Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Put a Lid on It: Canning Jar Closures in Pennsylvania’s Archaeological Record

While home canning has recently seen a rise in popularity, its peak was during the mid-20th century. Promoted as an economical way to make produce available throughout the cold winter months, home canning was a common household practice that has been frequently recorded in the archaeological record of historic domestic sites. Historically, Pennsylvania has been an important center for glass manufacture due to its richness in natural resources, and several canning jar and lid manufactures had production centers within the state. The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Section of Archaeology curates archaeological collections from across Pennsylvania, including many examples of home canning supplies recovered from archaeological contexts. Due to the fragility of the glass containers, the most frequent examples of complete items from the archaeological record are the glass lids or lid liners that were used to seal the glass jars.  

The story of home canning begins in 1795 when Napoleon Bonaparte (yes, that one) offered a reward for a new method of preserving food with the intent that it help provision French troops while at sea. Nicholas Appert, a French inventor, and scientist won the award in 1809, launching a new era in food preservation. His work can be found published as The book for all households; or, The art of preserving animal and vegetable substances for many years.

During World War I and World War II, advertising campaigns promoted home gardening and canning to supplement wartime rations and to make the best use of household victory gardens. The classic 1948 children’s book Blueberries for Sal calls to mind the adventures of young Sal as she accompanies her mother to collect blueberries for canning.

This 1918 poster was created by Leonebel Jacobs for the National War Garden Commission to promote home gardening and food preservation during World War I.

Early canning jars utilized corks or wax seals. They were difficult to seal and prone to spoilage, leading to illness or death for those with the misfortune of consuming the contaminated contents. A major advancement to canning jar technology came when John L. Mason of New York patented the Mason Jar in 1858.

Below are a few of the canning jar styles that have been identified at archaeological sites in Pennsylvania.

This Ball Perfect Mason jar (left) would have been sealed with a rubber gasket (visible), a glass lid liner (right), and a metal screw top lid (not shown). (photos: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

The Ball Mason jar can probably be considered the quintessential canning jar, although the lids have undergone some improvements. The white milk glass lid liners shown above would have been placed inside a solid metal lid and accompanied by a rubber gasket. Unlike today’s canning jars, these solid metal lids remained in place when the jar was stored. The jar shown here dates to between 1910 and 1923. The dates for Ball Mason jars can be determined by the style in which the word “Ball” is depicted. The small lid (upper right), manufactured by the Hero Fruit Jar Co. in Philadelphia, was made between 1884 and 1909.

These lids were used with lightning style closures. The raised area atop the lid provided a place for the wire closure to securely rest. (left photo: public domain, right photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania. 

Jars with a lightning closure also called “wire bail type” used a hinged wire to firmly hold the lid to the jar with a rubber gasket used to form the seal. Although this closure had been in use on other bottle types at earlier dates, Putnam received a patent for the closure on wide-mouth jars in 1882. These jars remained popular into the 20th century.

This style of canning jar may have been used with an open-top style metal lid. The lid on the left bears a cross used by the Hero Glass Works of Philadelphia. (left photo: courtesy of John Whitley, right photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

Another style of canning lid closure that was popular in the late 19th century utilized a glass lid that could be used with an open top style metal lid and resembling the metal lid rings used today. A cross, attributed to the Hero Glass Works of Philadelphia or its successor The Hero Fruit Jar Company, Pennsylvania, appears in the center of the left lid shown in the image above.  The Hero Glass Works was in operation from at least 1856-1884 before its name was changed to the Hero Fruit Jar Co, which operated until 1909.


During the late 19th and 20th centuries, several Pennsylvania glass manufacturers came and went, and frequently, companies had several regional manufacturing plants. Unfortunately, their products were not always marked in such a way that they can be definitively linked to a particular manufacturing site. What we can see from the archaeological record is the widespread popularity of home canning and the different styles of jar closures that were used over time.

We encourage you to visit the on-line collections of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to see additional examples of artifacts from Pennsylvania’s past.




Lockhart, Schriever, Lindsey et al

n.d.            Henry W. Putnam and the Lightning Fastener. Society for Historical Archaeology. https://sha.org/bottle/pdffiles/HenryPutnam.pdf, accessed 2/15/2023.


n.d.            The Hero Glass Firms. Society for Historical Archaeology. https://sha.org/bottle/pdffiles/Hero.pdf, accessed 2/15/2023.


United States Department of Agriculture

n.d.            Canning Timeline Table. https://www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/ipd/canning/timeline-table, accessed 2/15/2023.


Toulouse, Julian Harrison

1971            Bottle Makers and Their Marks. The Blackburn Press, Caldwell.


Weiskircher, Joan

2003            Hazel-Atlas: A Home-Grown Corporation. West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, VOL. XVII, NO. 2, April, 2003. https://archive.wvculture.org/history/wvhs/wvhs1721.html, accessed 2/13/2023.

For more information, visit PAarchaeology.state.pa.us or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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