Bottle openers are a handheld item that you’ve probably never thought much about except for when you want to crack a cold one. The little tool that you probably have on your key ring or in a drawer at home actually has a long history that dates back before Prohibition in the 1920s.

Let’s pry into the history of bottle openers to find out how these tools came to be.

History of Bottle Openers Timeline

Starting with their debut in 1892, bottle openers have been one of the most useful albeit simple tools to bless beverage lovers. This handy device has survived decades of change and even made it through Prohibition.

  • 1892

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    The Crown Cork Cap system was invented by William Painter. This invention was for securing a metal cap to a bottle by crimping the edges closed.

  • 1894

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    The church key bottle opener was one of the first styles to become widely available. It’s simple design actually resembled a real church key.

  • 1910-1920

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    The flat figural opener became popular before the start of Prohibition in 1920. This style bottle openers come in all sorts of unique shapes and designs.

  • 1925

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    The STARR X style wall-mount bottle openers were first made by Raymond Brown Sr., the owner of a Coca-Cola bottling plant. During the Prohibition, soda companies used bottle openers more than ever.

  • 1933

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    Prohibition was repealed, bars were re-opened, and brewing companies began making bottled beer again, bringing an increased need for bottle openers.

  • 1935

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    The first canned beer went on sale in Richmond, Virginia made by Krueger Brewery. The pointed end of the opener was used to punch a hole in the top of the can in order to drink it.

  • 1939

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    World War II caused cutbacks in steel production so manufacturing bottle openers slowed until the end of the war in 1945. In the meantime, simple wire bottle openers became the popular style because they didn’t use a lot of metal.

  • 1950

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    The bar blade, or speed opener, was introduced in the 1950s and became a popular tool for bartenders. You probably recognize this style still being used today.

  • 1979

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    Just for Openers was founded to connect bottle opener collectors around the United States. They publish newsletters and host yearly conferences showcasing the collections of all the members.

  • 2001

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    The 1960s version of the Splugen bottle opener was redesigned by Achulle Castiglioni. This specific bottle opener was created for the Splugen Brau Bar in Milan, Italy.

  • 2015

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    Just for Openers Club reported 2,000 different beer opener styles listed in the club’s Handbook of Beer Advertising Openers and Corkscrews.

  • 2017

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    Corter Leather made limited-edition black-coated bottle openers. After repeated use, these openers will wear to a unique copper-like finish.

When Was the Bottle Opener Invented?

At first, there wasn’t even a need for bottle openers because bottles were closed with cork or wood and opened with a corkscrew. Then, in 1892 William Painter invented the first bottle opener – the Crown Cork style bottle cap. This was essentially a metal cap crimped over a bottle opening.

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Painter also submitted a patent for a product that would help people remove this clever bottle cap. The lips on this bottle opener were designed to hook under the edge of the cap, while the pointed end rested on top of the cap. By lifting the handle upwards, the cap would easily come off. Painter’s original handheld design has not changed much to this day.

What Are the Different Types of Vintage Bottle Openers?

William Painter’s original bottle opener design is still popular today, but we all know there isn’t only one style. In fact, a lot of the shapes and designs you might be familiar with originated during the 1900s.

You would be lucky to find any of the following vintage bottle openers at thrift stores or garage sales:

  • Wall-Mounted
  • Cast Iron
  • Speed Blade Opener
  • Wire Bottle Opener
  • Flat Figural Bottle Opener

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Wall Mounted

Using the same lever-action as a church key, wall-mounted bottle openers were even handier because they only required the use of one hand. Early designs often had the opener integrated into cabinets or coolers. For example, vintage Coca-Cola machines had an opener conveniently mounted on the front of their soda machines.

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Cast Iron

Many vintage cast iron bottle openers don’t look like the traditional shape you’re familiar with. This type of bottle opener was often made into a variety of shapes and typically hand painted. Some of the most popular shapes were owls, anchors, and fish.

Speed Blade Opener

The flat metal bottle opener you most commonly see bartenders using is called a speed blade opener. First introduced in the 1950s, the speed blade made opening bottles…well, speedy. It also helped ease the pain in bartender’s sore wrists. One side of the opener was designed to open caps, while the circular side was designed to slip down the neck of a bottle to pull it out of the cooler.

