I don’t know when it started.  All at once, they were everywhere.  The shelves of the hip bar downtown.  The tables of the vegan restaurant next door.  Every wedding centerpiece ever.  The farmers’ market.  By the bulk boxful at Meijer and Hobby Lobby.  Even in my kitchen cupboards.  Had we all suddenly discovered a passion for canning and preserving, or was something else going on?

Mason jars have become ubiquitous in our generation.  What started as a simple but important method for preserving food in previous centuries has been transformed into everything from a gift to a gardening tool.  Take a quick glance at the “mason jar crafts” Pinterest page and you’ll discover you can make the following new and exciting items from a plain old glass jar:

Soap dispenser, homemade brownie mix container, pencil/pen holder (decorated with ribbon and paint, of course), hillbilly wine glasses, vessel to bake “jar cookies,” vessel to carry individual servings of pasta salad to a picnic, candle holder, actual candle, vase, terrarium, salad in a jar, piggy bank, homemade lotion container, and chandelier.

I get it.  These jars are multipurpose, conveniently sized, affordable, and even pretty pleasant to look at.  But now that everyone and his mother uses them to serve cocktails and curl their hair, I think we have to put them under the microscope.

I think it started with the do-it-yourself phenomenon.  Were I an anthropologist or economist, I might be able to say with certainty that the recent recession inspired us all to make our own throw pillows out of repurposed curtains, but I’m not.  So I’ll just suggest it.  In our eagerness to save money, we’ve resorted to using the same cheap object for everything.  Need a cup? Mason jar.  A place to store change? Mason jar.  A McGuyvered speaker for your iPhone? Mason jar.

We millennials also love to recycle.  Al Gore has thoroughly convinced us that the polar ice caps are melting, so we’ve become belligerent recyclers.  We refuse to buy Styrofoam and collect bottle caps and can tabs along with the containers themselves to recycle at parties.  So this trend of turning something ordinary and frequently used—a glass jar—into something else useful seems like a great idea.  Why buy drinking glasses when you can use washed out jam jars?  But the problem comes when crafters specifically buy entire cases of these canning jars to make teacher care packages for their kids’ school.  Wouldn’t it be more earth friendly to use the old pasta boxes and tin cans from your recycling bin?  We’ve commoditized one specific recycled item and made it a trend, something that can be used to show that one is “hip” or “in the know.”

The mason jar doesn’t try too hard. We love this. It’s a simple thing, really, just a glass jar with an imprinted brand name and a lid that screws on.   It lends an air of casualness to our dinner tables and desks.  It allows us to say “that old thing? I picked it up at a flea market.” It fits in perfectly with the new natural chic wedding trend.  We pick wildflowers and cover tables with burlap, then serve vegan cupcakes accompanied by fair trade coffee in mason jars.  We love to give off as unstudied an air as possible because it’s not cool to care too much (unless it’s caring about recycling, of course).

But what really draws us to mason jars, I think, is their connection to the past.  My mom and grandma and aunt have been making and canning salsa for as long as I can remember, and in recent years I’ve started to join in instead of watching from the sidelines.  Last weekend, as we worked to chop peppers and skin tomatoes and boil the mixture and heat up the jars, I was brought back to an earlier age, one where no one had a cell phone and Netflix wasn’t an option for avoiding social interaction.  Mason jars encourage us to sit around a fire and hear a good story or discuss politics without the protection of a keyboard.  They urge us to spend half a day with a friend in the kitchen preserving the bounty of summer.

But somehow, even that innocent act of canning food has become hip.  Millennials demand homemade, organic, GMO-free, heirloom tomatoes that have been picked by somebody’s grandfather and then sent across the farm to the kitchen table.  And then we eat them alongside an eighty-nine cent box of pasts from Meijer because it’s cheap and we don’t want to care too much.

Wallace Stevens knew the power of a mason jar, too. His poem “Anecdote of a Jar” is said to be based on an old brand of jar called “dominion.”

I placed a jar in Tennessee, 
And round it was, upon a hill. 
It made the slovenly wilderness 
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it, 
And sprawled around, no longer wild. 
The jar was round upon the ground 
And tall and of a port in air. 

It took dominion every where. 
The jar was gray and bare. 
It did not give of bird or bush, 
Like nothing else in Tennessee. 

Perhaps in our effort to not care, to be casual and earth-friendly and resourceful, we’ve ruined some of the very charm and earthiness that draws us to mason jars. Are we taming the wilderness with our craft glue and brownie mixes?

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