Opening Act: Prying Into the History of Bottle Openers
Technically, Alfred L. Bernardin (who history has shown was decidedly not Painter’s BFF) beat him to the patent office by about three months, receiving a patent for his counter-mounted “bottle-uncapping tool” in July 1893. It seems not to have found a broad audience. Subsequent mounted designs patented by Harry Vaughan more than 15 years later—the first of which he would later call “defective, ” the second, “Never Chip”—suggested such types were easier said than done. Painter’s own bottle-opener application was accepted early in 1894 (as U.S. Patent No. 514,200) and was a handheld design that remains familiar to this day. It also mentioned that the suggested handle design could further be used as loop-seal remover and a temporary bottle stopper (the latter still being touted as a major feature even in contemporary designs). Painter would go on to develop products such as an automatic capping machine, and by the 1930s his Crown Cork and Seal Co. made half the world’s bottle caps. His cap inspired King C. Gillette, once a sales rep for the company, to invent the disposable razor. At the end of Reminiscences, his son Orrin quoted Shakespeare:
“His life was gentle and the elements
So mix’d in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man.’”
“Budweiser Means Moderation”
In Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, the author details the climate into which Painter’s bottling inventions emerged. In May 1893, almost directly between his crown-cap and bottle-opener patent dates, four important things occurred: (1) the stock market plummeted, (2) Howard Hyde Russell organized what would soon be called the Anti-Saloon League, (3) Anheuser-Busch filed a lawsuit against Miller over rights to the brand Budweiser, and (4) the World’s Columbian Exposition opened. That lattermost (aka The Chicago World’s Fair) saw the fierce, lavish and rather ludicrous competitive showdown between Anheuser-Busch and Pabst. The high-stakes status of the industry would see bottle openers become a natural, perhaps inevitable, advertising opportunity for the competing breweries of that era. “No one understood salesmanship better than Adolphus Busch,” Ogle writes. “Anyone who met him walked away with a penknife or deck of cards, a corkscrew or bottle opener, each decorated with the company’s trademark eagle.” Painter’s inventions were nothing if not well-timed.
While the origin story of the bottle opener tends to revolve chiefly around the life of William Painter, the narratives afterward would disperse as easily as the openers themselves, which would be available in bulk for pennies apiece by the beginning of the 1900s. Today, an antique beer-advertising opener serves as a resilient historical record of how these breweries utilized this new invention. Breweries’ advertising campaigns ranged from the straightforward “Drink Wooden Shoe Beer” to the suggestive “Tastes Imported” to the cynical “The one thing finished in this nasty world is P. B. Ale” to the inadvertently off-putting “The kind that won’t ferment in your stomach.” Anheuser-Busch produced Budweiser openers made from old beechwood tanks. There were glove-shaped openers advertising Pabst-sponsored boxing matches. Embedded inside some of the most elaborate designs were magnifying devices called “Stanhopes,” which, when held up to the light, enabled one to view small microphotographs contained in the piece itself.
With strong advertising interest from the beer and soda industries (Coca-Cola wasn’t exactly a slouch in this regard), the elaborate designs and included features of openers would develop significantly throughout the 20th century. There were openers that would sit flat on key chains for easy access (such as Augustus Stephens’ popular 1901 “Bottle Seal Remover”), uncapping devices shaped inexpensively from a single length of metal (Edwin Walker’s 1915 “Crown-Opener”) and endless combinations giving standard openers further abilities (such as turtle-shaped openers with screwdriver legs and hybrids like the “Spoonopener”). Devices from the early 1900s often featured square Prest-O-Lite holes, allowing motorists to turn on their acetylene-gas headlights in the days before electric ones became common. Reliable wall-mounted openers appeared behind grocery checkout counters and in roadside motels. There were bottle-sealing openers, one-handed openers and openers that were bottles themselves.
And, as with most such things, there were people steadily collecting them. Art Santen (Just For Openers member #158 and the newsletter’s editor during the early ’90s) got started with collecting openers more than 40 years ago. His father had owned a tavern in south St. Louis, and after it was sold, all that was left was a ring of bottle openers, which he then gave to Santen. Art recalls this was during the time when yard sales were becoming more popular, and he began seeing examples advertising local breweries (such as the since-defunct Falstaff). You know how these things tend to snowball. On May 19, 2005, Santen was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for his collection of 32,411 bottle openers.
Where distilled works like Ogle’s Ambitious Brew and Tom Acitelli’s recent The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution serve as carefully written recollections of American beer history, bottle openers tend to be more like the archeological record. The efforts of Santen, and the aforementioned Stanley and Bull, aren’t so dissimilar from the patience and lasting curiosity required for piecing back together a dinosaur minus the pickaxes and pith helmets. It’s both a hobby, and a duty of love. Santen also collects cappers, corkers and St. Louis-related items, and often conducts tours of his collections during the annual Just For Openers conventions. Stanley and Bull are hard at work as well, and their new book, Just For Openers II, is scheduled to be out this fall.
Bull, who is handling the book’s photography and editing, was working in advertising himself when he became interested in beer-advertising bottle openers. “I found one that said, ‘Budweiser Means Moderation,’ ” he recalls, “And then I immoderately collected them.”
He amassed about 4,000 pieces before selling most and switching his focus to corkscrews. (Similarly to the beer-wine dichotomy, collecting antique bottle openers tends to be a relatively affordable hobby: Most older pieces still sell for under $50 while rare examples of centuries-old corkscrews can fetch tens of thousands of dollars.) Bull has served as photographer for nearly 30 books to date, including numerous titles on corkscrews and openers, and he and Stanley coordinated the main photoshoot for the upcoming book in early 2013. Their original guide encompassed about 900 opener styles, and Just For Openers II will incorporate about 1,600, many borrowed from fellow collectors around the country. The final product, like its predecessor, will be the most in-depth curation of openers to date.
While old openers are getting harder and harder to find in the wild (i.e. yard sales and flea markets), Stanley and others note that the craft-beer industry has afforded a new source of interest for avid beer-advertising collectors. While many of the contemporary designs pale in comparison when it comes to the durability of their heavy metal forebears (Bull had asked Stanley at the start of their new book project, “Do we have to include all that plastic stuff?”), numerous new designs have recently come on the market that take Painter’s original idea in a truly unique direction (see sidebar). Whether pre-Prohibition or <shudder> plastic, each one offers its own solution to a problem that, when you really think about it, had to be invented.
Ken Weaver is author of The Northern California Craft Beer Guide and editor of RateBeer Weekly. More at kenweaver.com.