The First Ball

Machine-Made Jar?

 

Back in the 1890’s, when the Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company first considered making fruit jars by machine, they were anxious not to burn any bridges.  They had an operating glass factory in Muncie with a dedicated force of skilled workers making jars the old-fashioned way, blowing them by mouth.  Using one of the newly invented glassmaking machine to do the same job was a tempting idea.  Jars could be made faster, more uniform and, most importantly, cheaper.  Machines were the wave of the future.

But the five Ball brothers were hesitant to ride this wave.  As George A. Ball, treasurer of the company, wrote in a November 14, 1896 letter to his sister:  “We dare not throw out all our blowers and put machines in all at once – as that would make trouble.”

Why would it make trouble?  Because some of Ball’s skilled glassblowers had been enticed to come from Buffalo, New York in 1888 to start up the new branch factory in Muncie.  They were actually shareholders in the company, the stock being given as an incentive.  They would not respond well to being replaced by a new-fangled machine less than ten years later.

How did the Ball Brothers propose to meet this challenge?  George explained further in his letter: “We thought that by putting up a new tank…and by making a new jar in the new tank they cannot complain so much & it will give us an opportunity to do all the necessary experimenting & demonstrate to ourselves that the machines are allright.” 

From Mr. Ball’s comments, it appears that Ball had already installed, or was ready to install, the new machines at the time he wrote the letter.  Since glassblowing was often seasonal, shutting down during the hot summer months, it is likely that the machines were ready for the startup of the 1896-7 glass-making season.

It is definite that the machines were in operation the next year, when Alvah L. Bingham, an employee and first cousin of the brothers, filed a patent application on August 26, 1897 for a glass-blowing machine.  Other patent applications improving upon the invention were filed by F. C. and E. B. Ball over the next few years.

But the switch from man to machine did not occur overnight.  For several years, the Ball fruit jar order forms sent to dealers offered a choice.  They could select either hand-blown jars or machine-made jars.  It wasn’t until the 1902 season that Ball said that all their fruit jars were made on a machine. 

These early machines were semi-automatic, requiring workers to manually perform some of the functions.  Bingham did not patent a fully automatic machine until 1904, which is called the Ball-Bingham machine.  Therefore, the earliest jars would have been made on the semi automatic machine, called the F. C. Ball machine.

The question then arises: What jar was the first to be made on the new machines?  As far as I know, there are no production records still around that specify which one it was, so we may never know for certain.

However, I would like to propose a candidate for the honors.  In his letter, George Ball talks about making a new jar on the new machines.  This might just be a general reference to machine-made jars.  But, it could imply that they were going to make a completely different jar - one that they were not blowing by hand at the time.  One that would be perceived as less of a threat, since it was not direct competition.

So, what jar did Ball make by machine that was not made by hand?  While there are several possibilities, I would like to nominate the Ball Standard for consideration. 

There is no evidence that Ball made a hand-blown wax sealer that was embossed with the Ball name, either at Buffalo or Muncie.  A Buffalo-era catalog lists “STANDARD or GROVE RING JARS” in quart and half-gallon size, but the accompanying illustration shows an unmarked jar.  Since many of the hand-made jars of the late 1890’s have the word ‘Ball” added to the jar, it would seem likely that it would have been added to the wax sealer, too, if it was being made.  Ball production records show Standard quarts and half-gallons made in the 1891-2 and 1892-3 seasons, but none made for the next five years.  They appear again in the 1898-99 season.

Dick Roller, in his 1983 work Standard Fruit Jar Reference, says that Ball (triple L) Standards were made on Ball-Bingham automatic machines.  However, later, in a February 1996 Fruit Jar Newsletter, Dick states that a jar made on an F. C. Ball semi-automatic machine would have a neck seam that was offset from the body seam.  The seams would match on jars made on a Ball-Bingham machine.  Ball (triple L) Standards do exist with offset seams as well as matching seams, indicating the jars were made on both types of machines.  So the Ball Standard was in fact made on the earliest of the Ball glassmaking machines.

While does not prove that it was the first jar made, the Ball (triple L) Standard jars often show indications of being crudely made.  As Roller states in his reference book about these jars: “Often aqua jars will have varying amounts of olive green or amber color swirled in with the aqua, denoting insufficiently mixed batch materials.”  This would make sense with a new operation run by new workers.

Over the years, I have wondered why Ball got back into a mature product line like the wax sealer, especially one whose technology that was becoming obsolete.  Everyone else was getting out of the wax sealer business - the only other company that I can think of who made them by machine was the Greenfield Fruit Jar & Bottle Company, using the Owens machine.  Machines were the rage: they made jars cheaper and faster than the old hand-blown method.  Why make an old-fashioned wax sealer when you can make a more popular mason jar?

Ball was not the biggest fruit jar maker at the time.  They had lots of competition, from both hand and machine operations.  But Ball jumped into the wax sealer business just when they shifted to the machine.  It may be that they were just looking for a niche market.  But it could be that the Ball Standard was George’s “new jar” that was the first jar made on the new machines.

 

Written by Richard H. Cole, Jr.

© 2003 Minnetrista