The History of the Jam Jar (and Of the Jam Inside)

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By dint of seeing it we no longer see it, the jam jar is to the culinary art what Robin Day is to the BBC. Yet its story is far more hectic than that of your spread, miraculously fallen on the right side this morning.

The story of the jam jar is, unsurprisingly, correlated with that of jam. But jam has not always been the one we eat today. In fact, it has been something other than the one we are consuming today for a long long time. And the different forms it adopts have shaped its container.


Arabe Medicin and Hartley’s Jam

The jam designates from the thirteenth century until the nineteenth century all foods preserved in honey, sugar but also vinegar. Therefore, you can find fruit jams as well as vegetables, herbs and flowers. In the same way, candied fruits, fruit pastes, jellies, marzipans, pastilles and sugared almonds, which will become confectionery in the 19th century, will be called jam.

Antiquity used a lot of defrutum, a condiment made with a lot of grape must and obtained by reduction. A second reduction made it possible to obtain a defrutum called “viscous”. It was used to sweeten wines (which we know today the taste) but especially its sugar content, very high, was used to prepare jams such as tinned quince and melons.

If some fruits are judged harshly by antiquity, some were sometimes even considered dangerous, it turns out that once “comfited” they adorn themselves with wonderful virtues. Galen (129-216) described the fruits as “poor food, likely to burden the stomach unnecessarily, to cause corruption and decay.” But perhaps if he had not stuffed himself with fruit in the summer of 157 until he was sick with indigestion, passing along dysentery (true story), perhaps he would have been more reasonable and would not have influence a good part of the doctors of the Middle Ages who became his carpophobe followers (the irrational fear of fruits is a real disease, don’t laugh).

According to Galen and his successors, some methods of fruit preparation could transform the deceitful apple, the bellicose pear or even the fierce apricot into miracle foods, something like goji berries for Instagram influencial people. Thus, the apple cooked with sugar and anise was beneficial for the belly as the pears cooked in red wine with sugar, cinnamon and bristling with cloves. As for apricots and quinces, nothing could better render them harmless than a good cooking in sugar. More than food, candied fruits in all kinds of forms (solid or liquid) become medicines. It’s not about gastronomy but about medicine.

Ceramic jar
Iran, 12th century
H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Gift of Horace Havemeyer, 1929
MET Museum, New York
©MET Museum

The medical nature of jams becomes very important in the Middle Ages when European scientists borrow from their Arab counterparts recipes of medicines in which jams appear. These recipes inherited from antiquity – a period during which medicines are sweetened with honey – are transmitted to the Arab world, which gradually replaces honey with sugar, as evidenced by their collections of medical preparations called Grabadins. These are the latter which were introduced in the West in the eleventh century via the Crusaders.

In the field of medicines composed of jams (of fruits, vegetables or flowers) one finds in particular the gawarisnat (name borrowed from Persian guwarisn meaning “digestive”) and which take back the ancient stomachiques (remedies favoring the digestion) and favoring the treatment of the digestive tract. Honey and sugar act here as an excipient, they give texture and taste to the drug. These medicines, scented with different flavors or spices, are presented in tablet form. Soft in consistency, they are made from honey or kneaded sugar. Thus, we know very well the method of preparation of gawarisn al misk made from a mixture of several spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, clove, pepper, saffron, galangal, etc.) pounded with musk and sugar. Then this mixture is kneaded with honey; the paste obtained is then spread on a marble coated with rose oil and then cut into slices. It has a better mug than our Nurofen. But obviously, given the ingredients necessary for the preparation of these solid jams, the remedy was not accessible to all although spices are more affordable in the Arab world than in the West.

