Mike Lunsford: Canning jars not just a relic of the past

Special to the Tribune-Star/Mike Lunsford These jars are special to columnist: Mike Lunsford has a few old canning jars that might be worth in the tens of dollars each, but he plans to hang onto them. More than anything else, they remind him of the rattle of a pressure cooker, the pop of a jar seal, a homemade gingham apron and the sweetness of bread and butter pickles.

About a week ago, my grandson wanted to see a jar filled with fossils that I keep on an ancient pie safe in what once served as a breezeway. The deep green Ball canning jar I handed to him is one of a half-dozen I’ve filled with Indian beads and Lake Michigan beach stones, marbles and buckeyes. 

Like most people who own a home, I also own a few antique jars, endeared, I suppose, by the countless times I was asked by either of my grandmothers to head to the basement or root cellar to retrieve the tomato juice or peaches or sweet corn they had “put up” in the sweltering heat of their summertime kitchens. 

Home canning was a serious business in those days, and I was expected to lend a hand in the picking and shucking, but I also reaped considerable benefits, and anticipated the harvesting of what my grandfathers had spent so long in the spring to plant and prune.

Before this story spins off into descriptions of the scent of drying apples and curing dill encountered down those shadowy stairways, the aroma of pies pulled from enameled ovens, the gossipy circles formed by my mom and aunt and grandmother as they dragged heavy lawn chairs under shade trees to snap green beans, I need to concentrate on the jars that were eventually filled; they were—and are—remarkably useful things.

“Canning jars were tremendously significant because they ensured survival,” says jar collector and expert, Douglas Leybourne. “In the 19th century, and before, preserving food was a very big challenge, and jars which properly sealed their contents were greatly prized and often used until broken.”

Leybourne’s experience with canning jars began 35 years ago when he attended a farm auction. “There was a big box of dusty, dirty old jars which really intrigued me. I got the box for the tiny sum of $1.50, and had a million dollars worth of fun cleaning them up. From that, I became interested and pursued the hobby further,” the retired financial representative from Muskegon, Michigan, says.

That hobby has led him to take off what Alice Creswick began in 1970, and he’s now compiled five editions of, “Red Book: The Collector’s Guide to Old Fruit Jars,” the latest being the 12th. Leybourne has a personal collection of over 2,000 jars, and says, “I stopped counting 30 years ago.”

Today, re-purposed antique jars can demand considerable prices, particularly — but not exclusively — those manufactured by Edmund, Frank, George, Lucius and William Ball, who got started in Buffalo, New York in 1884. The Ball brothers produced jars more lucratively and abundantly after moving a few years later to Muncie, Indiana, which had a ready supply of natural gas. However, it was actually John Landis Mason who first created a boom in home canning when he patented an “improvement in screw-neck bottles” in 1858. His ingenuity made food preservation safer and more practical, and, within 20 years, many manufacturers were cranking out their own brands.

Despite considerable competition, Ball became the driving force in canning jars, buying out many of its early rivals — including Terre Haute’s Root Glass Company in 1907. Ball eventually produced billions of jars over 80 years.

“Root made jars and other bottle types, and was quite prolific. Some of the most collectible Ball jars are the ones made from Root molds that were obtained in the purchase and altered to read ‘Ball,’ also a four-letter word. Root made a lot of green-yellow jars because of the materials they used,” Leybourne says.

Of course, Ball’s familiar aqua-colored jars may be the most collected, but Leybourne adds, “…green, amber and true blue-colored jars are most likely better. There are exceptions to this also. Colors range the entire spectrum from clear to black olive and opaque.”

Canning jars, of course, are still being made (most prolifically by Jarden Home Brands in Daleville, Indiana), and it isn’t unusual to still see names from bygone days, including Atlas, Kerr, Lamb, Jeannette, Hollieanna, and Anchor-Hocking, among others — still pressed into service; most used universal lids and seals.

Collectors also snatch up canning jars that may have value, but, “Determining age can be tricky,” Leybourne says. “From about 1900 to the present, jars were made on glass-blowing machines. This resulted in the lip of the jars to be smooth. Prior to that, they were hand blown and the opening was ground to resemble fine sandpaper or an emery board to the touch. There are exceptions, but that is the general rule. 

"… Size can be important too. Little half-pints are sought after, and the gallon jars — or larger — are normally very rare, with exceptions. No one specific jar is the rarest.”

So just how much money might be sitting in your basement covered in dust or filled with spiders? Leybourne says that a good number of jars exceed $1,000 in value, and a few exceed $10,000. 

“The so-called ‘holy grail,’ and subject to much debate, are the ‘Cobalt Milville Atmospheric Fruit Jar,’ the ‘Amber Van Vliet Jar of 1881,’ and the ‘Amber Lafayette,’ with a profile of Lafayette [the Revolutionary War hero] on it,” he says.

Today, the jars — or knock-offs of them — are used for everything from cocktail shakers, tea glasses, and candle holders, to simple window sill light catchers. They conveniently hold — whether one has the original zinc-plated and milk glass-lined caps or not — virtually anything, from nuts and bolts and screws to pencils, soap, candy, and cooking spices. And, of course, there are still those hardy gardeners who preserve their own rhubarb, cucumbers, onions and the like.

Although I have a few jars that might bring upward of $10 or so, I plan to hang on to them, and if I’m lucky will fill even more with the talismans of hundreds of hours of rock picking, shell collecting, and fossil hunting. But seeing canning jars, just about more than anything else, reminds me of the rattle of a pressure cooker, the pop of a jar seal, a homemade gingham apron, and the sweetness of bread and butter pickles.

You can contact Mike Lunsford at hickory913@gmail.com; his webpage is at www.mikelunsford.com. Doug Leybourne’s book information can be found at redbookjars.com.  

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