Friday 17 November 2023

100 Years of Irish Brewing in 50 Objects: #14 – Guinness Bottle Opener (1970s?)

‘My sealing-caps are so strong, so constructed, and so firmly applied to bottles that some form of lever or a cork-screw must be employed for detaching them, and my caps are also the first which when applied to a bottle and locked thereto, as described, have the edge of the flange so projected as to afford a reliable shoulder, with which a detaching-lever may be engaged, for enabling a cap to be promptly removed as a result of a prying or wrenching action.’

William Painter - Specification forming part of Letters Patent No. 468,258, dated February 2, 1892. Application filed June 16, 1890, Serial No. 355,603, (No model.)

There is a relatively famous (in certain circles at least) archive film* from RTE that reports on the ceasing of the cork-bunged Guinness bottle by orders of the brewery, as it was to be completely replaced by a seemingly unpopular bottle closer - the metal cap. In that piece of recorded Irish beer history from 1969, which incidentally shows both the insertion and extracting of corks, there are a few stout drinkers quite unhappy with this change from what was seen as the traditional method of sealing beer bottles in this country. The interviewees argued that cork-sealed stout bottles tasted better than those using a metal cap, with one drinker being shown to be able to pick out the one corked bottle from a row of poured stouts, allegedly based on taste alone. Whether there was an actual difference between corked bottles and metal capped versions is impossible to know, as we are far removed from those times with no real way of doing a similar comparison, but those punters in that bar in Drogheda were convinced that corks were better than crown caps. Regardless of their outrage and unhappiness, Guinness got its way of course and as a secondary consequence those wonderful, levered, cork extractors that existed on most bars in the country disappeared, replaced by the now familiar cap removers which were much simpler to operate although far less theatrical and ritualistic …


When William Painter received his patent for his improved bottle sealing device in 1892 it was unlikely that he would have foreseen the impact it would make around the world and just how enduring his simple-but-clever patent would be. Hailing from Baltimore in America, Painter was a prolific inventor who appears to have had an obsessive fascination with the sealing and opening of bottles if the sheer number of patents he filed is anything to go by - over eighty in total - although some of those were on subjects such as counterfeit coin detectors and a magnet-based signalling device for telephones. Regardless of these other inventions it is for the design of this bottle closer - soon after called the ‘Crown Cork’ - that beverage suppliers will be grateful to him for, even if most of them have probably never heard his name and certainly don't appreciate the cleverness of an ingenious little device that most people take for granted these days.

Before his invention there were other methods of closing bottles, one of the most popular and historic being the plain cork bung of course, and other metal closer had existed but none were quite as strong and easy to apply as Painter’s. His crimp-edged, strengthened metal caps clamped on the edge of specially made bottles with a cork liner between the cap and bottle rim ensuring an airtight fit. These caps were easy to apply and remove and would go on to revolutionise the drinks industry around the world. They were also disposable - they were never designed for reuse - a clever way of ensuring a steady income for those involved in their manufacture.

His patent, or patents as there were two for this type of bottle closure device, show how the caps would be used and he goes into extreme detail on how they were developed and how they worked in the accompanying submission to the patent's office. To say he invented these closing devices is somewhat of a mistruth, as he points out in his description that similar versions existed at this time but none were quite as good as those he proposed in his application, and indeed he states the following:

'I do not presume them to be novel as to form and construction. I do believe they are the first caps composed of hard sheet metal which are adapted to the service indicated and that they involve radical and valuable novelty when considered in combination with a sealing-disk and bottle having a locking-shoulder.'

So as with most inventions it involved improvement on an existing design more so that a completely radical new idea. although clearly his were unique enough that his patent was accepted.

Also in his submission he states that the caps can be removed by the user with a ‘hook shaped’ lever that would fulcrum off the top of the capped bottle (Fig. 6 above), or by the use of a ‘forked opener or leaver which will freely receive the head of the bottle between its prongs’ with the bottle head serving as the fulcrum for displacing the cap. He also goes on to say that specific bottle openers of his own devising will be the subject of a separate patent application.

And he was true to his word, as on June the 5th 1893 he filed for a Capped-Bottle Opener, his second such application. (He had previously filed for another type of opener for a different bottle seal design where a concave disc was positioned in a groove inside the rim of the bottle and needed to be plucked out - that sealing method was also been invented by Painter.) This new version is quite familiar to us and is shown in four versions, one which included a clever bung as the handle to seal the bottle after some of its contents were poured, the hook on the other end means that the opener can also be used like his previous opener to remove those internal bung-like seals mentioned above.