Abdullah ibn al-Fadl, Preparation of remedy from honey
Folio of an illuminated manuscript of 1224
Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956
MET Museum, New York
© MET Museum

“Pharmaceutical” confectionary fruit is called murrabayat (raba verb meaning “comfit”) and is not restricted to fruit but includes vegetables, herbs, spices and flowers according to the healing properties of each species. Again, these medications are suitable for facilitating digestion. And like today, fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices or flowers are placed in a bath of sugar and cooked successively until all the water they contain has evaporated. The citrus fruits are cooked in water and sugar and then dried several times before a last cooking with honey. The flowers are only candied in sugar and dried in the sun. Like today, the big winners in the field of jam (solid and liquid) are violet and rose. It is also from these Arab medicines that will be obtained later pharmaceutical preparations then confectionery called rosat (rose sugar) and violat (violet sugar) with softening and astringent properties.

Finally, the last jam of the Arabic pharmacopoeia is also the one that comes closest to our modern concept of jam, it is the rob (Arabic rubb meaning “juice”). The remedy consists of a fruit juice concentrate and not sweetened borrowing to ancient defrutum and sapa, a kind of very thick and viscous syrup, always very popular in Italy.

Italian sapa

While defrutum is made from grapes and sapa is applied to all kinds of fruits, the rob only concerns astringent fruits (quince, apples, currants, green grapes, etc.). The rob is never sweetened which gives it a very acid taste and surely a little unpleasant to eat. Some kind of medicine-jam-not-good, already closer to our idea of jam and of medications. The rob will be adapted by the West and give birth in the sixteenth century to fruit jelly. Today there are sweet robs, including the famous Rub Al-Tamr, a syrup or honey of dates very popular in the Middle Eastern cuisine.

Rub Al-Tamr, dates syrup

The solid and liquid forms adopted by Arab jams and their medicinal nature make them expensive products that need to be well preserved so as not to spoil the rare materials that compose them. The jam jars are probably very similar to those designed to preserve the ointments and other valuable medicines of Arab apothecaries. The vast majority of these pharmacy vases were ceramic, sometimes painted and decorated with motifs. Regularly cylindrical, these vases are referred to as “albarelle”. They designate for the Middle East as for the West ceramic containers intended to preserve spices, jams and ointments.

Albarelle with cobalt blue glaze
This type of jar was meant to contain spices or ointments
Iran. 12th – 13th century

Ceramic Albarelle
Valencia, Spain, 15th century
La Fontana Foundation, Barcelona, Spain
© Fondaciòn La Fontana


Medicine with Sugar, Medicine for Fatties

Once the Arabs cleared the field of medicine, Westerners took over the Grabadins and translated them into Latin, modifying and adapting some recipes. The two most famous collections are the Antidotarium Magnum and the Antidotarium Mesuae, both written around 1100. Sugar occupies a prominent place alongside honey, both of which are used in jam preparations, but still keep in mind that jams, before the nineteenth century, adopt both liquid and solid forms.

For example, the Antidotarium Magnum has two stomachic jams; the first is called diamilon, it combines apples with sugar and honey while the diamelon, always with apples, excludes honey but is associated with a syrup. The Antidotarium Nicolai (abbreviated version of the 13th century Antidotarium Magnum and enriched with some remedies) mentions diaprunis, a plum jam using only sugar. In all three cases, the texture is thick and liquid. It is precisely these two characteristics that are not only close to our modern concept of jam, but also a drug that will be red-hot from Middle Ages in to nineteenth century, the medieval nurofen, the synthol of the fortified castles, I named : the electuary.

Two albarelles containing
for the first electuary hiera picra (based on aloe vera)
and for the second the electuary diaprunis (made from plums)

The electuary originated in the recipes of Babylonian pharmacopoeia, a recipe that was taken up by the Greeks then by the Romans and preserved throughout the Middle Ages a privileged status in medicine. It is in the Antidotarium Mesuae written in the thirteenth century by Pseudo Mésué (Christian doctor of the Syriac Orthodox Church, of Italian origin otherwise known as Masawaih or Ibn Māsawayh born in 925 and died in 1015) that the we find the best defines the electuary. The recipes take up the Arabic gawarisna and are distinguished by the systematic use of sugar and honey. The role of sugar is also essential in electuaries and is associated, most often, with fruits. Thus the Antidotarium Mesuae presents new jams such as peaches (persicis), made of a mixture of fruits such as apples, quince and pears (fructibus), those with apples (pornis) or those with plums (prunis). In the Middle Ages, the electuary balances between medicine and culinary art. Medicine and food intertwine since food is at the heart of doctors’ therapy. Health is essentially based on food, electuaries consumed at the table embellish a dish, also balance it to lessen the impact of the latter on the human body or simply to make his medicine swallow by a recalcitrant patient.

