’s great.

  14. Paula

    I would suspect that the 31% increase in sales of mason jars is due in no small part to the information and ideas about canning provided to people through bloggers such as yourself. I am in awe of your pantry and all the work that went into filling every one of those jars.
    I don’t can. Despite all the wonderful information, recipes and tips out there, I’m afraid I’ll do it wrong and poison myself or worse, family and friends!!
    I don’t think you sound cranky at all in this post and I hope that your friends who still have your jars return them. You’ve done a nice thing for canners everywhere who would like to have their jars back. If I was a canner, I would be delighted to have a empty jar returned to me for refill. What a compliment!
    My sister-in-law harvests maple syrup each year. We are gifted with a large bottle every season and when it’s empty we clean and return it to her. We always get it back full!

  15. jwlucasnc

    Two years ago I printed nice holiday greeting tags with a request that empty jars be returned for refill. Didn’t make any difference. I truly do appreciate the friends and neighbors who return the empties. I consider it a real compliment.

  16. HelenG

    What a bounty!

    I have started making clear labels that say “Please return jar to Helen for a refill”. It works like a charm! I just use a clear Avery address label & run them through my printer… Give it a try.

  17. Eve

    all that canning looks great!!! Love it! As for the disappearing jar trick…..when people want to shop in my canning cupboards, my rule is that if the jars don;t come back, there are no refills available next year. It works pretty good.

  18. Becky

    I scored two lovely vintage glass top old school canning jars – one Ball and one Chef jar – at a yard sale this summer. Before I’ve always passed those up in favor of canning jars I could use. They were each $1, so I thought I could use them to store things like candy or maybe even to do some fermenting.

    I find myself purchasing jars to replace ones I’ve broken, because I want try out some new jam recipe only to realize there was a case of the size I needed in the basement hiding and because yes, no one ever returns them.

  19. Amy L.

    I thought about asking for a jar deposit or making everone pay for the jar itself, lol! I love to share what I make, but I am also tired of buying new jars every year. Money gets tight and canning isn’t free. I remind everyone to return the jars, but I think they really don’t care.

  20. Pam B.

    Timeline of the Ball jar in history — I could not find it using the link you provided. I would love to read the story. Can you help?

    AND, I love your shelves!

  21. Eileen

    I am super jealous of that beautiful pantry full of food! We don’t have a pantry at all (uh, do the shelves of soap and tools in the laundry room count?) so I’m definitely dreaming of the day when I too can have more than a couple cabinet shelves full of mason jars. 🙂

    • Cathy

      The metal and glass lids are vintage, as are the zinc lids. I find them here and there. They are not to be used for canning or processing, but are fine for storage.

  22. Judi Otto

    I now give stuff in ziplock freezer bags or take to a party that way..jars aretoo expensive to not get back oruse plasticcontainers cottage cheese, yogert ect they are nice if you decorate them a little

  23. Janet Burgoyne

    I just had this conversation with a friend a week ago. She called to thank me for the amazing jam….that her husband was caught licking out the jar and said “man this stuff is like crack – I am addicted to it, can we get more?” I took this as high praise that the family enjoyed my jam so much. I told her I would gladly give her more, that she should just bring me the empty and I would be happy to trade for a full one. She laughed and asked if I was kidding…that she had THROWN it out. A cut class pattern jelly jar went into the trash – not even recycling….just the trash. She says she was unaware of the etiquette with canning jars….but I am still holding back. I do feel a little crabby about it since we did discuss it when I gave it to her. I know I should (and in my logical mind DO) think of the entire thing as a gift. However if someone is going to ask me for more, they need to help do their part. Ok, rant over. 🙂 I feel better now.

  24. Rebecca Ramilo

    So glad I found your site today! I, too, am a jar fanatic! Off topic, but I am curious about what is canned in the jars in the second picture of this post?

    Now off to explore all your recipes 🙂

  25. Diana Smith

    The supreme find….a complete unopened box of zinc caps! Son and friend cleaning out her grandmas’ Centennial farm basement. Also over 4 dozen 2 qt. blue jars and same in pints. Plus Mom’s canning jars, Atlas strong shoulder….I admit to being a collector.

    My kids ALL know better than to not return jars…basically they fear the loss of their favorite applesauce most! Items to be gifted go in Dollar General jars…have over 45 years of canning and jar collecting under my apron

  26. Paula

    Your pantry looks great. Having gone to two Lowe’s in the past week for half price jars, I have been thinking recently about all the jars I am using and not getting back. I also have a lot of blue vintage jars and zinc lids and wire-bail jars that are enjoying their retirement from canning

  27. Kelly

    I am so envious of your pantry. Great job. I have a couple of shelves in my linen closet stacked high with various jams. I agree with the jars. My sister knows the deal, no empty jar, no refill.lol I tell everyone to return my jars. I made 30 jars of jam for my grandmas birthday party favors last month and I don’t expect people to return those. But under normal circumstances, I better get them back. I hope to branch out next year and do more canning of veggies, relish etc. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  28. Peg

    Would really like to know where you got your shelving. I like the fact that they appear to have a lip to keep jars from sliding off. They also look like they are on wheels. Would love to know.

  29. Mary

    I love that your preserves are so well organized…mine are stashed in cupboards and even in an old commercial fridge that I keep at 60 degrees. I can most of my bounty in beautiful Weck jars and never expect to ever see them again. (and never have)

  30. Tammy B.

    You aren’t crazy…I can and collect…

    I’ve always said: “You can never have too many mason jars”

    You can quote me! : )

  31. Ronda F.

    I’m new to canning and collecting the last couple of years. I still haven’t gotten a pressure cooker to branch out yet (maybe next year). I hunt for jars on my lunch hours during early Winter and into Spring when most people have decided not to can anymore and donate their supplies. Goodwill, thrift stores, etc. I usually pay about thirty cents a jar, but sometimes splurge if there is a vintage one for a couple of dollars for my collection shelf. It’s addicting, I know. 🙂

  32. Margit Van Schaick

    Cathy, you’re very generous in gifting your canned goods. I guess what I’d do is to not give away jars you love, and use plain mason jars for gifts. Or, follow the advice given above: figure that the jar is part of the gift! I think that, unfortunately, there are lots of people who do not recycle. Also, some of your gift jars may still be full because the recipient is too afraid to eat the preserves, or even to open the jar! There’s so much learning needed.

  33. Elizabeth simmons

    Wonderful pantry Mrs W,
    I am a little envious. I am in a transition period with my pantry, it has out grown the two double linen presses that I use, but I have to wait about another 6 months until we do some building extensions, and my old walk through laundry will be my new walk in pantry room….Can’t wait. I live in central NSW Australia and you can see a little of our life on ouraussieoffgridheaven.blogspot.com.au/
    Best wishes


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