The story goes that the canned food was invented in 1770s and the can opener didn’t arrive until 1855. Starting out as just a claw, the shape was improved and the can guard was added quickly by other inventors. The rotating wheel opener was invented in the 1870s and itself underwent multiple revisions. But this lever design was still the GOTO can opener device for most people until well into the 1930s, and is still manufactured and sold today.
Dedicated can openers appeared in the 1850s and were of a primitive claw-shaped or “lever-type” design. In 1855, Robert Yeates, a cutlery and surgical instrument maker of Trafalgar Place West, Hackney Road, Middlesex, UK, devised the first claw-ended can opener with a hand-operated tool that haggled its way around the top of metal cans.
In 1858, another lever-type opener of a more complex shape was patented in the United States by Ezra Warner of Waterbury, Connecticut. It consisted of a sharp sickle, which was pushed into the can and sawed around its edge. A guard kept the sickle from penetrating too far into the can. The opener consisted of several parts which could be replaced if worn out, especially the sickle. This opener was adopted by the United States Army during the American Civil War (1861–1865); however, its unprotected knife-like sickle was too dangerous for domestic use. A home-use opener named the “Bull’s head opener” was designed in 1865 and was supplied with cans of pickled beef named “Bully beef”. The opener was made of cast iron and had a very similar construction to the Yeates opener, but featured a more artistic shape and was the first move towards improving the look of the can opener. The bull-headed design was produced until the 1930s and was also offered with a fish-head shape.
I bought this one for $1 because I found the shape charming. Instead of the terrible metal handle it has a solid oak handle and of course it is dated which I love. Slipper Pat. 6-26, 7-17-1900 no doubt the addition of teeth in the maw looked like a great improvement, but WAS IT? watch the video and decide for yourself.
The chapter in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat to say nothing of the Dog (1898) has a chapter which I think emphasizes the need to always know where your can opener is.
We are very fond of pine-apple, all three of us. He looked at the picture on the tin ; we thought of the juice. We smiled at one another, and Harris got a spoon read n we looked for the knife to open the tin with. We turned out everything in the hamper. We turned out the bags. We pulled up the boards at the bottom of the boat. We took everything out on to the bank and shook it. There was no tin-opener to be found.
Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly ; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup.
Then we all got mad. We took that tin out on the bank, and Harris went up into a field and got a big sharp stone, and I went back into the boat and brought out the mast, and George held the tin and Harris held the sharp end of his stone against the top of it, and I took the mast and poised it high in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down.
It was George’s straw hat that saved his life that day. He keeps that hat now (what is left of it), and, of a winter’s evening, when the pipes are lit and the boys are telling stretchers about the dangers they have passed through, George brings it down and shows it round, and the stirring tale is told anew, with fresh exaggerations every time. Harris got off with merely a flesh wound. After that, I took the tin off myself, and hammered at it with the mast till I was worn out and sick at heart, whereupon Harris took it in hand.
We beat it out flat ; we beat it back square ; we battered it into every form known to geometry but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it, and knocked it into a
shape so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast. Then we all three sat round it on the grass and looked at it.
There was one great dent across the top that had the appearance of a mocking grin, and it drove us furious, so that Harris rushed at the thing, and caught it up, and flung it far into the middle of the river, and as it sank we hurled our curses at it, and we got into the boat and rowed away from the spot, and never paused till we reached Maidenhead.