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Mullins: Venerable Mason jar gets its chic on in variety of ways, places

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Published:   |   Updated: October 6, 2013 at 11:24 AM

Visiting stores and restaurants all week for my job, one object keeps popping up all around me. Mason jars are suddenly everywhere, and well beyond simply storing food.

The humble glass jar with the screw-on lid is enjoying a bona fide bonanza of hipness. For a long time, there have been Mason jars of water at upscale/farmstand-style restaurants. Now I’m seeing Mason jar-style candles and Mason jars of soap/lotion at Bath & Body Works. There are Mason jar chandeliers at Pottery Barn for $319.

When I toured the new West Elm store in Hyde Park Village, and this is not a joke, there was a Mason jar martini shaker.

Sure, some of this Mason-ethos renaissance derives from mega-companies capitalizing on the well-established hipster and urban farming movement of home pickling, digerati-style self-sustainability and localvore cultural philosophy. One could hardly live in Brooklyn without having a microgarden and backyard chickens to make single-batch mayonnaise in Mason jars.

What strikes me is the cultural feedback loop to all this.

Here we have an object of through and through utilitarianism — the Mason jar — that was patented in 1858 by John Landis Mason as an easy alternative to high-temperature canning of vegetables. Mind you, this was during an age well before artificial refrigeration, so if you found something to eat like beans or bread, you better eat it fast before the worms and mold got to it. Yet canning was mainly available to industrial-scale food companies, and even then the cans every once in a while might kill you with botulism if the wrong bacteria invaded the seal. You could practice canning at home, but God help you if good old Aunt Betty found out you forgot to label which tin can was peaches and which was peppers.

So, back in the mid-1800s, when Lincoln wasn’t yet president, our friend John spotted an opportunity. With transparent glass jars and reusable lids, farmers and home cooks and moms could collect food in season and store it visibly for unscrewing any time of the year.

And for a century, the Mason jar symbolized self-sustainability — which in turn became almost a code-word for “poor,” after millions of Americans drove mass-produced cars to the suburbs with abundantly stocked grocery stores. The 1940s onward was an age of jets designed by William E. Boeing and Xerox copiers designed by Chester Carlson and futuristic architecture designed by Le Corbusier. “Canning” meant you lived on a farm somewhere and not in Levittown.

What would James Bond or Frank Sinatra think of a martini shaker made from a Mason jar?

For the past decade, Mason jars have existed almost exclusively as a rural artifact or homespun tool to save money or store your moonshine. How then did the jars become hip enough for Martini shakers in Hyde Park? Perhaps it’s the wealth-induced delusions of those who drive a Mercedes to the farmers market and have Botox injections while advocating we should all eat organic.

Though an actual set of a dozen Mason jars costs $9.87 at Wal-Mart, a single Martini Mason jar shaker at West Elm costs $29, gin or vodka not included. (For a cheaper option, just take a screwdriver and stab a few holes in the metal lid of a real Mason jar, voila!)

I experienced an intense cultural Mason-jar feedback loop this summer when I visited Amish country in Ohio and saw home cooks would clean out their Mason jars, then turn them upside down and put them on fence posts around their gardens. The intense summer sun would generate enough heat inside the jars that the fence posts would actually char — perfectly sanitizing the jars.

Perhaps this Mason jar resurgence is harmless quirkiness and entertainment. I know a few directors of modern art museums who would get a kick out of putting a Lite Brite on their desks as a conversation starter.

To bring the feedback loop full circle, the pickle company Vlasic just introduced a retro-style Mason jar with a mixture of pickles and carrots and roasted peppers. So, to be clear, a company that makes millions of jars of mass-produced pickles is now trying to evoke an aura of roadside produce-stand homeliness. Perhaps not surprisingly, their jar is clad in a brown paper label with specifically quirky printing and branded “Farmer’s Garden, by Vlasic.” As if pickles didn’t come from farms or gardens in the first place.

So here’s to you, John Landis Mason. The urbanized world may have temporarily cast off your innovation, but you’re now getting to be pretty popular in the nicest parts of town. I truly suspect that someone, somewhere is trying to devise a Mason-jar style iPhone case.

Other retail, restaurant and trend news in and around town:

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Wal-Mart made a big media splash by promising to match item-for-item the buy-one-get-one deals that Publix offers. Here’s the thing: That’s not new. Wal-Mart has always had a price-match guarantee. Bring in any printed advertisement and the cashiers are instructed to match prices on identical items — even if it’s BOGO, and even apply coupons. The new, new part is that Wal-Mart before could not match a BOGO deal if the printed ad from Publix didn’t state the original price. Now, cashiers will have the BOGO list from Publix on hand. You’ll still have to identify items with the cashier on-site. But kudos to Wal-Mart for spotting one of the biggest marketing advantages Publix has over pretty much all grocers in Florida. The not-so-new policy also will include BOGO deals at Winn-Dixie.

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This summer, the new Champs store at WestShore Plaza opened up under a different sub-brand name, Nike Yardline, with a focus on football. After a visit, I can say this: Wow, they have a lot of shoes. This is basically the Nordstrom ladies shoes section for dudes, with 1,001 different styles and colors of Air Jordans, Reeboks and Asics. Well over half are fashion basketball shoes of incredible variety and vibrancy. The football gear consists of a special section in the back, with lots of jerseys for fans — not actual players.

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One other note on the resurgence of retro. The comeback of vinyl records has been going on for some time now among hipsters and audiophiles who embrace their tactile appeal and distinct audio quality. Now the data are showing an acceleration. In June, record companies sold 2.9 million actual vinyl records, up more than 33 percent from last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and that’s on top of a steady upward run since 2006.

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People of Seminole Heights, you may need to invest in some larger pants. Dunkin Donuts is coming your way. The conglomerate is thoroughly renovating a small Chinese food shop at 222 W. Waters, just west of Florida Avenue. This is the third new location or renovation around here, along with 5610 E Fowler Ave. and 4012 N. Armenia Ave. This is huge news for the neighborhood in one respect. Seminole Heights has been steadily improving/gentrifying, and that’s thanks in no small part to national brands like Starbucks opening there.

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Last week we wrote about the shutdown of the “Roosevelt 2.0” retail/craft project in Ybor City. The “Upcycle” craft market and artsy seminar group that operated there has moved to 2937 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg under the name The Upcycle Trading Company. More info at www .upcycletrading.com.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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