The Ball Jar, prized today as a retro drinking glass in trendy restaurants or a valued collectible, originated in Buffalo and ultimately spawned several fortunes that went to philanthropy and education.  It’s hard to appreciate now, but the mason jar was an important innovation in the 1800s, before the advent of refrigeration.  John Mason’s addition of a rubber gasket inside a tin lid allowed an air tight seal and offered an alternative to salting, pickling or smoking for food preservation.  That design reached its zenith In the Ball Jar, developed by the Ball Brothers of Buffalo.

The Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company can trace its roots to 1880 when Frank and Edmund Ball bought the Wooden Jacket Can Company in Buffalo with a $200 loan from their uncle, George Harvey Ball, the founder and first president of Keuka College.  Frank and Edmund were later joined by their other three brothers—Lucius, William and George.  Originally, the company made wood-jacketed tin cans to hold kerosene, but soon switched to glass.  The brothers built their first glass plant on Buffalo’s east side around 1882-1883.  Then in 1884, the Balls began to manufacture Mason Jars after the patent protection had expired, marking them with their Ball Brothers logo.   The jars became an important line of business with volume growing to 90 million jars a year (reputedly half the world’s volume) by 1909-1910, but by that time the company had left Buffalo.

One hundred and thirty years ago this year, in 1886, a fire in Buffalo destroyed the Balls glass factory on Main Street.   At the same time, a natural gas boom was underway in Ohio and Indiana offering the prospect of low-cost gas to fuel Ball Brothers’ glass furnaces.  In an early example of economic development, business and civic leaders in Muncie, Indiana offered the brothers a variety of incentives to build their replacement factory in Muncie which opened in 1888.  Metal stamping and other company activities continued in Buffalo, but by 1897 George and William had joined Frank and Edmund in Indiana.  The Balls had lasted less than 20 years in Buffalo.

The Ball Brothers’ business grew rapidly in Indiana, thanks to a combination of technical innovations and acquisitions.  Naturally, the brothers prospered, too, building large homes and making large donations to various charities.  One beneficiary of the Ball’s largesse was the Indiana Normal School, Eastern Division which in their honor renamed itself Ball Teacher’s College and later Ball State University, David Letterman’s alma mater. The brothers did not forget their Uncle George whose support helped them get started.  They donated to Keuka College in George’s name and Ball Hall (Ball Memorial Hall) on campus was named after George and the brothers in 1921.

The company continued to grow and morph throughout the 20th Century to the present day.  Along the way, Ball became the largest manufacturer of aluminum beverage cans in North America, after acquiring Reynolds Metals in 1998.  It lost an antitrust suit that started during Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration and it was identified as the 59th worst corporate air polluter in the United States in 2006.  Today, the Buffalo and Muncie operations are long gone and the company no longer makes its eponymous jars, but Ball Corporation lives on as a multinational, NYSE-traded company employing 18,700 worldwide and headquartered in Colorado.

Sources: “Ball Corporation,” “Ball Brothers” and “Ball State University” Our History





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