One of the most mind-boggling aspects of breweriana collecting is the abundance and variety of items used to market and package beer. A great and relatively inexpensive type of collectable is crowns.
What are crowns? They are what some people refer to as bottle caps. This closure’s true name is crowns.
William Painter of Baltimore invented crowns in 1892. This inventive cuss already had more than 20 patents to his name. Yet he toiled for years until he developed a bottle closure that would not leak or allow pressure to escape. Various and crude forms of rubber, wax and manmade materials were used at first. These efforts proved to be futile. Finally, Painter determined that cork glued to the inside of a metal cap made the most efficient seal.
To prove the effectiveness of his invention, he convinced the American Brewing Co. of Baltimore, MD, to fill a few hundred cases of beer using his top. He then persuaded a shipping company to use the bottles as ballast on a ship headed for South America. When the ship returned months later, he met it at the dock and proved to his critics that his was the seal of the future. By 1900, most US brewers had converted to a standard bottle that could receive Painter’s crown.
The packaging company started by Painter is the very successful Crown Cork & Seal. Today, this company continues the founder’s thirst for improvement with pioneering innovations in packaging products the world over.
Early cork liners had an inner seal of aluminium foil. Today, crowns are lined with vinyl, which became a replacement for cork when the supply declined in the 1960s. A few years ago, a special oxygen-absorbing crown was introduced. This has improved the shelf stability of beer and other bottled products.
Worldwide, the closure industry uses more steel than the automotive industry, so in times of shortage, closures have been rationed, retrieved and recycled. During World War II, scrap metal drives were held, with rewards like movie tickets to encourage participation. In some states, the reclaimed crowns were completely refurbished, cleaned and put back into circulation. Other states banned this practice as unsanitary, so crowns were simply melted down with other scrap metal.
Children were the real heroes of this movement to support the war effort. A number of kids began to save one of each of the bottle caps collected and a new hobby was born. The hobby at one time rivaled stamp collecting.
This is where the “King of Crowns,” John Vetter, earned his title. John, who lives in suburban Washington, DC, is recognized as the world’s leading authority on crowns. His collection contains over 20,000 from all over the world. He is a fountain of information on crowns as well as brewing history.
John has worked tirelessly to promote this hobby. Each April he and his wife Polly organize and run the “Crownvention,” a gathering of crown collectors from all over the world. John says he knows of “only one thing that tops beer!”