by Diana Bulls
Can openers have been a kitchen mainstay for over 150 years, but believe it or not, the first can opener was invented nearly 50 years AFTER the birth of the metal can! In 1813, Peter Durand was able to figure out how to seal food into cans, but never thought once about how to get the food out. Invented for the British Navy, these first cans were made of solid iron and weighed more than the food they contained. They came with the instructions: “Cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer.”
The first patented CAN OPENER was invented by Ezra Warner of Connecticut in 1858. It looked like a bent bayonet, with a curved blade that was driven into a can’s rim and then forcibly worked around the can edge. However, its unprotected blade made it much too dangerous for home use. This first type of can opener never left the grocery store—a store clerk had to open each can before it was taken away. Eventually a smaller version was developed for home use.
The modern can opener, with a cutting wheel that rolls around the rim was invented by William Lyman in 1870. The can was pierced in the center by the sharp metal rod of the opener. Then the lever had to be adjusted to fit the can size. The can was cut by pressing the cutting wheel into the can and rotating it along the can rim.
Having to pierce the can first was a nuisance and this opener design was improved upon by the Star Can Company of San Francisco in 1925. The only change from the original patent was the introduction of a serrated feeder wheel that gripped the can edge. This small addition was so efficient that it was also used on the first electric can opener introduced in December 1931. In fact, this basic design continues to be used in modern day can openers. In 1931, the Bunker Clancey Company patented a can opener with a pliers-style handle that could hold the can while the rotating wheel cut the lid along the rim. Again, this is the standard for modern day can openers. This company was absorbed by the Rival Manufacturing Company in 1938.
During World War II, the tiny, lightweight, P-38 and P-51 COLLAPSIBLE CAN OPENERS were developed by the U.S. Army Subsistence Research Laboratory in Chicago, Illinois. This opener was much cheaper to make than a normal can opener; it uses less metal and consists only of a metal blade for a handle and a hinged metal ‘hook’ that pierces the can lid. A notch under the hinge hooks on the can rim as it is “walked” around the lid. These were used through the 1980s when canned C rations were replaced with uncanned MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Original US contract P-38s are stamped “US Speaker”, “US Androck”, “US Mallin Shelby O.” or “US Shelby Co.”
Key-open cans, by the way, debuted in 1866.
In 1858, John Landis Mason developed and patented a shoulder-seal jar with a zinc screw cap. The “Mason jar” had a threaded neck, which fit with the threads in a metal cap to screw down to the shoulder of the jar and in this way form a seal. In 1869, a top seal above the threads and under a glass lid was introduced to the jar. The screw cap pressed tightly against the inverted lid, with rubber seal underneath, thus achieving an excellent seal.
Can and jar openers can be easily found at thrift stores, yard sales, and flea markets, anywhere from .50 cents to a few dollars. Some very pricey ones can be found on eBay. If you are starting a collection, don’t overlook the early electric openers, they can provide a cute retro look to your kitchen.