The invention didn’t even make the front page.
Instead, looking through the Hartford Courant from Jan. 8, 1858, 159 years ago this month, you will find the news that would forever alter the culinary world on the second page. Here, at the bottom of a column, buried beneath a slew of local notices, is a brief blurb about inventions. Below information about patents granted to Connecticut inventors for improvements to a sewing machine and lighting lanterns is a mention of a patent registered to Ezra J. Warner of Waterbury for his “instruments for opening cans.” It was, despite the lack of fanfare announcing its arrival, the first can opener in American history.
Forty-eight years earlier, in 1810, British merchant Peter Durand was awarded a patent in Great Britain for preserving food by placing it within a heat-sealed, wrought-iron can with a tin lining. “The only drawback to Durand’s design was that no easy way existed for consumers to get at the food once merchants sealed it inside,” writes Gregg Mangan in his book On This Day in Connecticut History. “For decades, the prevailing practice called for cutting open cans with a hammer and chisel.”
By the 1850s, crude can openers began to appear in Europe, but Warner’s method was a clear evolutionary jump in terms of effectiveness and complexity. Previous can openers were claw-shaped devices that allowed the user to rip the top of a can off. Warner’s can opener consisted of a sharp sickle which was pushed into the can and sawed around its edge. A guard kept the sickle from going too far into the can, and various parts of the device could be replaced when they became worn out. As Warner stated in his patent application, “The advantages of my improvement over all other instruments for this purpose consist in the smoothness and rapidity of the cut, as well as the ease with which it is worked, as a child may use it without difficulty, or risk.”
A major breakthrough in the canned-food revolution, Warner’s device became very popular with the U.S. Army during the Civil War a few years later. However, as Phyllis Ehrlich noted in The New York Times in 1957, Warner’s can opener had its drawbacks. “It was the crudest of lethal-looking tools. To manipulate one, brute strength was necessary. In looks it resembled a jagged grappling hook and it left dangerously frayed edges on both can and lid — not to mention tempers.”
Fortunately, improvements in the can-opening world were on the way courtesy of another Connecticut inventor named William Lyman. Born in Middlefield in 1821, Lyman was a lifelong inventor. He was awarded several patents for various food-associated devices, including a refrigerated pitcher, fruit can lids and an improved butter dish. His most successful invention was the rotating-wheel can opener, which was patented in 1870. Lyman’s opener had a rod that would pierce the center of the can. This rod was attached to a lever that, in turn, was attached to a cutting wheel. Using the the rod as a stabilizer, the cutting wheel would be pressed into the can and rotated along its edge. This was the first can opener to incorporate a rotating wheel, and Lyman’s basic principle continues to be employed in can openers today.
Both Lyman and Warner’s devices helped lead to the spread of canned, mass-produced food in America. By 1930, annual revenue from sales of canned food in the U.S. totaled more than a half-billion dollars. That year The New York Times ran an article with the headline “Civilization and the Can-Opener” that defended canned food against critics charging that “the home and the nation, which rests on the home, are being sapped by housewives who feed their families out of a can.” Though rife with the domestic-wife stereotypes of the day, the article ended with an impassioned defense of the can and the convenience the modern can opener afforded. “Intrinsically unmoral a can of soup is not. It is too often assumed that the modern wife opens a can of vegetables or fruit because she is lazy. Frequently, most frequently, she does it to provide her family with out-of-season vegetables and fruits and delicacies otherwise unattainable. The delicatessen container in this sense signalizes a rise in the standard of living.”