This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first commercial production of canned food. Our ancestors who were hungry to sample the contents of those cans, however, had to wait almost half a century for a convenient way to open them.
Peter Durand, the British merchant who first patented the idea of preserving food in cans in 1810, showed surprisingly little interest in how consumers could extract the contents of those cans. Early opening instructions read simply, “Cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer.”
So perhaps the most remarkable thing about the invention of the can opener is that it took so long. And even after the first can openers appeared, the gizmos were so dangerous and impractical that they were mostly used in grocery stores, where clerks opened the cans for customers to take home.
By 1953, however—a full 150 years after the birth of canned food—a food writer was able to opine that the can opener was “the open sesame to freedom … from tedium, space, work and your own inexperience.”
First, of course, came the can. Durand’s inspiration was to fill a tin can with food, partly cap it, and then immerse it in boiling water; his patent didn’t specify how long. Once sealed, the contents would remain palatable indefinitely.
Durand tested his canned food on a long sail with the Royal Navy, after which it was inspected by experts from the Royal Society. They pronounced the food as edible as when the voyage had begun.
Durand had little interest in mass-marketing his invention, though, and promptly sold his patent to John Hall and Bryan Donkin for 1,000 pounds. They set up a commercial canning facility and by 1813, the first tinned food was sold to the British army and navy. By 1818, the Royal Navy was consuming 24,000 large cans of food—some 40,000 pounds of provisions—per year. Canned vegetables helped prevent scurvy, a condition due to vitamin C deficiency that was erroneously blamed on the salt used to preserve meat.
Durand also sold his patent in the United States, where he encountered some local competition. Another Englishman, Thomas Kensett, moved to America and began preserving seafood and produce in glass jars on the New York waterfront in 1812. After too much breakage, Kensett switched to cans. Up in Boston, another transplanted Brit, Charles Underwood, tried preserving fruits, pickles and condiments in pottery crocks, then also switched to cans.
The horrific experience of the Donner Party in 1846 inspired another canning entrepreneur, Gail Borden. He experimented with a canned “meat biscuit,” which failed both as food and financially, before hitting on canned condensed milk. Borden’s Eagle Brand was marketed as purer and fresher than the dubious milk of dairies on the outskirts of the fast-growing cities of the Northeast.
The Civil War, with its massive demands for feeding soldiers, caused a boom in canned food. Annual production had increased from 5 million to 30 million cans by the end of the war.
Still, there remained the problem of how to open the cans. Soldiers at least had bayonets—or, when those failed, guns. But hungry home cooks were often frustrated in their attempt to conquer the sturdy metal cans, which might weigh more than the food they contained.
The first mechanical can opener, invented prior to the war in 1858 by Ezra Warner of Waterbury, Conn., looked something like a weapon itself. Shaped like a bent bayonet, Warner’s invention had to be driven into the can’s rim; a hilt-like guard kept it from penetrating too deeply into the can. Then a second, sickle-like blade sawed around the top of the can. If the blades didn’t scare consumers, the jagged edges of the open can surely would. The US Army adopted Warner’s invention during the Civil War, but its domestic use was limited.
Not until 1870—fully 60 years after the invention of canned food—did another Connecticut inventor, William Lyman, develop what today we might recognize as a can opener. Born in 1821 in Middlefield, Conn., Lyman was apprenticed as a pewtersmith in nearby Meriden. In his spare time, he also tinkered with inventions, including a “refrigerating pitcher” and tea- and coffeepots.
Lyman’s most notable invention was the rotating-wheel can opener. Like today’s openers, it used a sharp, rotating cutting wheel that circled around the can’s ring, slicing off the lid. But operating it wasn’t simple: You had to adjust the length to fit the can by twisting a wingnut. The initial piercing of the can could prove hazardous and challenging, too.
Still, Lyman’s design would not be improved upon for another half-century. In 1925, the Star Can Opener Co. in San Francisco added a second, serrated “feed wheel” that gave a firmer grasp of the can’s edge as the cutting wheel circled the rim. This is the same basic design used in handheld can openers today.
Soon after, in 1931, the Bunker Clancey Co. of Kansas City produced the first can opener that could be used one-handed. The “Bunker” gripped the can while opening it, using the now-familiar pliers-type handles to squeeze tightly while a key was turned to rotate the cutting wheel. The Rival Manufacturing Co., which still makes can openers today, acquired Bunker Clancey in 1938.
Electric can openers also debuted in 1931, marketed as capable of safely opening 20 cans a minute. But they were slow to catch on until 1956, when two California firms reintroduced the concept. Klassen Enterprises had only limited success with a wall-mounted electric opener. More popular was the Udico brand, developed by Walter Hess Bodle in his garage and sculpted by his daughter Elizabeth, manufactured by Union Die Casting Co. The freestanding opener, which also incorporated a knife sharpener, was sold in Flamingo Pink, Avocado Green and Aqua Blue and soon was a mainstay in the similarly hued kitchens of the 1950s and early 1960s.
The latest in can-opener technology, introduced in the 1980s, is the “smooth edge” design that cuts on the side rather than the top. It leaves no sharp edges and, because the cutting wheel never touches the can’s contents, stays clean.
Small “lid pliers” make it easy to pry off the top without getting your hands dirty, too. As one manufacturer boasts, “Open a can with this manual can opener and you’ll immediately wonder why you didn’t get one sooner.”
1858 | Ezra Warner patents the first can opener
1865 | “Bull’s head opener” sold with cans of pickled “Bully Beef”
1870 | William Lyman invents the rotating-wheel can opener
1904 | First crimped cans, requiring no soldering, are manufactured
1925 | Star Can Opener Co. improves Lyman’s design
1931 | One-handed “Bunker” opener introduced
1942 | US Army includes P-38 opener with canned field rations
1956 | Udico produces first popular electric can opener
1966 | Ermal Fraze invents the pull-open can