There are few moments when a man feels more like a man than when he removes a tight lid from a jar. There’s something fundamentally satisfying about that little “pop” sound, which lets us know that we’ve won — we’ve conquered that villainous jar and our heroic, manly strength is affirmed.
This satisfaction is intensified almost infinitely when done in the presence of a significant other who has proven incapable of opening said jar, so we — in our idiotic way — get to prove to them just how strong we are. And if this happens after another guy has also already failed to open it… woooo baby (if it’s their dad, you may as well just die right there, because life will literally never get any better).
Despite the fact that I personally despise The Big Bang Theory and regard it as little more than an effective method of torturing plants, one episode of the show does explain the jar test pretty perfectly, with Insufferable Nerd Stereotype #1 explaining to Insufferable Nerd Stereotype #2, “When I fail to open this jar and you succeed, it will establish you as the alpha male.”
And indeed, removing a jar lid actually is a pretty good barometer for strength. “Grip is an interesting test of strength because it responds poorly to exercise,” explains MEL contributor Oliver Lee Bateman, who is himself a championship gripper (yes, that’s a thing). “Grip is a much more immutable trait than your pecs, thighs, etc. as hand size is pretty training-independent. Yet it’s still a good measure of a person’s strength, since a good grip helps you do every other type of physical activity.”
So grip, then, is a credible test of strength, but why is this particular test so important to us? Perhaps the answer lies with another domestic feat of strength we examined a little while back — our compulsive need to carry all of our groceries in the house at once. In that piece, social researcher Shaunti Feldhahn succinctly explained, “Guys will create competition where there isn’t any.” That is, we create scenarios in our mind to challenge ourselves and pit ourselves against others, despite it being totally nonsensical. Feldhahn also explained that tests like this get at the core insecurity in most men — the question of “am I able?” Men are constantly feeling the need to prove how capable we are, and the jar test is a fine opportunity to prove ourselves — or even better, to show up other men.
A recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm also tackled this, with Larry David, J.B. Smoove and the late, great Bob Einstein continuously wrestling a jar away from each other in order to prove who’s the strongest among them.
The opening of a jar wasn’t always our universal strength test, of course: Thousands of years ago, cave-dudes were no doubt comparing mastodon sizes on the hunting grounds. Later, when we were primarily an agrarian society, men probably proved their strength by how fast they could plow their fields or wield a scythe on their farm. What we know for sure is that, while men have no doubt always competed with each other, prior to the late 1700s, we had less of a need to prove our strength to our mate, at least in the execution of domestic tasks.
That’s according to historian and family studies professor Stephanie Coontz, who covers the evolution of gender roles in her book Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Coontz goes on to explain that before men started to leave the home to go to work in the late 18th century, our contribution to domestic labor was fairly equal with women. “There was no sense that the wife was a dependent like she would be perceived later. They were called ‘yolk mates,’ and men were integrally involved in the household,” says Coontz. While the man was certainly in charge of the household back then, the home wasn’t thought of as the “woman’s realm,” as it was the primary place of work, with businesses — like shoemaking, etc. — conducted out of the home for the most part.
That said, there was still a division of labor, with men likely doing certain tasks that required a bit more muscle. As Coontz says, “There were things that men needed to do, but they didn’t need to prove anything. In general, they were bigger and stronger than the wife, so the man would run the plow down and complete other tasks that required that kind of strength. Women did just as much backbreaking work afterwards though, with planting and tilling and that sort of thing.”
So when it comes to the jar test, had jars had existed back then, it seems unlikely that it would have been a task that the man would have been in charge of. “I can’t imagine a Colonial woman saying, ‘Could you help churn this butter?’ Colonial women had very strong arms, and I’m sure if you showed her a jar, she would’ve figured out how to open it,” Coontz says. Even if she had asked her husband for help, it’s highly unlikely that he would treat it with the same bravado as a modern man, since he would’ve been opening this jar after hours of much more grueling tasks.
From the late 1700s, though, men would start leaving the home and heading into the workplace, at least in more urban settings. It was during this time that the home would become the woman’s realm, with she as its gatekeeper and the man as the sole financial provider. At this period in history, Coontz explains that while men still performed a few rigorous household tasks, they’d be more likely to brag about the labor they didn’t have to do, as not having to sweat over your home was a mark of pride and status. If they could afford servants to do the work for them, that was an even greater source of pride, as the wife wouldn’t have to do the household labor either.
As for the jar, it still didn’t exist yet. And if it had, it doesn’t seem like it would’ve been a popular strength test — it probably wouldn’t have even been on a man’s radar, as they would’ve expected their wife to take care of it long before they got home for dinner.
