16 January 2013

The canning jar windfall story (Or: Always accept hand-me-downs)

This week I was offered about two dozen canning jars, mostly old-timey ones dating from the early 20th century. Dealing with second-hand or older canning jars can be tricky, and I try to keep a few things in mind when I come across a previously used canning jar. One, I almost never can my own food with hand-me-down jars, because I don't know if the jars have been badly cared for. I don't want to risk losing time, money, and food when a jar fails in the canner. For a second concern, I knew this batch of jars would include several of the type with glass lids and wire bails. I cannot use these at all for canning, though unchipped, uncracked jars with non-rusty bails can be useful for dry food storage. And finally, I don't have either the time or the expertise to inspect, sort, and price jars for sale. I'm sure I could make a few dollars off the surplus jars I won't be able to use, but I am not interested in going into the second-hand goods business.

So then why did I take the lot, sight unseen? Because of the Rowhouse Livin' "Law of Hand-me-downs," which is, simply, Always accept hand-me-downs. Here are three reasons why:

  • Friends and family will be more likely to give things to you in the future if you haven't turned them down in the past.

  • It's good discipline for keeping the house neat and organized. Anything I can't use, I'll donate to my neighborhood charity thrift store. When I'm newly flush with hand-me-downs I can't use, it's an opportunity to take along items of my own that I don't need any more at the homestead: unwanted clothes and housewares, unfortunate gifts, and a few books.

  • There's still a possibility you could make a buck or two. For instance, while I have no use for the nearly complete set of mid-20th century china that a relative handed down to me, I will likely be able to sell it for a month's grocery money. The trick here is to minimize your time and effort while maximizing the cash you can get from "flipping" hand-me-downs. If you want to go into the second-hand goods business, then by all means, do so. But to make a living at it, you'll have to make it your full-time job: pursuing items, cleaning and valuating them, operating a real or internet shop, and taking care of the administrative overhead.

    Back to the windfall . . . which consisted of a little more than two dozen jars. Five were half-gallon jars, which are no good for canning anything the Rowhouse Livin' household uses. I cleaned them and filled them with dry pasta; each jar holds about 2 pounds, or about 2 packages, depending on the size of the pasta. These would have been an expensive storage solution if I'd bought them myself, so I'm happy to get them free. Now the pasta that was hidden in boxes in my pantry cabinet is attractively stored on an open shelf by the kitchen.

    Another half dozen of the jars were real antiques with wire bails. And by "real antiques," I mean "real rusted." These went into a donation box without opening or washing. Let some collector find them at the thrift store; I'm not interested.

    Two were squat, round, pint-sized non-mason jars with wire bails, stained blue. They were modern and perhaps originally held candles or sweets. Not useful for me, so they went into the donation box as well.

    Ten more were lovely pre-1937 (PDF) Ball jars in blue, and a couple more blue Atlas jars, too. Though modern lids and screw bands fit on these jars, I would never can in them, because 75+ years is a lot of time for a jar to encounter the temperature shocks and physical impacts that can weaken them. (And I understand that the rims weren't the designed sealing points on these jars; the shoulders were, so even unblemished rims aren't suitable for modern lids.) And in fact, most of these lovely jars had chipped rims anyway, or cracks on the necks that indicated that someone had over-tightened their lids at some point. Into the donation box with them: a collector can enjoy them, or a home crafter can file down the flaws and repurpose the jars. I won't use a chipped jar even for dry food storage, because they cut my hands when I wash them -- and chips beget more chips. Crunchy! Luckily, three of the old blue jars were in excellent condition, so I've filled them with popcorn and placed them on the shelf near the pasta jars.

    And the odds and ends. First, a very old-style, quart-size Atlas jar missing its wire bail, rubber gasket, and glass lid. Since it's in excellent condition, I'm keeping it and using it to store incense sticks in the bathroom. A pint-size Atlas jar with a zinc cap, also in excellent shape, will stay for decorative storage, and I'll keep food in it so long as it's of the wrapped variety: candies, cough drops, that kind of thing. Maybe I'll bring it to my office. Last, a few modern Ball jars that look useable, so I've cleaned them and added them to my rotation.

    I've packed the jars for donation lightly with newsprint in a couple of boxes, and I'll take them to the thrift store this weekend. What will you do with your next windfall?

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