“With a Blather and Leather”: Packaging Preserves

Why might something as sticky and tricky as a harvested animal bladder morph (culturally speaking) into a pinked gingham lid cover cinched with twine?

This packaging is probably from the early 1940s; an ad in the July 1937 issue of Farmer’s Wife Magazine claims that the product is a “new kind of seal” (28).

When Cincinnati’s Clopay Corporation started promoting a “special form of DuPont Cellophane” as a closure for jelly jars in the late 1930s,[1] the product’s name and marketing emphasized convenience and efficacy: Jiffy-Seals were “Quick-easy-sure” (“Just moisten, press-on, and it’s done!”). The transparent, one-size-fits-most covers eliminated the need for messy paraffin coatings and allowed homemakers to avoid buying tin lids or new pots (“Use for all your odd-shaped glasses or jars!”). Most importantly, Jiffy-Seals promised to safeguard the product, offering “absolute protection” in a “tough, air-tight” package. A cutout in the product’s paper envelope allowed the new food-grade film to peek through, where it could be seen or even touched by the curious.

To ensure complete closure, consumers were instructed to lick a gummed strip (which doubled as a label) and fasten the crimped edges of the cellophane to the jam jar itself. Yet none of the colorful pots on the Jiffy-Seals packaging depict the gummed bands—arguably the most important part, the step that finalized the seal.


The visual omission is a small thing, but one that communicates more than thrift or longevity. By choosing to draw a ruffled cap rather than a tidy, taped-down cover, the Jiffy-Seals illustration invokes an earlier technology even as it claims to supersede that technology’s successors, wax and tin. This is an assertion of authenticity that reaches back to at least the eighteenth century—and animal bladders. And it is with us today in yet other forms.

A blather and Leather

In 1719, Thomas Newington—employee of a household in Brighthelmstone (now Brighton), England—recorded this recipe for pickled green beans:

Make a brine with water and salt strong enough to bare an Egg, put it to your beans cold and let them ly nine Dayes. Turn them every day. Then drain them and make som fresh water boyle, put in your beans and let them get boyle up then drain them dry and put som boyleing hot Vinigar to them, let them stand a day or two, then set them over fire in the Vineger and keep them scolding hott till green. Be sure let them not boyle, then to half a Peck of beans put half an ounce Cloves & Mace, a handfull or two of Dill and fennell, and tye them Down close with a blather and Leather. [2]

The recipe combines aspects of two pickling techniques (lacto-fermentation and “quick” vinegar processing), strategies familiar to anyone who pickles today: first let the green beans “work” in a salt brine; then stop the fermentation, draw off the salt, and kill any yeasts or molds by putting the beans through a fresh boil; and finally saturate the beans in a hot seasoned vinegar solution for better long-term storage.[3] But what about the last instruction, to “tye them Down close with a blather and Leather”?

Blather here is a variant of bladder, in this case one retrieved from a slaughtered cow, sheep, or hog and cleaned thoroughly. These membranes were commonly used as flexible vessel coverings before the twentieth century.[4] In an 1876 speech, for instance, a conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in England recommended using layers of bladder, tin foil, lead, bladder, and finally varnish to seal jars of dissected anatomical specimens suspended in alcohol. (He noted, however, that in order for the bladder to “adhere firmly” to the glass rim, it must be “macerated until it is partially decomposed”—a process he found “disagreeable and dirty.”)[5]

Bladders also attracted bugs, and they hardened and shrunk as they dried—fine for a layered plug or a post-slaughter homemade balloon, but not so great for keeping food impervious to environmental threats. Some bladders had to be wetted every other day with salt water (or with “the pickle” [solution] itself), and they were often backed up with a second covering of heavy paper or leather.[6]

Persistence: forms, functions, meanings

Even after other closures were common, bladders continued to be used to seal food jars.[7] An 1877 household encyclopedia included the following instructions for making and storing peach leather:

