By Mary Giorgio
For over 100 years, the Ball Corporation name has been synonymous with quality home canning products. Originally headquartered in New York, the company relocated to Muncie, Indiana, early in its history. There, the company quickly became a leading employer in the city, while its founders established themselves as local philanthropists.
The enterprise that would eventually become Ball Corporation began in 1880 when Frank and Edmund Ball borrowed $200 from their Uncle George to purchase the Wooden Jacket Can Company in New York. Their three remaining brothers, Lucius, William, and George, soon joined the company. Although all five brothers played a role in the development of the business, it was Frank C. Ball who served as the company’s president, and whose innovative leadership is most remembered.
Frank and his brother, Edmund, got their start in manufacturing in the 1870s, when they invested in a factory that produced fish kits and tubs for packing salt fish. When the factory burned to the ground, the brothers didn’t have enough capital to rebuild and purchase all of the equipment needed to reopen the factory. It was around this time that Frank and Edmund decided to acquire the Wooden Jacket Can Company.
Initially, the Wooden Jacket Can Company manufactured tin cans that were covered in wooden sleeves. The cans were used to store kerosene, paint, and varnish. The tin cans, however, tended to corrode. Soon, the Ball brothers began experimenting with the use of a glass jar. With the experiment a success, the Ball Brothers decided to open their own glass jar manufacturing factory. They built a new two-story factory to use as a stamping works, along with a one-story glassworks in East Buffalo, New York, in the early 1880s. In 1884, the Ball Brothers learned that a patent covering the Mason Improved Fruit Jar had expired, and decided to expand their business to produce canning jars and lids. Two years later, on February 13, 1886, the brothers incorporated their business as the Ball Brothers Manufacturing Company.
That same year, the Ball factory in Buffalo was destroyed by fire. Rather than rebuild in New York, the brothers decided to look for a location situated closer to a ready supply of natural gas. After visiting several cities, Frank eventually recommended that the brothers relocate to Muncie, Indiana. Excited by the opportunity to lure a large manufacturer to their city, local officials had offered them seven acres of land, their own natural gas well, $5,000 in cash, and a railroad connection to their factory. Construction began in 1887. The Muncie facility opened in 1888 with 100 employees. The first products to roll off their new line were not the canning jars that would eventually make them famous, but oil containers and lamp chimneys.
Before long, canning jars had been added to the Muncie factory’s production line. By 1894, Ball Brothers Manufacturing Company was producing around 22 million canning jars annually. In 1898, they patented the F. C. Ball Machine, a device used to mass-produce canning jars. The company quickly eclipsed its competition, becoming the largest producer of home canning supplies in the United States. By 1905, they were producing around 60 million canning jars per year. Eventually, Ball expanded its operations to seven additional factories across the country in order to meet demand.
For nearly 30 years, canning products became Ball Brothers’ bread and butter. Jars would eventually be produced in a variety of sizes, shapes, and decorative styles. Today, some of these jars have become highly collectible. In the 1930s, however, a marked decline in home canning led to company efforts to diversify. During World War II, production on domestic goods halted to shift factory output to products that would support the war effort. Ball’s main Muncie facilities were converted to manufacturing shells and machine parts for military use.
Following the end of World War II, an antitrust case further stymied the Ball Brothers’ efforts to dominate the glass jar industry. By court order, Ball was barred from the further acquisition of glass manufacturing operations without court approval. As a result, Ball’s efforts to diversity amped up. By the 1950s, the company had gained a foothold in the aerospace industry. Laboratories soon opened in Muncie and Boulder, Colorado. In 1959, Ball achieved a significant contract to build Orbiting Solar Observatory Satellites for NASA. Ball went on to produce other satellites and aerospace systems. Today, the company is also active in the manufacture of plastics and rubber.
By the early 1960s, the cultural shift away from home-canned goods that began in the 1930s was all but complete outside of rural America. Recognizing that their product lines had significantly shifted from their once famous jars, the company ended production of glass mason jars at its Muncie facility in 1962. The company became a publicly traded entity in 1973. Jar production at several of its smaller facilities was eventually spun off into a subsidiary business in 1993. Corporate headquarters moved from Muncie to Colorado in 1998. Today, the Ball jar label is licensed to Newell Brands. A Muncie factory used to produce jar lids, the final tie that Ball Corporation had to the Muncie community, closed in 2019.