Bottle openers only became common kitchen items after the crown top (also called the crown cork) was invented by a Baltimore bottler named William Painter in 1892. Prior to that, Hutchinson and other types of beer and soft-drink bottles came with attached stoppers. This was convenient for consumers, but the stoppers did a poor job of keeping the contents of the bottle fresh. Crown-top bottles were a huge improvement from a health standpoint, but they required a tool to be opened.
William Painter invented that, too, and as his crown technology was embraced by more and more bottlers, bottle openers were produced in enormous numbers, usually with advertisements on them for beverages, bars, and restaurants. While most openers were made to do only one thing well (i.e., to open a bottle), others were produced as multifunctional devices, with folding knives, corkscrews, button hooks, cigar cutters, and, eventually, can openers incorporated into their designs.
The earliest bottle openers were small and shaped somewhat like keys, with a round hole in one end so it could be attached to a keychain, and the opener itself at the other. From the 1910s to around 1930, many of these openers also had a small square hole in them, which was designed to open and close the gas-powered Prest-o-lite valves on automobile headlights, which were common before electric headlights became the norm...
Variations on the basic key shape of early openers include fish, bottles, boots, a pirate’s cutlass, cigars, and the heads of various animals, from eagles to horses. Some openers abandoned the key shape altogether in favor of figurals, such as a man riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Metals used in these early, flat openers include cast iron, steel, and brass.
The presence of a Prest-o-lite hole is one way to date an opener, but another clue is to look for the name of the company that made the opener, which, prior to 1920, was commonly stamped into the metal. Company names to pay attention to include Vaughn of Chicago and Williamson of Newark, New Jersey.
While most openers were intentionally simple tools, some were a bit over the top. One such opener was made by Budweiser brewer Anheuser Busch, which commissioned openers with carved bone or mother-of-pearl handles, pocket knives, corkscrews, and Stanhope lenses, which offered the lucky recipient of these rare premiums tiny portraits of Adolphus Busch or his famous St. Louis brewery.
In addition to flat bottle openers, these tools were also made out of formed shapes resembling shoe horns. But perhaps the most common type of bottle openers were those made of single lengths of thick wire, which were pinched in places to create tabs to pry the caps from the bottles and stamped flat sections on their handles to support advertising messages.
After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, brewers began to experiment with packaging their products in cans. Cone-top cans made by Continental Can for Schlitz opened the same way as crown-top bottles, which meant bottle openers could still be used when opening these containers. But flat-topped cans were clearly the wave of the future, which is why bottle openers began to be produced with a piercing triangle at one end, so that beverages in either cans or bottles could be opened with the same tool.
Paralleling the evolution of portable pocket-size bottle openers was the development of stationary bottle openers, which were routinely mounted to the walls of grocery stores where bottles of soda pop were sold. The leading producer of stationary openers was Brown Manufacturing of Newport News, Virginia, which is probably most famous for its Starr “X” Coca-Cola bottle openers, first manufactured in 1929. But Brown made bottle openers for Coca-Cola competitors, too, including Dr Pepper and Pepsi. It also made openers for Budweiser, Schlitz, Miller, and Pabst.
Interviews & Articles
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