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Ladies and Gentlemen, the Mason Jar

Last fall, I was reading over the final proof of Glaciers when I came across the passage in which my heroine's love interest drinks coffee from a mason jar. I paused, eyes focusing on the words: mason jar. My mind went back to when I started the book, in the winter of 2003-2004. Some of my Powell's coworkers used mason jars with lids in place of Nalgene bottles and aluminum travel coffee mugs (I assumed that, like me, they preferred drinking from glass). I flashed ahead in time to my friends at Dove Vivi, who have been serving water at their tables from vintage quart jars since they opened in 2007 (along with the tasty corn pizza and the endearing thrift store assortment of forks, it was one of the things that made me fall in love with them). But by the time I was reading that final proof of my novel, it was 2011, and I had recently dined at two new Portland restaurants in which I was served water in wide-mouth pint Ball masons. I had mentally added them to the list of all the other cafés and restaurants and brewpubs in town already using jars for drinking glasses.

I stared at the page of my novel and thought, "This isn't a unique character trait anymore." In my mind, Glaciers takes place during Bush's second term, but it's not explicit. I just had a feeling it would read differently to people now. I tried to think of something that could stand in for the mason jar. Then I thought about cutting it. I didn't want this character to be a cliché of Portland trends.

But one thing held me back: I love mason jars. They are simple, handy, elegant containers for just about anything: buttons, flowers, seashells, dry goods, honey... And I love that this character drinks from one. In my heart he will always be a mason jar guy: humble, unadorned, economical. So, the mason jar stayed, and the book went to print.

In the following months, I nearly forgot about this whole episode of doubt. Then came this, recently, in the fantastic Willamette Week review of Glaciers: "Though some of the Portland references feel excessive, mostly because we see them every day — flannel shirts, bicyclists with one folded pant leg, black coffee in Mason jars — ..." and I stopped reading right there with a groan.

It was bound to come up, especially in a local paper. Portland has a love-hate relationship with its status as the hippest little city in America. We'd rather be admired for eschewing hipness than garnering it, but we just can't help it:Portland has a love-hate relationship with its status as the hippest little city in America. We'd rather be admired for eschewing hipness than garnering it, but we just can't help it: we're crafty, smart, talented, cute-as-a-bug, and humble-as-homemade-pie. I'm not really sure why it causes so much angst (all the more fodder for Armisen and Brownstein's Portlandia), but I admit to having suffered from it myself at the mere mention of the mason jar in my novel.

Pondering my discomfort at one o'clock the other morning (I'm not kidding), I wondered what it was about mason jars that makes them ubiquitous these days. On Etsy, you can find them fashioned into everything from soap dispensers to lamps (for the record: my favorite lamps are by Boots N Gus). The dessert-in-a-jar trend has been in full swing for at least the last year. Which, of course, prompted the recent "cupcakegate" brouhaha for the TSA. The TSA statement on the incident actually uses the word "newfangled" to describe what differentiates a cupcake in a mason jar from a cupcake in a box. As a friend ranted on Facebook: "We all know such a durable, non-toxic container would never be designed today!"

She's right: the mason jar harkens back to days when American-made goods were plentiful, reliable, and reusable as a matter of course. In that way, mason jars are part of an American cultural shorthand. They call to mind not "simpler times" but a time when people did for themselves because they had to. The revived popularity of the mason jar in Portland and elsewhere represents an assertion of values that emphasize utilitarianism and practical knowledge, a connection to raw materials, and an appreciation for process.

Canning has joined a long list of revitalized domestic and cultural pastimes, like home brewing, keeping poultry, knitting, and listening to vinyl records. Portlanders are people who do because it honors manual labor and home economics in a time when more and more of us have not found a place in the American economy for our bachelors, or even our masters, degrees. In that way, to embrace the mason jar is to embrace the absurdity of it all: "What else am I going to do?" the 30-something barista/bartender/bookseller/clerk thinks. "I might as well pickle things."

And that's why I'm letting it go — the angst — right here, right now. I'm proud of this city and its embrace of a historically significant, utterly lovable piece of Americana, for drinking coffee black in the kitchenette, sweet tea at an upscale restaurant, or room temp tap water at a corner café. And to those for whom the mason jar is not just a receptacle, but a muse: Let us promise, though the trends may fade, that we will always remember why we were so besotted in the first place.

÷ ÷ ÷

Alexis M. Smith grew up in Soldotna, Alaska, and Seattle, Washington. She received an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. She has written for Tarpaulin Sky and She has a son and two cats, and they all live together in a little apartment in Portland, Oregon. Glaciers is her first novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Glaciers (Tin House New Voice)
    Used Trade Paper $7.50

Alexis Smith is the author of Glaciers (Tin House New Voice)

3 Responses to "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Mason Jar"

    Chris A. Bolton January 17th, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Hooray, Alexis is back on the blog! Enjoy your triumphant return.

    Ex-portlander January 17th, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    Um, maybe the angst woud go away when people realize trends in portland often are not trends elsewhere, so if you write for a wider audience, it doesnt matter. But part of being a trendy place with people trying not to be trendy in new and trendy ways is that it can get a bit insular.

    Mara Terrell August 27th, 2013 at 6:38 am

    Not to be too picky, book cover designer, but you have a picture of a BALL jar on the front cover of this book -- NOT a MASON jar!!!! They are from two different companies!!!

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