A few weeks ago, I helped my grandma move from her apartment on the second floor to a home for the elderly. It’s a beautiful place with huge gardens, small but lovely rooms and the nicest nurses. Unfortunately, since the rooms don’t offer that much storage space, my grandma had to get rid of a lot of things. Most of her stuff was actually very useful to me, as I recently moved out and was in desperate need of dishes, cutlery and stuff like that. But when you’re over 80 years old, like my grandma, you tend to collect things you’ll never need again. In my granny’s case, those things were creepy dolls, foreign currencies (well, that was a profitable discovery) … and crown corks. In all colours of the rainbow!
As the metal packaging lover that I am, I picked out the prettiest to save them for future DIYs and returned the rest to the recycling centre. While going through this enormous collection, however, I noticed that I’ve never really thought about the invention of these tiny things … my plan for the following day was quickly settled and I sat down to research the invention and history of crown corks.
Get ready for some pretty exciting facts!
How it All Started
When talking about the invention of the crown cork, there is one name that definitely deserves a place in the discussion: William Painter. He is the Nicolas Appert of the history of crown corks (read more about Appert and the history of recycling here)! To be precise, William Painter applied for a patent for the invention of the crown cork in the year 1891, so over 125 years ago. Isn’t that crazy?! The name “crown cork” is easily explained: The very first bottle cap consisted of 24 prongs and a piece of cork.
Of course, the precise explanation in Painter’s application is not as simple. This is how he described his innovation:
“My present invention pertains to the sealing of bottles by the use of compressible packing disks and metallic caps, which have flanges bent into reliable locking engagement with annular locking-shoulders on the heads of bottles, while the packing-disk is in each case under heavy compression and in enveloping contact with the lip of the bottle.”
A fan of big words, I see …
The crown cork was not the only invention and patent application by William Painter. In fact, he held over 80 patents for all kinds of things, but his bottle sealing device – as he liked to call it – was definitely the most successful one and an important step in the history of metal packaging.
Next Step: Mass Production
For a long time, breweries had been looking for an alternative for the swing top that was cheaper, leak-proof and could be fitted by machine. Especially the carbon in beer, lemonades or water posed a challenge that the crown cork was ready to meet!
In 1894, William Painter founded the Crown Cork & Seal Company (today called Crown Holdings) located in Baltimore. He maintained his inventive spirit and developed a bottle opener for the crown corks. Thank God, otherwise we’d still be opening bottles with knives, nails or ice picks, as he originally suggested.
The “Automatic Power Crown Machine” was the next step. The machine (also developed by William Painter) could fill the bottles and seal them in one step. This way, 10 to 15 tons of tinplate could be processed within one week as early as 1897.
The Production Today
Although the invention was ingenious from the very start, there was still room for improvement. The cork of the original crown corks, for example, was replaced with a thin synthetic layer and the prongs were reduced from 24 to only 21 nowadays. This has two reasons: The bottle necks today are much thinner than they used to be, so the crown corks had to shrink as well. So far, so good! But also an even number of prongs resulted in the corks being tilted during production and sealing. An uneven amount solved this problem et voilà: The modern crown cork was born.
We owe William Painter a lot … cracking open a cold bottle of beer in the summer is one of the most satisfying sounds ever. What surprised you most about the history of crown corks?