Editor’s note: This column originally was published Jan. 15, 2017.
Forty-five years ago, my mother began collecting a series of antique canning jars. I can’t remember why this happened, but my best guess is that she came across one that was unique, she liked it, and she bought it.
This purchase would start a chain reaction and a multi-year search for my family.
Specifically, she sought green Atlas jars with glass lids. These were also known as “Lightning Jars.” Allegedly, the name came from how much faster they were to open than the previous design for canning jars.
Unlike the canning jars with a screw-on metal lid, the lightning jars utilized a rubber ring and a metal clamp mechanism to hold the lid and seal in place.
From what little information I could find, the green Atlas lightning jars seemed to have been commonly made through the early 1900s, but were never manufactured in the same quantities as the clear jars. My information may not be accurate on this, but one thing is certain. By the early 1970s, finding green canning jars was difficult.
My mom first found a green, half-gallon lightning jar. That was the jar that began the quest for the rest.
Then she found the green quart and pint sizes. She was told by the old-timers that a green, half-pint jar had also been made. But no one had seen one in years or knew where to find one.
The internet was still more than two decades in the future, so auctions, letters to manufacturers, word of mouth, and searching garage, estate and junk sales were the ways we looked for one. Our monthly trip from Arkansas to Canton Trade Days was also a time that we would look.
Back then, Canton was nothing like it is today. Most booths featured true antiques and collectibles. You could barter or pay cash. Today, most things at Canton are arts, crafts, or new items and the prices are retail. I miss the old Canton.
At Trade Days, we scoured each booth for that jar.
In my youth, my family called me “Johnny.” So, when we would arrive at Canton, my dad would remind each of us of our search for what was, at the time, the holy grail: a green, half-pint Atlas canning jar.
“Johnny, if you see one, come get your mother or me immediately,” he would say.
“Yes, sir,” I would respond.
The longer and harder we searched, the less likely it seemed that we would find one.
Maybe those who claimed to have seen a half-pint, Atlas lightning jar had just imagined it? Maybe what they remembered was a pint size. No, they were sure of it. They made a green, half-pint jar. They existed.
At least two years passed. Saturday night auctions in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, brought no luck. Neither did searching junk shops in Texarkana, Hot Springs, or the Dallas area.
It seemed that the possibility of us finding this jar was about as likely as us finding the real holy grail.
One hot, summer day, we had walked Canton from front to back and decided to eat a hamburger before we left to head back to the Natural State. There was one particular hamburger stand we all enjoyed near what we called “The hill,” which was located near the front gate.
We were disposing of our wrappers and cups in a trash can, when my dad said, “Hold on a minute. Everyone stay here. I’ll be right back.” He then disappeared around the corner of a building.
Standing in the hot sun, I was hoping that whatever he was doing, he would be quick about it.
He reappeared and called us all to follow him. We walked around the building and up to a booth. It was a small booth, with mostly junk on the tables. I couldn’t figure out what had caught his eye.
And then I saw it. Near the side and back of a table, there it was. A green, half-pint Atlas jar.
It did exist.
My father and mother discussed the price. I don’t remember how much the dealer wanted for it, but it must have been a lot for the time because there was some hesitation.
But, after that long of a search, I had little doubt that we would leave without it.
My dad negotiated a price, and the jar went home with us. It still resides at my parents home, alongside the other three Atlas jars, and her collection of lady head vases and Aladdin Lamps.
On the ride home from Canton, there was a sense of satisfaction and completion. But for me, it was bittersweet. A family-shared quest was now over.
Today, if you have the money and an internet connection, you can find just about anything you want, and have someone bring it to your front door the next day.
But that convenience will never be as rewarding as working together as a family to find something that brings an amazing level of joy to your mom.