Bottle openers, for most of us, tend to be taken for granted until those times when we don’t have one. (You’ll think of this the next time you’re opening a bottle on the edge of a stump, or—please don’t—considering using your teeth.) But our choice of bottle-popping tools also says a little something about us. Whether it’s a key chain opener from a local brewery, or an antique piece with a square Prest-O-Lite hole (we’ll get to that), there’s a connection. And much like with beer, there’s never been a better time to start paying more attention.
One rarely makes it very far down the bottle-opener rabbit hole before encountering John Stanley and Donald Bull. Bull started the Just For Openers organization, for collectors of beer-advertising openers and corkscrews, back in 1979, and Stanley has served as the head of the club for almost 20 years. Together they published a book titled Just For Openers: A Guide to Beer, Soda, & Other Openers in 1999, which, in tandem with their club’s newsletters, remains perhaps the most carefully organized discussion of antique bottle openers to date. The book is ostensibly a pricing guide and categorization system, encompassing openers as simple as the single-fret wire loop (E-16) and as complex as the Sport Pal (N-69), a seven-function device that includes a fishhook disgorger, match scratcher and first-aid kit. Beyond the surface, though, the hundreds of bottle openers pictured therein also serve as a chronicle of breweries that have come and gone, accessories (such as glove buttoners) that today seem curious, and, if precariously, customs from the preceding 100 years of beer culture. That last point, of course, prompts a question—why only 100 years?—which brings us to the beginning.
An Industry Born
“The only way to do a thing is to do it.”—William Painter
Approaching the end of the 19th century, glass beer bottles were generally sealed with either a fastened cork or a Lightning-type closure (which resembled a modern swing top). Available options tended to be costly, to the extent that both bottles and stoppers were generally used multiple times. (Imagine, for just a moment, reusing a cork.) The carbonated beverages within would often leak, and sanitation and hygiene issues were becoming an increasing concern. It was to this mechanical challenge that William Painter would dedicate much of his life.
Painter was born on Nov. 20, 1838, in Triadelphia, MD, a town that was eventually washed away for good by frequent flooding. Despite a modest upbringing (his father would work as a farmer through much of Painter’s youth), he readily found work after completing his schooling, first apprenticing at a patent-leather manufacturer, then working at a leather-currying shop in Wilmington, DE. It was around this time that his intellectual life started to take shape, as he participated in chess and debate clubs and served as editor of “The Every Monday Night: a Repository of Science, Literature, Sentiment and Fun”—which presumably had nothing to do with leather. The numerous moves of his youth would finally land him (in 1865, with wife Harriet and son Orrin in tow) in Baltimore, where his creative efforts and many inventions would eventually bring him and his loved ones great fortune.
His son, in his Reminiscences of William Painter, would recall that period with the elation of a child set loose in a toyshop. Painter had taken on work as foreman at Murrill & Kiezer’s machine shop, providing steady income for the household and close community ties, and his son frequently amused himself with novelties his father had created in his own childhood: a potato popgun, a trick windmill and a ring that (via a handheld cylinder) could clandestinely shoot water. “In fact,” his son reflected, “we never suffered from want of amusement.” That early playfulness would manifest in more than 80 diverse patents over Painter’s adult life.
His early patents had included a fare box, a counterfeit coin detector and a railroad-car couch. Painter’s main patenting focus, though, would gradually transition into inventions more along the lines of flexible pump valves, hose couplings and “a new and useful method of controlling offensive vapors incident to night-soil operations and apparatus therefor” (the first, but not last, of his latrine improvements). The joint and gasket patents—all concerned, in general, with plumbing and piping considerations—found a natural application in bottling, specifically when it came to the issue of improving upon the traditional plug design. It was in April 1885 that Painter was issued a patent for his “bottle-stopper fastener,” an elegant, wire-based closure similar to the common Lightning type. He received two other stopper patents that year, including one for a flexible convex plug that he termed the “Baltimore loop seal.”
It was shortly thereafter that he would begin to change history. It was on Nov. 5, 1889, that Painter submitted the first in a series of three patent applications for a “bottle-sealing device.” A second was filed in June of 1890, and the third (and most important) was filed just shy of one year later. All three shared a similar core design: a sealing medium in the form of a thin disk or plug, affixed firmly to the top of a bottle via a crimped metallic disk. The sealer was inexpensive, reliable, disposable (a total mind-blower at the time) and firmly attached. All three versions were accepted Feb. 2, 1892. The device was originally called the “crown cork.”
One can, in a historically unlikely way, imagine the fallout in the subsequent months: a chorus of bottle caps knocked against stumps, countless visits to the dentist. Not exactly. It was Painter’s third submitted patent (No. 468,226) that we’d most readily recognize today—its thin, cork liner eventually swapped out for plastic; its 24 teeth reduced to a standard 21. But it was Painter’s second submission that offered a visual solution for getting the thing off. A dotted, crowbarlike device appears in the drawings, hooked atop an affixed cap. “Bottle-openers devised by me of the character indicated and adapted to the removal of sealing-caps by engaging with their projecting edges,” Painter reflects, “will be made the subject of one or more separate applications for Letters Patent.” The modern bottle opener had been born.