Cans and can openers

The quest for preservation

There was a constant search for a successful method of preserving food for those who did not have easy access to fresh supplies, such as on long sea voyages when the diet for most seamen was hard biscuit and salted meat (pork and beef) kept in wooden casks. By the end of the 18th century a method of preserving food in airtight glass bottles had been perfected by the Frenchman Nicolas Appert, and ‘bottling’ fruit is still popular for preserving home-grown produce. Glass was fragile and heavily taxed, and so the search went on for better methods. In the early 19th century, canning was developed as a means of preserving food, but it only became cost-effective after the Napoleonic Wars, using thick tin-plated iron canisters, referred to now as tins or cans – the tinning prevented corrosion (nowadays, cans and canned food tend to be called tins and tinned food in Britain). These were bulk containers, not intended for household use. By the 1840s, the Royal Navy was ever more reliant on canned meat, and the size of cans increased to around 10 pounds in weight.

Food scandal

At the end of 1851 the Admiralty ordered supplies at the Gosport victualling yard to be examined, since it was suspected that the contractor (Stefan Goldner) was supplying sub-standard food. A truly shocking picture emerged. On 3rd January 1852, The Times revealed that 2,707 canisters (of the 10-lb size) had so far been opened, of which only 197 were edible. The problem with such large cans was that heat could not penetrate to the centre and so the meat went bad. Most of the cans were found not only to contain decaying meat, but also detritus that was not fit for human food. Much of it originated in Goldner’s canning factory in what is now eastern Romania. ‘The few cannisters containing meat fit for human beings to eat,’ The Times related, ‘have been distributed … to the deserving poor of the neighbourhood, and those containing the putrid stock have been conveyed to Spithead in lighters and thrown overboard.’ This was a huge food scandal, and seamen were highly suspicious of canned meat. From the mid-1860s vast quantities of canned mutton and beef were imported from Australia, as it was far cheaper than what could be produced in Britain, where livestock farmers were struggling to meet demand because of outbreaks of various animal diseases such as foot and mouth, bovine pleuro-pneumonia and rinderpest.

Bull’s head can openers

The early cans were so substantial that they had to be opened with a hammer and chisel, and even knives and bayonets were used. Once the market expanded, with smaller and thinner cans, attention turned to the mechanics of opening them at home. In the 1850s, tools designed as can openers were patented in the United States and Britain. The first ones were not much better than short blades on handles that hacked open the cans, but in the 1860s a slightly better opener (the ‘bull’s head’) became popular and continued to be made into the 1930s. It was designed as a stylised bull, with the head holding the blade while the ‘body’ and tail formed the handle. The blade was of steel and the head and handle of cast iron, making it heavy for its size. The one pictured here weighs 220 grams (nearly ½ lb) and is 15 centimetres (6 inches) long.

Bull's head can opener

Bull’s head can opener

Although better than hacking a can open with a hammer and chisel, early can openers were not particularly safe. The bull’s head can opener had a short spike on the back of the head, so as to create a hole close to the edge of the top (‘lid’) of the can. This was done either with a strong, accurate blow, or else by hammering the spike into the can. Many users dispensed with the spike and instead forced the cutting blade into the can, usually by hitting the end of the handle, a manoeuvre that was less painful with wooden-handled can openers. However, it was essential to hold the can firm by pressing it down on a flat surface with the heel of the hand, as in the first picture. Otherwise the can tended to tip sideways and the blade slipped, with the risk of an injury.

Preparing to open a can

Preparing to pierce a modern can

Opening a can

Opening the can

Once the can was pierced, the ‘nose’ of the bull was used as a fulcrum against which to lever the blade upwards again and again (as in the next picture), ripping open the lid until it could be folded back. Care was needed in removing the food, as the cutting technique produced lethal, ragged metal edges (as in the third picture).

Ragged edges of can

The ragged edge left by the can opener

Despite design improvements and the manufacture of cans of thinner metal, accidents still occurred, and as late as 1950 the Burnley Express carried one report:

Mrs. Ivy M. Hall, of 12, Plover-street, Burnley, was opening a can on Sunday afternoon when the tin opener slipped and she sustained a deep cut in her left hand. She was taken to Victoria Hospital by ambulance and allowed to leave after treatment.’

Cutting-edge developments

After the very robust and heavy design of the bull’s head can opener, later can openers were lighter and easier to use (often with a wooden handle) although they still followed the same basic pattern and method of use.

Wooden-handled can opener

An early wooden-handled can opener

The introduction of rotary can openers meant that the tops of cans could be removed more neatly and safely, and electric can openers were developed in the 1950s from the rotary designs. Ring-pulls or levers built into the lids now mean that can openers are increasingly redundant.