Allow a pound of sugar to a pound of fruit, pare and halve ripe peaches; crack a dozen stones [peach pits] for a peck of peaches, chop the kernels after blanching them, and throw them over the fruit, which must now be put in the preserving pan, heated slowly and boiled to a pulp. Add the sugar (granulated or crushed) and boil until clear; then spread on plates and dry in quite a cool oven until so stiff that it can be eaten from the fingers. Tear the sheets into bits and pack in jars with powdered sugar between the layers. Stretch clean, well-soaked bladder over the top and tie securely; or it may be packed in air-tight fruit cans.[8]

The same 1877 source laments that whole preserved quinces could only be stored prettily by using bladders, since fruit bottles with threaded necks (“Mason” or “patent” jars) were not yet available in a wide-mouthed option. “Put [the stewed quinces] hot in jars,” the encyclopedia advised, “and cover immediately with bladder. It is a great inconvenience that none of the glass fruit cans are made large enough to admit whole quinces, large pears or peaches. Paper dipped in the white of egg makes an air-tight covering, but it is very frail.” [9]

The packaging of this mandarin marmalade cultivates an artisanal aesthetic, calling up rarified authenticity via richly unique fabrics and the look of historical closures. Photo by Malene Thyssen, Nov. 2006 (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The improvement of rubber gaskets in the early twentieth century, and the subsequent development of cellophanes and plastic wraps made the mess and inconvenience of working with animal bladders unnecessary and obsolete.[10] Yet, as the Jiffy-Seal packaging makes plain, the bladder closure lived on as an idea. The high-tech cellulose product did the same job as the older closure—it kept stuff out of the jelly. But the not-yet-banded illustration of a jar apparently cinched with a string also works to replicate the unregulated form (uneven edges) and substance of the old-timey “blather.” Even as Jiffy-Seals marketing employed bright colors and celebrated cutting-edge technology as the U.S. moved into the mid twentieth century, its images also managed to invoke history and the marks of a maker’s hand.[11]

Exhibiting Continuity and Care

Strawberry jam guest favors at a 2012 Saskatchewan wedding that used Mason jars as table vases and in outdoor chandeliers. Photo by Jesslaine Elise Photography.

Few people today have heard of Jiffy-Seals; food scientists’ early repudiation of so-called open kettle techniques (in which hot foods are poured directly into a sterilized jar, and then sealed without further processing in a boiling water bath) has led to widespread use of two-piece metal caps even for high-sugar, high-acid jams and jellies. Still, the tied covering persists in purely decorative form, in the fabric-topped preserves that circulate as seasonal gifts (and, in recent years, as popular DIY wedding favors).

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has argued that heritage is produced when people give “the obsolete, the mistaken, the outmoded, the dead, and the defunct”—say, animal bladders, open kettle processing techniques, home cooking in general—a “second life” through exhibition. A “virtuality”—the idea of a thing—is presented in place of an “actuality” and signaled as noteworthy by means of plaques, guidebooks, interpretive panels, and the like.[12]  While these heritage displays can be grand and public, taking place in museums, recordings, classrooms, festivals, and farmers’ markets, they also happen in more intimate sites of cultural production and exchange. Tying a fabric cover on a jar of preserves—a move that reaches back to past closures—is a way to mark the jam (and jam-making) as important, worthy of adjectives like “historical” (imbued with continuity, tradition) and “handmade” (evoking care, skill, foresight).


Pinked gingham as international sign for “homemade”; Zagreb, Croatia, October 2015. Photo by zalazaksunca, via Pixabay

Depending on cultural context, of course, these very qualities could be interpreted differently: historical can be read as “outdated,” homemade as “tacky.” Choices regarding fabrics work to communicate where a maker stands in relation to cultural hierarchies. Should one ornament a jar with vintage calico, unfussy burlap, or artisanal paper?[13] Gingham, for instance, has become an international sign for homemade/handmade. The J.M. Smucker company trademarked its plaid Smucker’s (all-metal) lid in 1975 and has been engaged in legal action with a European firm over the ways these decorative decisions translate into elite market share.[14]


imitationBladderIf Smucker’s has moved from the virtuality of a fabric cap to virtual fabric itself (reproduced two-dimensionally on a metal lid), Jas Townsend & Sons, Inc. allows historical reenactors and others to simulate the cloth cap’s historical antecedent in function, form, and style. Like Jiffy-Seals of the 1930s and 1940s, the company’s imitation hog’s bladders work and look like the real thing, but they employ new materials. This very moment, for $7.50, one can purchase a 4-piece set of foot-square collage protein sheets; the company claims its faux bladders “provide an authentic look and effect without all the squeal and unpleasantries.”

