Mason jars are having a moment. If you’ve attended a wedding (particularly the barn variety) or eaten at a brunch establishment in the last decade, chances are you’ve consumed a beverage out of a Mason jar. What the youngest among us may not realize is that drinking out of jars isn’t a radical new trend. Look no further than the Mason jar’s less Instagrammable cousin: the jelly juice glass. Perhaps you remember drinking your morning OJ out of a repurposed jelly jar printed with characters from Howdy Doody, the Peanuts, or Pokémon. Perhaps you’ve always wondered why those were a “thing”. If so, read on to explore the ingenious marriage of packaging and marketing that led to the jelly glass, including one CAP recovered from the site of the former East Lansing city dump during excavations at the Brody Complex.
In 1916, America’s first self-service grocery store, a Piggly Wiggly, opened in Memphis, Tennessee (1). Before self-service stores, customers went to their local grocer and handed the clerk their shopping list (2). The clerk then retrieved these items behind the counter and packaged them for the customer to take home. Self-service stores allowed customers to peruse aisles of pre-packaged items before making their selections. As this business model boomed, point of sale factors such as the appeal of a product’s packaging became increasingly important in influencing customer purchases (2). As such, packaging became a key point of interaction between mass production and modern supermarkets (3).
Commercial glassmakers played an important role in producing appealing packages. Before the rise of plastic, mass-produced products such as jam, jelly, peanut butter, and dairy products were packaged in glass containers called packers. After these products were consumed, packers could be reused as drinking glasses (4). Knowing this, glassmakers designed packers that doubled as attractive tumblers. Small tumblers such as those for jams and jellies were the perfect size for juice (5). Products packaged in tumblers were an appealing choice to consumers who were more likely to buy if they were getting a premium with their purchase (3).
In order to make them more marketable, packer tumblers were often decorated in eye-catching and collectible designs. Early tumblers were molded into different patterns. Later designs were hand-painted or applied using a silkscreen process (5). In the 1930s, Kraft spreadable cheeses were famously packaged in tumblers marketed as “Swanky Swigs” (6). Swanky Swigs were decorated with pretty, neutral patterns such as bands, stars, and flowers. Brand loyalty was encouraged as customers repurchased products to acquire a complete set. This was an effective marketing strategy during the Depression, when companies had to adapt to sell products to a nation with little money to waste (6). In the 1950s, companies like Welch’s began featuring cartoon characters (5, 7). Various character glasses have been produced since.
In contrast to Swanky Swigs, the tumbler from the Brody dump is plain, the only decorative element being a small band of vertical ridges below the rim. The bottom of the glass is embossed with an image of a capstan, the spool-like machine used to haul ropes and cables on ships and docks. This distinctive logo belonged to the Capstan Glass Company, a subsidiary of the Anchor Cap & Closure Corporation from April 1918 until February 1938 (8). Anchor Cap purchased the Ripley & Co. glass factory in South Connellsville, Pennsylvania in 1917 and replaced all the old equipment for hand-blown and pressed glassware with new automatic machinery (9). Capstan’s operations at the plant began in 1919 with the first load of tumblers shipped on June 9 of that year (3). By 1927, Capstan’s plant employed 500 workers with shipments averaging from seven to twelve carloads a day (3,9). Business was so strong that Capstan’s president claimed the operation to be the world’s largest exclusive manufacturer of commercial packers’ glassware (3). After a series of mergers between 1928 and 1937, Anchor Cap and Closure acquired Capstan and became the Anchor Hocking Glass Corporation. Container production continued at the South Connellsville plant under the Capstan name until February 18th, 1938, when it reopened as Anchor-Hocking (3).
The history of Capstan Glass indicates that the tumbler from the Brody Dump dates between 1918 and 1938. These dates are consistent with other items recovered from the same context. The bottom of the Brody glass features the Capstan logo with “1C” above and “5” below. According to Barry Bernas, who has written substantially about Capstan, the letter C was used to identify their line of plain tumblers (3). Bernas writes that this line came in twenty sizes ranging in volume from one to sixteen ounces and was advertised from at least 1922 until January 1935 (3). The American Stores Company employed plain Capstan tumblers of this style as jackets for ASCO brand products peanut butter (3). However, these tumblers were likely used for a variety of brands and products, as they were not marked with a particular brand name.
Jelly juice jars are simple, yet fascinating items. They are located at the nexus of mass production and consumption, yet they are also a brilliant example of reusable packaging. Jury’s still out on whether you can expect to start seeing jelly glasses replace Mason jars at wedding receptions. If you do, now you’ll have an instant conversation topic. You’re welcome.