Summer! The season of porch swings and hammocks, of pool floats and cookouts, of broken air conditioners and the luxurious incapacity they allow — afternoons spent sweltering on the couch in minimal clothing, waiting for dusk. Too hot to work, too hot for the kinds of leisure that feel like work, too hot to do anything besides watch the beads of sweat gather on the lip of your cold drink.
Each of those drinks has a corresponding mood. There’s the pony of something cold and crisp on the beach or the stoop. There’s the Campari-and-soda at an outdoor café, drunk under a large hat and with a good book. There’s the performatively decadent poolside rosé, the pink gin with a friend in a fusty old hotel bar whose cool tranquility feels like a secret. There’s the icy limoncello sipped watching old men play bocce, the party gin-and-tonic whose obviousness needs no additions or apologies.
All these scenes are drawn from personal memory, and different people will have their personal variations. All of them are more or less clichés. That is one of the joys of summer drinking: the world is so vivid, the heat so inescapable, that it temporarily frees you from the burdens of self-invention. You are allowed to sink gratefully into cliché and discover anew its joys.
There is, however, one cliché that is significantly less joyful but more powerful than all the others.
It is the mason jar.
Every year, I wait patiently for the mason jar trend to fizzle out. It never does. Its conquest of home décor has been steady rather than dramatic — you don’t see mason jars everywhere, but you are guaranteed to regularly see them somewhere. They display flowers and candles. They dispense dish soap and table salt. They are, perhaps most inexplicably, lamps of various shape and size.
The pleasure of every cookout or rooftop party is marred by the 50/50 chance that someone’s idea of cute involves foisting upcycled home hardware on their guests.
Worst of all, they are glasses. Until your drink order arrives, you cannot rest easy in your booth, secure that the new neighborhood farm-to-table concept will not ask you to pay for the humiliating privilege of drinking a French 75 out of a jam jar. The pleasure of every cookout or rooftop party is marred by the 50/50 chance that someone’s idea of cute involves foisting upcycled home hardware on their guests.
Mason jars make bad glasses and worse bowls. They have a squat, uniform base that must be clutched. They have an awkwardly ridged lip and a wide opening that provides no natural funnel for the human mouth. They are neither graceful nor practical.
But who cares if mason jars are suboptimal glasses? You do not drink out of a mason jar because you’re giving a lot of thought to your dining accoutrements, you drink out of a mason jar because they are casually, effortlessly what you have on hand.
I have heard this defense of the jar many times, but I have never believed it once.
I do not believe it because some enterprising manufacturers have attempted to remedy the mason jar’s natural deficiencies. In other words, people like the look of drinking from jars so much that they will buy glasses made to look like jars. Whatever the exceptions, it is not a custom born of necessity, but a deliberate aesthetic choice.
The appeal of the mason aesthetic probably lies in its history.
When John Landis Mason patented the eponymous jar in 1858, he revolutionized home food production. Canning was no longer the exclusive province of factories with expensive soldering techniques. For the first time, rural families had an efficient way to store large amounts of fresh produce for winter — even if they could not afford an icebox, or later, a refrigerator. And so from the log cabins of settler families through the scarcities of the great depression to the victory gardens of WW2, the mason jar became emblematic of mythologized American viritues: thrift, resourcefulness, self-reliance, a can-do spirit.
In 2000, the T-Bone Burnett produced, bluegrass-heavy O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack sold 8 million copies, and sparked a popular revival in American roots music. Ten years later, Mumford and Sons credited the soundtrack with inspiring them to pick up a banjo. The musical revival became a wholesale aesthetic, and for nearly twenty years we have been living in a jug-band fever dream, aspirational rusticity in the suspenders and clappy choruses, the distressed wood and farmhouse sinks, and above all, the mason jars.
A now sadly defunct advertisement for a $299 mason jar pendant light fixture reads thus : “For generations, home gardeners have used canning jars to preserve the bounty of their harvest. This lighting fixture pays tribute to their industriousness.”
The fantasy behind the mason jar is that we are mending and making do. The great champagne flute drought of ’02 wiped us out, and until we can rebuild the country’s glassware supplies we’ll just have to pull together and use what we have, a song in our heart and a twinkle in our eye.
While I admit that a large part of my aversion to mason jars is simply that LARPing as Tom Joad in lipstick and heels makes me feel silly, there is something that disturbs me more about the impulse to buy artificial austerity at a markup.
There is a bored aristocratic spirit that has become exhausted by the world it owns.
Clothing plenty in the trappings of want is as old as Marie Antoinette’s toile-draped fantasies of peasant living. We see Mr. Knightley shutting it down politely in Emma:
There is a bored aristocratic spirit that has become exhausted by the world it owns: its resources, its pleasures, its elegances and civilities. Its entitlement is so complete that its only remaining move is to bowdlerize and deconstruct.
You may not be Joss Sackler, rich enough on blood money that you can buy beautiful designer silks solely for the purposes of destroying them. But you can in your more modest way ape her instincts: you can reject all the texture and diversity of human craft that has produced vase and amphora, snifter and goblet, in favor of a canning jar. You dispense with care and formality without compromising the wholesome sweetness of an imagined farmhouse. At its worst, the mason jar represents the joyless hybrid of two vices: destructive upper-class boredom with bourgeois distrust of visible lavishness.
Summer is when the mason jar plague is at its height, perhaps because summer is wedding season, or perhaps because an imagined return to the land is more palatable in the summer, rather than the long winters that would actually enjoin subsistence on canned beets. But summer is also when the mason jar aesthetic is most unforgiveable, because it collapses all the varied moods of summer drinking — sweaty, reckless, salt-tinged — into one tyrannical ur-mood: cute.
Drinking your vinho verde out of a real glass will not save the world. But it may save your drink, and in summer, that’s enough.