The can opener has its own unique history, but first: the can, which arrived in the late 1700s without a means of opening it.

The first cans were designed for use during military campaigns. The Dutch navy carried salmon in 1772 that had been cleaned, boiled in brine, smoked, and placed in tin-plated iron boxes.

In 1795, a French confectioner, Nicolas Appert, showed that food could be preserved if sealed in an airtight container. The food had to be sufficiently heated to kill bacteria and the air inside expelled. It met the needs of Napoleon’s armies.

In 1810, Peter Durand created a wrought-iron tin-plated canister for the British navy. 

Bryan Donkin set up the first canning factory in the U.K. in 1812. The instructions on his iron cans read, “Cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer.” Not until metal cans became thinner could a handheld device be used. 

Over time, two models of can openers were developed.

In 1870, the first rotating wheel (knife) can opener was patented by William Lyman (see Model 1 photos). The can was pierced in its center with a sharp metal tip. An adjustable cutting knife was set at the edge of the can and fixed in place with a wingnut. (There was no standardized can size.)

The cutting knife was pressed into the can and the user rotated the handle around the top of the metal lid. This required near-brute force to pull the blade through the thick metal.

In 1858 Ezra Warner patented a lever-type opener consisting of a sharp sickle with a guard. The sickle was pushed into the can and sawed around its outer edge (see Model 2 photos).

This opener was used by the U.S. Army during the American Civil War, but its unprotected, knifelike sickle was considered too dangerous for domestic use. Grocers opened cans before patrons left the store.

In 1865, a home-use opener was made of cast iron with a blade. A guard was added to prevent the blade from going too deep into the can. The bull-head design, used for bully beef cans, was produced until the 1930s.

In 1925, the Star Can Company introduced an opener with a second serrated rotation wheel. It provided better grip of the can edge and was so efficient that the design is still used.

In 1931, an electric can opener was made using the cutting-wheel design. It cut fast, but they did not sell well.

In 1950, Walter Bodle created a freestanding electric can opener with a knife sharpener. Magnets were added to prevent the lid from falling back into the can. It came in flamingo pink, avocado green, and aqua blue.

The electric openers were successfully marketed for Christmas sales by 1956, and the electric opener was the predominant model of can opener into the 1980s. 

In the 1990s, a new battery-operated and hands-free model entered the market. It cut the can below the lid seal rather than on top of the lid. The driving teeth are very fine, which eliminates the sharp edges along the lid, making it safer for the user. 

Other types of can openers include a metal “key” that came with the container. The key was hooked on a 1/8-inch metal strip along the top and rotated around the can to remove the lid. This was popular for sardines, canned ham, coffee, and tobacco.

A variety of twist mechanisms were used to open shoe polish paste cans. The church key openers are still used for bottle caps.

In the 1960s, aluminum removable-ring pull-tabs were introduced for beer cans but were quickly adopted by the beverage industry. The ring peeled back a small teardrop tab to open.

While innovative, the tab was environmentally hazardous because it was extremely sharp and could be swallowed. They were phased out beginning in 1975, when the Sta-Tab was launched.

In the 2000s, ring-pull lids were introduced for food cans. This was touted as the top packaging innovation of the last 100 years.

Millions of cans are still opened every day with the old-fashioned Star Company can opener with two serrated wheels. What’s in your drawer?


Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.

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