One thing that was most certainly considered man’s work back then, though, was making war, which would play a big part in the creation of the jar. Food writer Gary Allen, author of Can It!: The Perils and Pleasures of Preserving Foods, tells me that canning originally came about due to a contest started by Napoleon in 1800. Searching for a way to better preserve food for his troops, Napoleon put the word out by offering a cash reward to whoever could figure out a solution — that guy would be someone by the name of Nicolas Appert. By the time Appert was done inventing canning, says Allen, Napoleon was “pretty much finished,” but Appert still received his cash prize and food canning was born.
In that era, cans were opened with a chisel, but not everyone would get to feast upon the deliciously preserved food inside — Allen says that military officers would primarily have been the ones with this privilege, and the can-opening would have been done by their staff. Canning would become mainstream over the next few decades, but opening cans would likely have been handled by women as, during this time, “The home was seen as a woman’s queendom, and women took enormous pride in their cooking and other household skills,” says Sarah Chrisman, author Tales of Chetzemoka and an expert on this period (she and her husband live as a Victorian-Era couple).
The Mason Jar was finally invented in 1858 by John Landis Mason, and although it was the first screw-top jar, Allen points out that an even more familiar name would be the one to introduce pickle jars into the home: “Henry J. Heinz would be the one who started commercial pickle jars in 1869, and he did it because the clear glass helped to sell his products better than a can,” says Allen.
With the introduction of the jar into the American household, coincidentally, so would the man start to reappear. Coontz explains that after a prolonged absence from playing a role in home life, men would begin to get re-invited back into the household in the latter part of the 19th century. Basically, the man would increasingly help around the house, if only in very token ways. Whether or not this included jar opening right away is difficult to discern, though it’s possible the feat of strength could have started in the 1880s, as that’s when jars started to be available pretty much everywhere.
More likely, though, the opening of pickle jar as a test of manly strength would have rolled around a few decades later. “Not until the 20th century did we significantly decrease the amount of physical labor involved in and around the home, and in the absence of that, perhaps this became more prevalent,” suggests Coontz. In other words, the jar lid as a test of strength may have come about because modern conveniences took care of everything else for us.
According to the records I could dig up, the idea of jar-opening as a problem for 20th century man lines up. The earliest record I found was from 1904, in The American Bee Journal, where a transcription of a meeting between beekeepers discusses the problem of opening a screw-top jar. In the meeting, a Mr. York laments, “consumers couldn’t get it open half the time. They would return it to the grocer because they couldn’t open it.”
In reply, a Mr. Smith says, “Mr. York says he can’t unscrew it. If you will just pour a little hot water on the top, you won’t have any trouble unscrewing it.” And while it’s hard to discern tone here, I do wonder if a bit of turn-of-the-century one-upmanship is going on. After all, York didn’t say he couldn’t unscrew it, but Smith still took it as an “asking for a friend,” kind of thing, figuring York himself couldn’t unscrew the lid. Today, I imagine the conversation might proceed like this:
Mr. York: “Hey, dick, I didn’t say I couldn’t unscrew it, I said the consumers can’t.”
Mr. Smith: “Sure, York. ‘The consumers.’”
Clear references to the perils of the stuck lid seem to pop up a bit more by the 1930s, like this 1939 book which uses the stuck jar lid as a logic equation. A 1933 issue of BusinessWeek contains an article about consumer testing on lids, which states, “[The testers] carried 10 assorted containers out of grocer’s stock and dared [a] housewife to open them with her bare hands.” She ended up opening nine of the ten containers, and while the language certainly reveals some of the sexism of the time, it also shows that there’s already a gender component in relation to the jar.
By the 1950s, the war of man v. jar was clearly well underway, as evidenced by an episode of the TV series Ethel and Albert, where a guy spends much of it trying to pry open a jar. At one point, one of the wives in the story even claims, “That’s why girls want to get married — so they have someone to open pickle jars.”
Further evidence that the rivalry heated up at this time: Allen explains that it was during the late 1950s that Playboy began to encourage more guys to cook. Of course, this was suggested not as a step toward equality but rather as a way to entice the ladies. Still, Allen says that the campaign did introduce a lot of men to cooking, and thus, more jar-opening.
The 1960s followed suit, as shown in both Good Housekeeping and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, as Bullwinkle’s alter ego, Mr. Know-It-All, hopelessly tries to open a jar in increasingly ridiculous ways:
The battle has continued ever since. A common joke, it’s been featured on Arrested Development, SpongeBob SquarePants, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Johnny Bravo, just to name a few. It even became fodder during the 2016 election, when Jimmy Kimmel had Hillary Clinton open a pickle jar in order to prove her good health (meanwhile, Trump was busy defending his own pickle).
And no doubt it will continue, at least until glass jars stop being a thing, which sadly, is starting to happen. As Allen points out, Heinz — the company who likely started this rivalry — has increasingly begun to switch to plastic containers. Let’s just hope that we’ve got a few more decades of being able to prove ourselves in this way — otherwise we might have to actually do something practical about our fragile male egos.
Now hand me that pickle jar, babe.