July 17, 2009

Never leave home without it

The Church Key

Rob Kasper bolgs about beer. Today he writes about the noble church key. Apparently there are those, in this pop-top culture of ours, who fail to recognize the term. It seems that one of Rob’s sons was puzzled by the slang for a bottle opener, which caused Rob to feel like a failure as a parent.

I sympathize. The term has all but lost its meaning, and one of the 20th century’s most indispensible items, once found in any kitchen drawer and the trouser pocket of many American teenage boys, is becoming a thing of history.

The Church key (or churchkey) is a slang term given to a variety of tools whose purpose is to open pre-poptop beverage cans with one end, and capped beverage bottles with the opposite end. Although some were sold, the most common means of obtaining one was an advertising gimme picked up at the package store.

The oldest of these, was intended only for bottles, and did not have the sharp wedge-like tip as in the above photo. These were intended to pry the metal cap off the mouth of a glass bottle. The “crown cork, as it was first called, was invented in the late 19th century, and the church key, originally called the “crown cork lifter,” was patented in 1894.

The shape and design probably led to the slang name, as they did resemble a large old style key. The American Can Company was the first to conceive of packaging beer in sealed, flat top cans, but this would work only so long as there was a simple means to access the contents, so a fellow named D.F. Sampson, in 1935, developed that little device Rob and I lament today.

There were still bottles to be opened, so the church key retained the original design on one end, but added the chisel-tip on the other.

Consumer beverages in cans are now sold in easy-open pull-top containers, and the bottles have twist-off caps. With limited exception, the need for the old, pointy church key of my youth… is gone.

Some home bars still keep a version of the church key, albeit slicked up with chrome and fancy handles.

The restaurant and bar industries still make use of the bottle opener end of the device, and the old church key has seen some evolution. My son is a waiter at a restaurant where I can’t afford to dine, and he carries something like this in his pocket:

Behind the bar you might still find one of these:

… and Ambulance Driver might have one of these:

Holding out from extinction, the lowly church key has evolved into a gewgaw of various and interesting designs:

Rob’s twentish year-old son failed to understand the term, which is somewhat of a shame. The church key is a nostalgic piece of Americana, much like another archaic item... the buggy whip.

I'd bet Rob's son wouldn't know what that was either.



Old NFO said...

You're right... I had to go check, but I STILL have a church key, albeit now consigned to the junk/spares drawer. I remember carrying one on my key ring MANY years ago...sigh...

Mule Breath said...

Yeah, I drink the craft beers sometimes, and most of those don't have twist tops. A church key is a requirement. I keep one tied to my ice chest, a couple in the kitchen and a couple more in the truck.

Year before last, while on a road trip to Key West, I picked up one that looks kinda like the shark style pictured in the post, except the eye was a little rubber insulated contact switch and the snout housed an LED light. It was freebee advertising for a surf shop that I carried on my key ring until recently.

Nomen Nescio said...

i grew up in a European country, before twist-off bottle caps but after pop-top cans. well, actually after rip-off cans; the little pull-off ring would literally pull a piece of metal off the can top. (sharp-edged bugger, too. they were common street and beach litter in my childhood, and a bit of a nuisance.)

so i always knew what bottle openers were; a lot of them even had the key-like shape, although no translated equivalent of "church key" was ever common slang there.

i do remember reading a Stephen King novel where he mentioned "church keys", and (even then, apparently) felt the need to explain what he meant. his explanation was of the flat ones with the sharp, triangular head on one end --- and THAT kind of opener i had never seen in my home country. no container commonly sold there ever needed 'em. King's explanation just confused me more, until i finally saw one for myself.

i'm still not really sure what you'd ever need the triangular bit for, actually.

(hmm, i lost my leatherman tool a while ago, and i've been going without a bottle/can opener on my person since then. i need to get myself a wave. once i do, i'll carry it in the belt holster so it won't fall out of the cargo pocket by accident...)

Mule Breath said...

The pull tab cans were called pop tops, and the term took on cultural significance with the Jimmy Buffet song, Margaritaville.

I stepped on a pop top; blew out my flip flop...

The triangular chisel tip perforated the top of a steel can. The can had a rim, which you inserted the little tap underneath, then lifted up causing the point of the chisel to poke a hole in the can. You'd make a hole on the other side too, to allow air into the can as you drank from the other hole.

Beer wasn't the only thing for which the church key was utilized. Canned milk, and even oil cans needed something to open them, and the church key served well for those too.

Ted said...

Perhaps more common is the Boy Scout knife, and various permutations thereof. The bottle opener attachment is very useful, the can opener can sub for the "chisel" end of your churchkey, and you never know when a good blade will come in handy.

Anonymous said...

Moms still use the church key for the opening of Juicy Juice cans and sweetened, condensed milk! Try explaining why the juice isn't coming to a thirsty tot while you try to hammer the top in with a flat-blade. I had to search all over town to find one and the quality is not that good. I wish I had the one my mom still has in her silverware drawer back home.

Rogue Medic said...

I don't see the need for any specialized too for this. I carry a pocket screwdriver - image here

This is something that requires more steps to pry individual crimps on the bottle cap, but I do not drink much. I don't know of many beers worth drinking that do not come with a bottle cap.

As an alternative to this screwdriver, which is effective as a screwdriver, one can use a dime to do the same thing. Other coins tend to be too thick to get between the bottle and the cap. Again, crimp-by-crimp prying is required.