Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Get off your can

When Peter Durand patented the first metal can for the British Navy in 1810, he overlooked one important point - how to get the can open once it was sealed.

"The first cans were made of solid iron and they were heavier than the food inside the can," explains Elizabeth Pearce, senior curator, Southern Food and Beverage Museum. "To get the food out, one literally had to use a hammer and chisel."

Pearce says that it was only when thinner cans were created in the 1860s - nearly 50 years later - that a can opener could be invented.

"The first can opener was created by Ezra Warner of Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1858," she says. "It looked somewhat like a bent bayonet and you had to jam it into the can and then forcibly rotate around the edge of the can. It was difficult."

This wasn't the only problem. "People did not have this type of can opener in their homes," says Pearce. "It was only in stores, so the cans were opened by clerks in the store before the customer left."

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum faces a similar situation as the British Navy - it has thousands of cans but no can openers.

"We have an exhibition titled 'Canstruction,'" says Pearce. "Every year, architecture firms throughout the country participate in a competition in which they create sculptures out of canned goods. The sculptures are disassembled and donated to a local food bank. We have a can sculpture on exhibit in the museum. We are creating a companion exhibition of historic can openers to compliment the can exhibition. We are seeking vintage can openers to put into the display and into our collection."

The museum is looking for can openers that are both historic and commonplace examples of the past.
· Old can openers that are wall mounted.
· Openers that consist of one piece or of multiple pieces.
· Openers that feature the classic wheel design.
· Openers that have unique features and advertising slogans.
· Examples of old electrical can openers - the first electrical version was created in 1931 though it reached mass market in 1957.
· Old cans, such as the original heavy examples made of iron.

"The use of can openers didn't really become widespread until roughly 1930," says Pearce. "But there are older versions that deserve to be placed into a museum collection. For example, during the Civil War, Union troops received Warner's can opener along with their rations of canned food. In 1866, a man named J. Osterhoudt patented the tin can with a key opener that we see with sardine cans."

Pearce says that can openers are important artifacts that document the culinary history of man.

"At the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, we get excited about things like can openers," laughs Pearce. "They are valuable in that they provide a picture of where we have been and where we are going."

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