Which is to say, this packaging aims to preserve more than preserves.

[1] Cellophane is made from cellulose, a plant-based polymer that forms the backbone of goods like cotton and wood. The Clopay Corporation (its name a combination of cloth and paper) also made window treatments and “moth-tight” garment storage bags; during WWII the company manufactured blackout shades. In 1950 it embraced petroleum-based plastics. See http://www.clopayplastics.com/history-timeline and http://www.clopaydoor.com/aboutus/clopay-history.
[2] “To Pickle French Beans,” Butler’s Recipe Book, 1719, edited by Philip James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), 17-18.
[3] The recipe implies that this last step involved extended time in a copper, brass, or bell-metal cooking vessel, which would have artificially “greened” the beans by leaching copper from the pot—an aesthetic strategy now known to be poisonous. (It’s no accident that the acid-salt solution used by jewelers to clean metal is also called a pickle.) Use glass, stoneware, or food-grade plastic containers when fixing pickles.
[4] e.g., Richard Briggs, The New Art of Cookery; According to the Present Practice; Being a Complete Guide to All Housekeepers, on a Plan Entirely New, Second American Edition, Improved (Boston: W. Spotswood, 1798):328; William Scott, The House Book, or Family Chronicle of Useful Knowledge, and Cottage Physician (London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper, 1826): 564. In giving general directions for preserves, Catharine Beecher wrote, “Lay brandy papers over the top, cover them tight, and seal them, or what is best of all, soak a split bladder and tie it tight over them. In drying , it will shrink so as to be perfectly air-tight”; Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1846): 153.
[5] W. H. Flower, “Museum Specimens for Teaching Purposes,” Nature Jan 4, 1877, 204-206, at 205.
[6] Kay Moss and Kathryn Hoffman, The Backcountry Housewife (Gastonia, NC: 18th Century Backcountry Lifeways Studies Program, Schiele Museum, 1994): 93; Marjorie Kreidberg, Food on the Frontier: Minnesota Cooking from 1850 to 1900, with Selected Recipes (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1975): 285n15.
[7] In addition to the rubber or composite gaskets that have been standard since the early twentieth century, other sealants for food jars have included layers of oil or suet, paper dipped in brandy, and corks or other plugs secured with wire and/or sealed with wax, resin, or varnish. Often, and especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more than one strategy was combined.
[8] Goodholme’s Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information (New York: Henry Holt, 1877): 385.
[9] ibid.,  423.
[10] William Hale Charch had patented a moisture-proof cellophane using nitrocellulose lacquer in 1927, and the product was marketed very successfully by DuPont until the 1960s, when PVC-based plastic wraps came on the market. John K. Winkler, The Dupont Dynasty (Baltimore, MD: Waverly Press, 1935): 271; David A. Hounshell and John Kenly Smith, Science and Corporate Strategy: Du Pont R&D, 1902–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988): 170; DuPont, “1925 William Hale Charch,” About Us: History, DuPont.com, accessed May 2016; Cory Bernat, “Supermarket Packaging: The Shift From Glass to Aluminum to Plastic,” The Atlantic, January 25, 2012.
[11] See David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).
[12] Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Theorizing Heritage,” Ethnomusicology 39.3 (1995): 367-380, at 369, 377-78.
[13] Those who create material culture can manipulate aspects of form (shape, structure), decoration (color and other forms of ornamentation), and technology (materials, techniques) to communicate practical, social, and ideological functions. See Henry Glassie, “Folkloristic Study of the American Artifact: Objects and Objectives,” in Handbook of American Folklore, ed. Richard M. Dorson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983) and James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1977).
[14] Janon Fisher, “Jam War Spreads to Federal Court,” AdWeek,  August 9, 2011.

One thought on ““With a Blather and Leather”: Packaging Preserves”

  1. Very interesting, Danille! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. These things I never knew! 😊

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