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Wire Bottle Opener

Bottle openers started to be made simpler and cheaper since many beer companies were using them to advertise. In the early 1900s, Pabst, Miller, and Anheuser-Busch were competing for popularity, and all used bottle openers as promotional products.

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Flat Figural Bottle Opener

Flat figural bottle openers are similar to cast iron openers because of their unique shape and design, but the difference is they’re made of steel or brass. Some openers featured a small square hole called a “Prest-O-Lite Key,” which was used to turn on the gas headlights on cars from 1910 to 1930 before electric headlights became popular.


Many of these vintage bottle openers make fantastic collector’s items today. You can find nearly all these styles at garage sales, online auctions, or antique stores. The more popular collector’s items are branded with companies or breweries that no longer exist. If you ever find a unique looking bottle opener, hold on to it because it might be worth money!

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Why is a Bottle Opener Called a Church Key?

A church key refers to a specific style of bottle opener. If you’re lucky enough to come across an older authentic church key, it can be a highly valued item. Typically, collectors enjoy finding church key bottle openers stamped with old beverage companies.

While we know that a church key is a specific style bottle opener, how the name came to be is a different story. There are actually several theories surrounding how early bottle openers received the nickname “church keys”.

  1. A bottle opener is called a church key simply because the opener itself resembled an actual church door key.
  2. Early monks were rumored to be some of the best brewers. In order to protect their beer in monasteries, the monks needed to lock it away. It is thought the bottle openers reminded monks of their keys, and the nickname was born.
  3. Another theory was that drinkers started calling their bottle openers church keys to poke fun at religious groups.

We may never know the true reason why bottle openers are called church keys, but we do know that the nickname does have to do with physical keys. Regardless of whichever theory holds true, you now know where this seemingly random nickname may have come from!

In 2005, Art Stanten won the Guinness Book of World Records for his collection of 32,411 bottle openers!

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How Were Bottle Openers Used for Advertising?

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was the single event that caused the explosion of branded bottle openers in the beer industry. During this time, Anheuser-Busch and Pabst were in fierce competition for popularity and used bottle openers for advertising opportunities every chance they could get.

No one understood salesmanship better than Adolphus Busch. 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.

– Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer

Companies began to get creative with the shapes and designs of their bottle openers in order to stand out amongst the competition. Anheuser-Busch produced Budweiser openers from old beechwood tanks, and Pabst made glove-shaped openers to advertise sponsored boxing events.

  • Bottle openers with magnifying glasses
  • Keychain bottle openers
  • Turtle-shaped openers with screwdriver legs
  • Bottle opener and spoon hybrid called “spoonopener”

Check out a few of the most unique bottle openers!

Bottle openers became popular collector’s items because of all this creativity. Today, bottle openers are still being collected as an inexpensive hobby in online auctions and at yard sales.

The Bottom Line

Bet you didn’t think you’d find the history of bottle openers so interesting! From their inception in the 1800s to becoming a collector’s item today, bottle openers have a unique history not many know about. Now you can crack a cold one and shock your friends with your newfound historical knowledge!

References

Altorenna, Anthony. (2019, April 4). Bottle Opener History: From Cap Lifters to Speed Openers. Retrieved October 22, 2019, from
https://delishably.com/cooking-equipment/collecting-bottle-openers

The Barman. (2013, June 2). Bartender Beer Bottle Openers. Retrieved October 22, 2019, from
https://barsandbartending.com/bottle-openers/

Weaver, Ken. (2014, June 9). Opening Act: Prying into the history of bottle openers. Retrieved October 22, 2019, from
http://allaboutbeer.com/article/bottle-openers/

Muzquiz, Albert. (2018, March 28). Uncapping the History of Bottle Openers. Retrieved October 22, 2019, from
https://www.heddels.com/2018/03/uncapping-the-history-of-bottle-openers/

Stanley, John. (2015, November). Just for Openers from 1892 to the present a short history of bottle openers. Retrieved October 23, 2019, from
http://www.go-star.com/antiquing/history-of-bottle-openers.htm

Venton, Danielle. (2011, January 24). Jan. 24, 1935: First Canned Beer Sold. Retrieved October 23, 2019, from
https://www.wired.com/2011/01/0124first-us-canned-beer/

About the author

Gianna Petan

Gianna is no stranger to all things promo products. Her background in research-based writing, linguistics, and advertising gives her an edge in blogging about the marketing industry.