Napoleon Bonaparte and the Evolution of Canning Jars

To keep his Grande Armee fed, healthy, and moving, Napoleon needed a variety of preserved foods that were easily transported, so he offered a prize to anyone who could develop a practical means of preserving large amounts of food for the army.

Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with saying “An army marches on its stomach.” Apparently, “The Little Corporal” learned this lesson the hard way. As an officer in the French Revolution, Bonaparte was able to feed his troops by foraging the countryside. When he began invading neighboring countries, he learned that his army had grown too large to survive by foraging. Re-supplying his troops across great distances and poor roads was difficult, and food spoiled too quickly to carry enough to feed his soldiers.

Hunger was constant. Napoleon’s valet Louis Constant Wairy wrote in his memoirs: “One day, as Napoleon passed a column of infantry, a hungry Polish solider cried out, ‘Papa, kleba’ (father, bread!). The general replied ‘Nie ma’ (there is none).”

To keep his Grande Armee fed, healthy, and moving, Napoleon needed a variety of preserved foods that were easily transported; the usual methods of drying, smoking, or pickling weren’t practical for many foods. So, he held a contest and offered a prize. He instructed the Directory – the French Executive Branch – to offer a prize of 12,000 francs (roughly $50,000 USD in 2018) to anyone who could develop a practical means of preserving large amounts of food for the army.

Nicholas Appert

The prize was not claimed for fourteen years. In the early 19th Century, little was known about bacteriology. There was only one published work on food preservation (1780), by Italian biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani; Louis Pasteur wouldn’t patent his sterilization method (pasteurization) until 1865.

Appert cooked food in wide-mouth wine bottles, and through trial and error determined the suitable cooking time to preserve various meats and vegetables.

French chef and confectioner Nicolas Appert knew how to brew beer and make pickles and had a rudimentary knowledge of the effects of heat on fermenting yeasts. Determined to win the prize, he experimented with various heating methods and containers, and eventually adopted the “steam digester” method invented by French physicist Denis Papin in 1679. Papin’s digester was the first pressure cooker, developed to raise the boiling point of water and reduce the cooking time of food. Appert cooked food in wide-mouth wine bottles, and through trial and error determined the suitable cooking time to preserve various meats and vegetables. He capped the bottles with cork, sealed them with wax, and reinforced the closure with wire.

In 1809, Appert published “The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years” and presented his findings to the government. He was awarded the prize in 1810 and used the money to support his canning factory (the world’s first) in Massy, south of Paris.

Initially, Appert’s method of preserving food was confined to military use. About the same time that Appert received his prize, Englishman John Donkin developed a method of preserving food in tin cans (hence the name “canning”), which were not as prone to breakage as glass containers. But, each can had to be hand-made by a tinsmith and took up to six hours to cook. The process was too labor intensive and expensive for home use.

John Landis Mason

Glass containers continued to be the preferred method of home “canning,” but glass jars were not completely reliable. Jars in use at the time had a flat top, across which a flat tin lid was laid and sealed with wax. If a lid was not seated properly or there were gaps in the wax, bacteria would thrive in the jar and spoil the food.

In 1858, John Landis Mason patented a square-shouldered jar with a threaded mouth and a metal screw-top which held into place a rubber gasket and tin lid. This Mason jar, embossed Nov. 30, 1858, sold for $22.31 in February 2018.

American tinsmith John Landis Mason solved the “poorly seated lid” problem. In 1858, he patented a square-shouldered jar with a threaded mouth and a metal screw-top which held into place a rubber gasket and tin lid. Mason’s preservation method virtually guaranteed an airtight seal (although today’s home canners will admit that it is not fool-proof). Best of all, Mason’s jars and screw-tops were re-useable; only the rubber gaskets and lids had to be replaced with each use.

For the first time, home canning became popular and widely used as a food preservation method. Mason’s jars were embossed “Mason’s Patent Nov 30th 1858.” They were made in many shapes, sizes, and colors well into the 20th Century, and many of them have survived to the present day. Despite their popularity, the jars never made Mason rich. He kept his “day job” as an accountant at the Colonial Bond and Guaranty Company.

The Ball Brothers

In 1880, the five Ball brothers of Buffalo, NY, asked their Uncle George for a loan of $200 to start a business making wood-jacketed tin cans for paint products. They quickly expanded their line to include solvents (like kerosene) packaged in glass jars. Tin cans, apparently, were not appropriate containers for some chemicals.

Called “Buffalo” jars, Ball products used the same sealing method as Landis’ jars, ranging in size from half-gallon to half-pint. This set of amber Ball jars sold for $14.50 in January 2018.

In 1884, John Landis Mason’s jar patent expired, and the Balls jumped at the chance to incorporate Mason’s concept into their own product line. Called “Buffalo” jars, Ball products used the same sealing method as Landis’ jars, ranging in size from half-gallon to half-pint. Jar lids were produced in their metal fabricating factory. The Ball Company’s logo was embossed onto the surface of the jars, which were made of either amber or aqua glass.

For Novice Collectors

Antique and vintage canning jars remain a popular collectible. The sheer volume of canning jars (aka “fruit” jars) available to collectors is overwhelming, though. In general, a jar’s value is related to its age, rarity, color, and condition. Also affecting value are mold and production marks, a jar’s closure, and its shape. Novice jar collectors will find identification and valuation information online (for example,here) and in Bill Schroeder’s book “1,000 Fruit Jars: Priced and Illustrated.” 


Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s blog at SellMoreAntiques.com.

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