Lifting the Lid

How a simple twist on canned goods ended decades of prying.

Low-tech and utilitarian, the can opener typically sits unnoticed in a kitchen drawer…until the cat demands dinner. But the tool’s mundane appearance belies a long and intriguing design history.

In the beginning, there was the can. Patented in 1810, it weighed more than a pound—truly a stockist’s nightmare. No one really wanted to schlep one around, but the British military found that canned food helped keep its troops compliant (the sealed provisions were, after all, a welcome break from salted horse). Lacking any sanctioned opener, hungry soldiers used knives and bayonets to get at their rations; when that failed, they blew the lids off with rifles.

The can’s extra weight (and requisite plethora of tools) presented obstacles in man’s pursuit of the balanced meal, but Yankee ingenuity soon surmounted them. In 1850, Connecticut inventor Ezra Warner made the world’s first can opener, a lethal-looking device with a sharp, curved blade that probably severed as many fingers as it did lids. (Though in classic ad-speak he claimed, “Even a child may use it without difficulty.”) A few years later, someone added the cutting wheel, the little circular blade that would excise all competition.

Inventors left the design alone for the next 50 years. Then came the Star Can Opener Company of San Francisco, which in 1925 stuck a small serrated disk on the cutting wheel, and—voilà!—the modern opener was born.

While the mechanics haven’t changed much since then, there has been an explosion of models. In 1957, the New York Times ran the story “Can Opener, Once Lethal Looking, Emerges as Sleek Precision Tool,” reporting that Macy’s sold 29 “wall types” and 12 “hand versions.” Even more are around today.
My own Swing-A-Way, designed by the company of the same name, began as a wall-mounted opener in the 1930s. In 1955, the now ubiquitous handheld model 407 was introduced for housewives who wanted their appliances tucked away in drawers, not mounted on walls. Unchanged since then, the 407 has 40 stainless steel parts and is still assembled in the same St. Louis plant. To date, 100 million have been sold.

I thought my Swing-A-Way was the only way until a British friend introduced me to his opener (similar to Zyliss’s Safe Edge can opener, $14.95, It cuts sideways into cans below their rims—no more sharp edges or lid-fishing. As with any great design, this solution seems obvious, which makes me wonder why I tolerated a substandard opener for so long. Then again, considering the gadget’s 150-year history, I’m just glad the perfect one appeared in my lifetime.