Vintage mason jars can vary in size, shape, color, brand, rarity, and value so let me show you how to identify vintage mason jars. First though, we need to define what a Mason jar is. A Mason jar is a jar, used in the home to preserve foods such as fruits, jams, vegetables, meats, pickles and so on. The Mason jar has a threaded top to allow for a threaded band or lid. It was first invented in 1858 by a Philadelphia tinsmith, John Landis Mason.
Picture below: Quart and pint jars from 1910 through 1976
Various manufacturers made mason jars following the expiration or Mason’s patent. Most of those companies have been bought and absorbed into other larger companies, and many more simply closed down. Up until 1980 one could still find several manufacturers or mason jars, to include Golden Harvest, Atlas, and Presto in more recent years, and Sealfast, Foster, Hero, Acme, and numerous others prior to the World Wars. Most notably though are the Ball and Kerr jars, Ball has been continuously making jars since the 1880’s and is still producing jars today, Kerr has been producing jars since the 1930’s and were also the first to make the wide mouth jar.
So, how do you know if your jar is a vintage jar?
There are many indicators, some more subtle than others. The best way is to look at, what I like to call, the character or the jar, the way it was made. Vintage jars are often thicker and heavier than modern jars, many with thick bases that seem to bulge in the center and thin slightly towards the edges. They are often colored, many in shades of blue, most notably Ball, so much so that many collectors refer to its unique color as “Ball Blue.” However, jars can also vary in colors such as blue, green, amber, purple, clear or milky, and can range from mostly transparent to barely translucent.
Finally, many vintage jars are often riddled with imperfections. Because of crude (by today’s standards) methods of glass manufacture there will be numerous flaws in jars made before World War II, including bubbles, swirls in the color, and imperfections in the embossing. Often times letters or words in the embossing will be flipped backward, shifted off center, or almost too faint to read.
Picture below: Ball quart jars from 1900 through 1933
Alas, be aware, there are reproductions, replicas, and counterfeits jars in circulation. Many counterfeits are made in China, and most are modeled after the rarest jars. However, a keen eye and a little knowledge can go a long way in spotting a fake. Many counterfeits just don’t feel right, the glass may have an oily feel or sheen, and the size won’t match the original and are almost always in the rarest of colors. Often times they will all bear the same mold number, the number found on the base of the jar, the most common being 1171, 851 or 971.
However, Ball has even entered the arena of reproduction jars. From the late 1970’s through the late 1990’s Ball produced reproduction Ideal jars, often a green shade and with small print near the base that states “not for home canning.” More recently however, Ball has introduced their Heritage Collection, mason jars in a shade of blue similar to the jars the company produced in the early 1900’s. Newer Ball jars can be distinguished from those made before 1960 by the style in which the logo is written. All Ball logos prior to 1960, the lower loop of the “B” did not connect to the spine as they did in subsequent years.
Picture below: Ball jars from 1933 to 1959
Finally, how do you know for sure that your jar is a genuine vintage jar? My best advice is to consult a good reference book, The Red Book of Old Fruit Jars, currently in its tenth printing, by Douglas Leyborne, is one almost every collector owns, and is a great tool in determining the value of a vintage jar, rare or common. Julian Harrison Toulouse’s Fruit Jars: A Collector’s Manual is another good reference, with examples of embossing found on many jars from the late 1800’s into the 1960’s.