Oct. 06--Visiting stores and restaurants all week for my job, one object keeps popping up all around me. Mason jars are suddenly everywhere, and well beyond simply storing food.
The humble glass jar with the screw-on lid is enjoying a bona fide bonanza of hipness. For a long time, there have been Mason jars of water at upscale/farmstand-style restaurants. Now I'm seeing Mason jar-style candles and Mason jars of soap/lotion at Bath & Body Works. There are Mason jar chandeliers at Pottery Barn for $319.
When I toured the new West Elm store in Hyde Park Village, and this is not a joke, there was a Mason jar martini shaker.
Sure, some of this Mason-ethos renaissance derives from mega-companies capitalizing on the well-established hipster and urban farming movement of home pickling, digerati-style self-sustainability and localvore cultural philosophy. One could hardly live in Brooklyn without having a microgarden and backyard chickens to make single-batch mayonnaise in Mason jars.
What strikes me is the cultural feedback loop to all this.
Here we have an object of through and through utilitarianism -- the Mason jar -- that was patented in 1858 by John Landis Mason as an easy alternative to high-temperature canning of vegetables. Mind you, this was during an age well before artificial refrigeration, so if you found something to eat like beans or bread, you better eat it fast before the worms and mold got to it. Yet canning was mainly available to industrial-scale food companies, and even then the cans every once in a while might kill you with botulism if the wrong bacteria invaded the seal. You could practice canning at home, but God help you if good old Aunt Betty found out you forgot to label which tin can was peaches and which was peppers.
So, back in the mid-1800s, when Lincoln wasn't yet president, our friend John spotted an opportunity. With transparent glass jars and reusable lids, farmers and home cooks and moms could collect food in season and store it visibly for unscrewing any time of the year.
And for a century, the Mason jar symbolized self-sustainability -- which in turn became almost a code-word for "poor," after millions of Americans drove mass-produced cars to the suburbs with abundantly stocked grocery stores. The 1940s onward was an age of jets designed by William E. Boeing and Xerox copiers designed by Chester Carlson and futuristic architecture designed by Le Corbusier. "Canning" meant you lived on a farm somewhere and not in Levittown.
What would James Bond or Frank Sinatra think of a martini shaker made from a Mason jar?
For the past decade, Mason jars have existed almost exclusively as a rural artifact or homespun tool to save money or store your moonshine. How then did the jars become hip enough for Martini shakers in Hyde Park? Perhaps it's the wealth-induced delusions of those who drive a Mercedes to the farmers market and have Botox injections while advocating we should all eat organic.
Though an actual set of a dozen Mason jars costs $9.87 at Wal-Mart, a single Martini Mason jar shaker at West Elm costs $29, gin or vodka not included. (For a cheaper option, just take a screwdriver and stab a few holes in the metal lid of a real Mason jar, voila!)
I experienced an intense cultural Mason-jar feedback loop this summer when I visited Amish country in Ohio and saw home cooks would clean out their Mason jars, then turn them upside down and put them on fence posts around their gardens. The intense summer sun would generate enough heat inside the jars that the fence posts would actually char -- perfectly sanitizing the jars.
Perhaps this Mason jar resurgence is harmless quirkiness and entertainment. I know a few directors of modern art museums who would get a kick out of putting a Lite Brite on their desks as a conversation starter.
To bring the feedback loop full circle, the pickle company Vlasic just introduced a retro-style Mason jar with a mixture of pickles and carrots and roasted peppers. So, to be clear, a company that makes millions of jars of mass-produced pickles is now tr