Ball Canning Jars—Introducing a Flyover Institution

I’d bet if you asked average people or, in Lake Wobegon, above-average people, to describe the typical activities of Midwestern women, there would be a good chance that “canning” would appear on someone’s list. Midwesterners are all farmers, right? And farmers’ wives can the bounty of their gardens, putting up for the winter, right?

Well, let me clarify some points here. First, there ARE many farmers in Flyover County (Midwest and Plains), but the population is, nonetheless, largely urban. In fact, of the US states that have rural-majority populations (i.e. urban populations LESS than 50%), not one is in the Flyover States.1 Maine (38.7%), Vermont (38.9%), West Virginia (48.7%), and Mississippi (49.4%) are outside Flyoverlandia. Second, yes—lots of Flyoverians can. As do many in other parts of the United States (and the world!) In fact, Brooklyn (you know, that borough of New York that is rapidly becoming New York City’s Billionaire Playground Number Two) seems to require new residents to either can artisanal pickles or be in a band. So canning—which I do—is not limited to the middle of the country. Across the country, many of us are channeling our inner farm wives to produce and preserve the fruits of our (or someone else’s) labor—hot Hungarian pepper slices from my garden, relish from radishes found at the farmers market, local and organic strawberries transformed into a jam enhanced with vanilla. Yes we can.

BUT, there IS a Flyover Connection to modern-day canning—the Ball&#174 Mason jar. The Ball Brothers (George, Lucius, Edmund, William, and Frank) did not invent home canning jars (that distinction belongs to Philadelphia-area tinsmith John Landis Mason), but they were largely responsible for producing and popularizing them. The five brothers went into business together in 1880, buying a company and manufacturing metal cans before switching to glass jars after the expiration of Mason’s patent on the technology. Originally, the factory was located in Buffalo, New York. A desire to expand and take advantage of East Central Indiana’s gas boom sent the brothers to Muncie, Indiana; to entice the Balls to set up a factory in Muncie, the local community sweetened the deal by offering land, a gas well, and railroad access. The rest is history (well, everything up until then was history too).

Ball Corporation, which eventually went public in the early 1970s, was headquartered in Muncie until 1998, when it decamped for Broomfield, Colorado. And today, Ball no longer manufactures the iconic fruit jars, instead having licensed the brand to Jarden Home Brands. In fact, Ball Corporation is now a part of the aerospace industry, not the headspace2 industry. But for many of us here in Flyover County, canning means Ball!

1Source: 2010 Decennial Census, United States Bureau of the Census

2Headspace refers to the space between the food and the top of the jar required during the canning process. This is necessary to allow for expansion while the can is in a boiling water bath. Too little headspace may interfere with the sealing process and/or may result in the jar’s contents seeping.