Among the Christmas splendor at the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village is a village-wide display of antique Mason jars. These jars revolutionized home food preservation when New Jersey-born John Landis Mason patented the jar in 1858.
Prior to that, cork-and-wax contraptions were the only thing available to seal food often defectively and opaque jars made the contents invisible. In contrast, the Mason jar's threaded neck and screw-on lid formed a seal as hot liquids cooled. What's more, Mason jars were made of a manganese-bleached glass and were transparent, allowing someone not only to see what food was inside, but also whatever might be going on inside the bottle that could render its contents unsafe.
Sadly, Mason assigned his patent rights to another company and died a pauper while the invention that bore his name helped spark a home canning revolution that lasted until the 1950s.
Mason jars on display in the Old Bailey Store. Different sizes, shapes, and colors, they’re often used now to store pencils, buttons, or seashells.
"During Sanibel's farming days, I'm sure these jars were widely used," said museum manager Emilie Alfino. "The island was known all over for the quality of its tomatoes, which are a natural for canning. And sea grape jelly would have been preserved as well."
By the early 20th Century Mason jars became widely available thanks to the Ball Corporation, an early and prolific manufacturer of the jars. This ready availability of Mason jars allowed settlers and housewives around the country to preserve hundreds of quart and half-gallon jars of everything from green beans to peaches, to store in basements and root cellars.
Victory gardens during World War II revived the nation's use of Mason jars. Between 1939 and 1949, Americans bought more than three million canning jars. The glory days of the Mason jar faded fast as Americans left farms for suburbs. Soon, refrigerators and freezers changed everything, and so did supermarkets.
Original Mason jars are collectibles today, although so many were manufactured that it tends to reduce their value.
Will Mason jars see a comeback as more people turn to organic farming and healthful, natural living? Historian Andrew Smith, in a recent issue of Makers magazine, was asked if he considered this a mass movement, to which he answered, simply, "No."
The Sanibel Historical Museum & Village, 950 Dunlop Road, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
The Museum Gift Shop carries a variety of gifts for children, including coloring books and paper dolls, replicas of Confederate silver and Union gold, and more. In addition, the gift shop carries sailor's valentines, pine needle baskets, and handmade aprons in adult and children's sizes plus aprons to fit American Girl dolls.
All the merchandise in the museum store is made in America.
The village operates as a nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve, protect and share the island's history. Admission is $5 for adults over 18; children and members are free. For more information call 472-4648 or visit www.sanibelmuseum.org.