Here in Fig 6 we see the basic shape of the design we know, and in the dotted outline something even more familiar given the object we are discussing. Whether he adapted his design from older, existing openers is unknown but it is quite likely that he was the sole inventor in this case.

William Painter went on to form ‘The Crown Cork and Seal Company’ and designed machines and equipment to make the process of applying is bottle caps quicker and more expedient - hence his many patents on the subject - and his business became a huge success and there has been much written about him**, although not quite so much in recent years.

The Crown Cork made its way to Ireland by 1895 where it is being advertised as used on mineral waters in a Cork-based newspaper - coincidentally. And just a couple of years later these caps were being advertised as being suitable for all bottled beverages including beer, with one advertisement even using the fact they were easy to open by ladies as a selling point! An English version of the Crown Cork Company came into being in 1897, having acquired the European rights for the patent, and there were Irish companies in Dublin, Drogheda and Belfast manufacturing the caps by the middle of the 20th century by which time the patent had possibly expired.

These caps could also be pre-printed with the drink company’s name almost from their introduction - as the many avid collectors will know - and were probably being used for stouts and ales here - even if in just a small way - for many decades before Guinness finally called a halt to the practice of corking bottles and forced the change completely to Crown Caps. There of course bottlers using these metal sealers before that and indeed, according to David Hughes in his book “A Bottle of Guinness Please” there were five official Guinness logo Crown Cork designs approved from 1934, and it is possible, and probable, they were being used long before then.


The invention of the Crown Cork meant that a whole new industry sprang up for bottle openers, one that continues to this day with a multitude of designs and methods for the removal of these now almost universal bottle sealers. The object shown at the top is just one of those designs and although it isn’t quite as iconic as the older, heavier official Crown Cork opener (see the 1920s' version below) with its registered number on the rim that can be found in many an old cutlery drawer, it is a more fitting version to be used in this series given the brand it advertises. These newer versions have proven difficult to date but they were probably promotional items sold or given away in the 1970s or perhaps the 1960s or even earlier. They were manufactured by John Watts who was based in Sheffield in England and the same design was used for Newcastle Brown Ale and others which just carried the maker's name. Very similar designs bearing the logos of Bass and Carlsberg were also available, although the manufacturer of those is unclear.

Based on the printed design*** on the bottle caps shown above with the opener, Guinness appear to have been using cork-lined caps until at least the 1990s before finally changing to plastic seals and removing the last vestiges of their cork-bottled past.

Given the finickiness of Guinness drinkers we can only assume they were unhappy about this small change too.

One wonders did anyone do a taste test then ..?

Liam K

*That piece of film can be seen here.

** There is a book about William Painter viewable here.

*** This typeface was used in early Guinness labels but revived in the late 1990s. The design with those two dots look like the later use but the caps could be from the earlier period.

This post really deserved more research and effort to fill in more details, but time restrictions and a need to not make it too long-winded means it's lacking some finer details..

Patents referenced and sources of diagrams:

WILLIAM PAINTER, OF BALTIMORE, MARYLAND. BOTTLE-SEALING Device. SPECIFICATION forming part of Letters Patent No. 468,258, dated February 2, 1892. Application filed June 16, 1890, Serial No. 355,603, (No model.)

WILLIAM PAINTER, OF BALTIMORE, MARYLAND. BOTTLE-SEALING DEVICE. SPECIFICATION forming part of Letters Patent No. 468,226, dated February 2, 1892. Application filed May 19, 1891, Serial No. 393,293, (No model.)

WILLIAM PAINTER, OF BALTIMORE, MARYLAND, ASSIGNOR TO THE CROWN CORK AND SEAL COMPANY, OF SAME PLACE. CAPPED-BOTTLE OPENER. SPECIFICATION forming part of Letters Patent No. 514,200, dated February 6, 1894. Application filed June 5, 1893, Serial No. 476,638, (No model.) 

All via Google Patents

Please note, all written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission, full credit to its sources, and a link back to this post. Both photographs are the authors own and cannot be used elsewhere without the author's permission. Newspaper research was thanks to The British Newspaper Archive and other sources are as credited. DO NOT STEAL THIS CONTENT!

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