Saturday, August 20, 2011

Getting at the Suds

Rummaging through a kitchen drawer recently a rusty old tool turned up under the slush of tarnished and half bent spoons, a set of long unused steak knives with oddly shaped handles and half a dozen broken corn-on-the-cob holders. The rusty surprise was a church key but not one I remember ever using or bringing home. No doubt a remnant from past gatherings where people brought food or drink, a few cans of beer. But this old relic of former days was enough to draw my thoughts back to the time when church keys were so common a college student could occasionally be seen wearing one on a string around his neck.

Most will admit that ‘church key’ is an odd name for something regularly used to get at a swig of beer. The earliest evidence of the phrase used in print is 1951, but stories about it date from 1935, which coincides with the time that beer was first sold in cans rather than just bottles. Pull tabs on cans didn’t appear until 1962, so the early beer cans required a tool of some kind to open. Nothing complicated—a flat but stout strip of metal with a sharp point which could be pressed into the top of the beer can to punch a triangular hole. This simple, easily made tool was immediately called a church key, taking the name of its predecessor, a bottle opener made of metal, with a round, oval or triangular open shape at one end to grip and pop off a bottle cap.

The shape of this earlier opener reminded people of the ornate handles of old fashioned door keys. A link with churches was probably formed because the keys that opened church doors were often large and ornate. Chances are good that another part of the name’s origin is an irreverent joke, since drinking beer is something that might be called un-churchly.

When beer cans first came out in 1935 they created a new problem—how do you get into the darn things? The new flat top cans made by American Can Company and National Can couldn’t be properly opened with existing tools. You couldn’t use a regular can opener without having a mess on your hands, counter top and floor. The can companies realized that to sell their product they would need something to open the new flat top cans, so the triangular hole punch opener was developed and called a church key, like it’s bottle opening predecessor. The earliest flat top beer cans included a small panel near the seam with instructions showing how to open the can. People were not yet comfortable with the new container and many of the beer cans displayed a full length opener (church key) with multiple instructional panels. By the late 30s the instruction panels were reduced in size and featured an abbreviated can opener view. In those early days customers usually got a free church key when they bought a case of beer, or if not, they were readily available from a grocer, package store, or even a bar. The giveaway church keys came with the beer or brewery name stamped on them, reminding you what brand to buy next time.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, yes, rooting through kitchen drawers at 1051 would no doubt yield several different and interesting "church keys" that each served long and hard as entry tools to the heavenly liquid inside of hard to crush tin cans. (In the old days crushing a beer can with one hand was impressive.) Although they may sit in dark drawers for long periods, sooner or later the need for use does arise.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America