Friday 21 July 2017

The Oldest Can Opener in the World

Replica 1, 2, and 4 pound cans, plus "Lever knife"
A few years ago I visited the vaults of the National Maritime Museum to do some research for a mini-project of mine, to make some replica Goldner cans.

Later, after piecing together photographs of the fragmentary surviving labels, I was surprised to discover that the labels include a picture of a can-opener to the left of the text and on the right an illustration of how the opener was intended to be used.

That the cans and labels date to 1845 is not in doubt, thus an article in a well known on-line encyclopedia which states that "dedicated can openers appeared in the 1850s" clearly needs to be updated.

The can opener depicted (referred to as a lever knife in contemporary sources) has a short stabbing blade at one end for puncturing the can, and at the other end a claw comprising a blade to continue the incision and a projection for a fulcrum.

The text on the can says "To open, stab a hole with the but–end of the knife insert the knife and cut it round."

Fortnum and Mason's 1849 catalogue also includes very similar instructions for opening preserved provisions canisters.

In 1851, when Goldner was still the Navy's main supplier of preserved meats, the Admiralty declared: "The canister is to be opened with the lever knife furnished for the purpose, and is to be cut completely round the body near the top."

Preserved meat manufacturer John Gillon of Leith claimed, in 1840, to be the inventor of the lever knife although the device described is slightly simpler with no mention of the short stabbing blade.

Vintage can openers similar to that depicted can sometimes be found for sale. I prided myself that the one I bought was a genuine 1840s relic and probably the oldest can-opener in the world until I discovered that the company which made it, F G Pearson & Co. of Sheffield, was only established in 1854.

The true "oldest can opener in the world" therefore remains on the list of treasures which are waiting to be plucked from the icy depths of Erebus and Terror.


  1. Very interesting, Peter! So a can opener is a lever knife. I can imagine that the inventor previously was using a regular knife to open cans, and decided an improvement was needed. I myself have opened plenty of cans with regular knives, and it is time consuming.

  2. I've stories of bayonets being used as can openers more frequently than being used for fights.

  3. I have one of these and it has extremely intricate nautical markings on it?

  4. Hello
    I am French and I have been collecting openers for over 20 years.
    Currently the oldest reference of a can opener on a book dates from 1840.
    From the Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, volume 9, no 430, April 1840:
    The report is mainly made on the canning factory of Mr John Guillon
    In Leith in Scotland.
    He describes how he invented a lever knife to make it easier to open the cans they ship.
    One of my collector friends to find in his collection a model marked Gillon Leith.
    As his company was established in 1838 one can easily deduce that his can openers date between 1838 and 1840.
    We can also think that other countries like France are more ahead of the canneries. Can openers were made locally. On a notice for the French Navy from 1836 it is advisable to use a knife or a chisel with a hammer to open them.
    Other models similar to that of John Gillon Where were marketed in the 1845s. There is a plate from the Timmins & Son catalog of 1845 with drawings of the model marketed. They are similar to John Gillon's description.
    In my private collection I have 2 similar models marked Wynn. It was a toy maker in jail the company was bought by Timmins in 1887.
    Regarding the oldest official patent, dates from July 1850. It was the French Bernard Leon Claverie who filed it. Currently there is no model known to date just the official drawing of the patent.
    Robert Yeates Filed on July 13, 1855 (No. 1577) his patent in England.


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