At the end of the Middle Ages, the guys are so sugar-hooked that they begin to make a distinction between electuary and jam. The electuary remains a medicinal jam made by pros who skillfully mix, according to their benefits, spices, fruits, vegetables and vegetables to reduce an ache. The jam at the same time becomes a gluttony reserved for the aristocracy because the Bonne Maman jam jar still costs something like a castle regard to the products it contains: sugar from the East and (sometimes exotic) fruits. And preferably expensive fruits (pomegranate, citrus fruits, dates, figs that come from far far away to show that hitting carbon footprint and chartering a caravan of fifty camels for three apricots (fruit which, by the way, was certainly tasted only by a rare circle of privileged because its appearance in the cooked dishes appears only in the eighteenth century), well, it is not a problem when you got a lot of cash.

Detail of an illumination of the Canon medicinae of Avicenna
Preparation of an electuary, the remedy is in liquid form

It is thus in the Low Middle Ages (circa 1300 – 1500), that the jams begin to take the « gourmand » character that they still have today. And on this ground, intervenes a character to whom you do not expect: Michel de Nostredame better known under the name of Nostradamus (1503 – 1566) successful astrologer and author no less talented of the Treaty of jams. Published in 1555 in Lyon, it is a must have of that time. This Nostradamus influencer had obviously sensed Instagram and Youtube by proposing in his book Excellent et Moult Utile Opuscule à tous nécessaire a first part presenting secrets of beauty and hygiene and in a second part about thirty recipes of jams divided into two categories : dry jams and liquid jams. Nostradamus details precisely tools, products and quantities needed, balance between water and sugar, cooking temperature. In short, a masterpiece of the confectioner’s art. Nevertheless, the ingredients necessary to make jams, whether liquid or solid (dry), remain expensive and are not accessible to all. Sugar, for example, has only been sold by french grocers and apothecaries since 1484. It was not until the end of the 17th century that apothecaries delegated the sale of sugar to grocers alone, thus acting on its change of status from drug to luxury product of gastronomy.

At the same time (still in France), there is a similar change in the income from the charges of judicature. “Spices” were then part of the income of the office holders, they were collected during the procedure or investigations or as a thank you at the end of the lawsuits (#corruption). The spices were originally offered in nature in the form of spices so or, often, jams. If these presents were accepted as a part of the payments, one can easily imagine the value that was lent to them. During the seventeenth century, these “spices” are gradually converted into sums of money, acting as the progressive decline of jams as a luxurious product. Nevertheless, we can not yet say that the product has become democratized. And if the popular classes prepare jams with honey or grape must, they are preparations with dubious preservation and in no case as pleasant to taste as those with sugar. In this context, the jam jar preserves its form of albarelle although it is very likely that its presentation on aristocratic tables is done in precious metal cups or earthenware.


The Jam Jar, the Bling-Bling Table Accessory

It seems that the snack of jams given by Cardinal Richelieu (1545 – 1642) in honor of Marie de Medici (1575 – 1642) on May 26th or 27th, 1625 changes the situation and inaugurates a radical change in the field of presentation of the jam and therefore, its container. Here begins the hour of glory of the jam jar.

