THE HISTORY OF METAL CANS AND CAN OPENERS

I am a collector at heart. As a kid, it was stamps. Later, coins. That latter hobby ended abruptly with a break-in at my house some thirty years ago. A pillowcase missing from my bed told me how the felons carried off my collection. I’ve collected antique furniture for years, later expanding this to include antique tools, devices, and implements used in the past in Eastern Kentucky where I live and have made my living. As a historian, I have come to believe that how we grew and prepared our food, made our clothes, cared for our animals, and made a living was as important as any aspect of history that I might be interested in. A very large tool collection ensued which includes five spinning wheels.

             SPINNING WHEEL

About a year and a half ago during one of my frequent walkthroughs of the local flea market, I encountered a young fellow who was selling a few old can openers, and was immediately intrigued. I bought four for a few bucks and then set about trying to find as much as I could about them. Reproduction Sears Roebuck catalogues were a start, but I quickly shifted over to the internet. The ones I had purchased proved to be late 19th - early 20th century models. I also discovered that metal cans for preserving food were primarily a nineteenth Century  invention, made famous by Napoleon in the early 1800’s to supply his troops on long campaigns. They were made of heavy metal and difficult to open. Instructions read: “Use a hammer and chisel.” Stones, axes, and bayonets were also tried with questionable success.

By the time of our Civil War in the 1860’s, thin metal cans much like the present ones had been developed, but there was no efficient way to open them. Soldiers on both sides used axes, bayonets, and small arms fire. Commanders complained that valuable shot and power was being wasted blasting open the cans. One would think that stray bullets could be a problem, too.

The first practical can opener was invented by Ezra Warner of Waterbury, Connecticut and patented in 1858. Some of these openers were used in army messes during the war. Following the war, this same model was employed by grocers to open cans for customers in the store, as they were considered too dangerous for home use because of the long, sharp blades.

A few days ago in my latest perusal of our flea market, at the very last stall I visited, a vendor was displaying about a hundred badly rusted items on a long table. As a longtime flea market junkie, it didn’t take more than a  few seconds to evaluate what was there. Immediately, my eyes fell upon a tool about eight inches long that I reasoned might be an early can opener. My clue was a 3/4 inch extension that looked like what I’d seen on my oldest openers. I asked the vendor what the tool was and he said he didn’t know. He took the two dollars I offered and I went home and hurried off to the internet. After considerable searching, I found it; #95,873 in the U.S. Patent Office, October 18, 1869. It was invented and manufactured by a William M. Bleakly of Westchester County, New York and was one of the earliest can openers patented in the United States, number 25 in my collection, and in my mind, the most important addition so far.

A few years earlier, in 1855, a claw-shaped lever-type opening was patented in England, and in 1865, the Bull’s-head lever-type opener, supplied with cans of pickled beef called “Bully Beef,” appeared in America and became a standard. The first opener with a cutting wheel was patented in 1870 by William Lyman and produced in the 1890’s. Lyman’s opener was improved in 1925 with the addition of a cogged wheel that firmly gripped the edge of the can, an innovation that is still in use. In 1931, the familiar pliers-type handles were added. When squeezed, they held the edge of the can securely. Electric can openers featuring the same cogged wheel and cutter, arrived in the 1950’s.

For Army and Marine vets of World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam, no opener was more celebrated than the tiny P-38 that was included in their portable meal packs. Scouts, campers, and others also, as well, embraced it.