Marie de Medici consumed a lot of jams, a habit of the Italian court, which does not leave her on her arrival at the court of France. The “snack” of May 26th or 27th 1625 celebrated the marriage by proxy of Henriette (1609 – 1669) to Charles Ist of England (1600 – 1649) and the installation of the Dowager Queen in her new palace of Luxembourg, in which a part was decorated by Rubens (1577 – 1640) himself ; the artist was also present at this afternoon tea. Father Garasse (1585 – 1631), a jealous Jesuit, obviously did not appreciate the cardinal’s charity and gave us a testimony:

“A clergyman from France had a snack at the Faubourg St-Germain. This snack, according to what we heard from the engineers and other officers in charge of training, cost at least 40,000 livres in four articles: jams, perfumes, fountains of scented water and fireworks.”

This snack is thus distinguished from traditional banquets by a new refinement where one strives to satisfy all the senses without pig out and whose only food cited by the father Garasse is jam. This snack which goes down in history was announcing the finesse of Versailles such as the Montespan’s (1640 – 1707) Porcelain Trianon (now destroyed) welcoming a snack and nap pavilion, perfume distillery where only were admitted handpicked guests.

From then on, the jams are served during snacks or as a dessert. They become an element of social distinction as much in its presentation as in the ingredients it contains. Thus, jam now goes hand in hand with the possession and maintenance of an orchard as well as a dedicated staff to whom a new literature is addressed such as Le confiturier françois (1660) or Nouvelles instructions pour les confitures de Massialot (1692).

The jam jar therefore adopts garments as luxurious as the rich products it contains. Fine porcelain now replaces ceramics or terracotta albarelles of apothecaries. Fine and colorful, jam jars are as delicate as the etiquette requires.

Jam jar with red button France
Orleans, late 17th-early 18th century
©Gros Delettre


Jam jar in blown glass
French work of the eighteenth century

Four porcelain jam jars, 1772
©Thierry de Maigret

Once the Revolution passed, sugar is maintained as a luxury product but tends to become scarce; France is applying the continental blockade which forbids all trade with England and its colonies, directly impacting the import of cane sugar.

Only the better-off have access to this product necessary for the making of jams, preparation very popular at this time as tends to prove the craze for jam jars in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.

Silver and vermeil jammers
First Empire
by goldsmith H. Desnoyers
Emmanuel Redon Silver Fine Art


But Napoleon who was not half a fool, encourages French entrepreneurs to find a way to extract sugar from the beet and it is Benjamin Delessert who won the jackpot in 1811.

Thanks to him the current price of sugar will be divided by 200, from 15 francs to 7 cents per kilo! In the second half of the 19th century, jam became a consumer product. The jam jars are no longer intended to serve as a jewellery box to this old luxury dessert.

Jam jar from the brand Felix Potain
© Pinterest

The first ceramic pots are gradually giving way to glass jars, which are easier to produce on a larger scale. From aristocratic dessert, jam is relegated to the twentieth century to accompany breakfast. Nevertheless, it remains the only sweet product of everyday consumption in the first half of the 20th century. The growth of the agri-food and supermarket industries will end up dethroning jam in favor of cereals and biscuits, much sweeter. Nowadays, it is staying on our tables, but remains, especially in the eyes of foreigners, an essential element of the French breakfast.

©Bonne Maman


The world famous jam jar Bonne Maman testifies it, charming object both nostalgic and idealized of a French gastronomic tradition which was nevertheless longer a drug than a gastronomic sweetness!


  • Dominique Michel, « Le dessert au XVIIe siècle », Dix-septième siècle 2002/4 (n°217), p. 655-662
  • GAULIN Chantal. A propos du goûter de confitures offert par Richelieu à Marie de Médicis. In: Journal d’agriculture traditionnelle et de botanique appliquée, 35e année,1988. pp. 233-240
  • IRISSOU Louis. Épices et présents. In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 18e année, n°67, 1930. pp. 16-23.
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  • PLOUVIER Liliane. L’introduction du sucre en pharmacie. In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 87e année, n°322, 1999. pp. 199- 216.
  • WAROLIN Christian. La vente du sucre par les apothicaires et les épiciers parisiens au XVIIe siècle. In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 87e année, n°322, 1999. pp. 217-226
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