The earliest accounts of canned foods date to the early 1800s. In 1858, inventor Ezra J. Warner patented his design for the first practical can opener in the United States. Early food storage cans were made of wrought iron and tin, requiring a hammer and chisel to break through the sturdy exterior. Warner’s opener entered the market when thinner steel started being used to produce cans, offering a practical option for both Civil War troops and grocery store clerks who opened cans for consumers to take home.
Canned goods evolved in the 1960s, when the easy-open lid, also known as full-aperture, was introduced. Becoming wildly popular in the 1990s, the easy-open lid continues to be a convenient option when can openers are unavailable.
The can opener itself has undergone many changes since Warner’s original design, but remains a staple in kitchens. His invention opened up a world of possibilities for canned foods as a budget-friendly and shelf-stable option for all.
Manual Can Openers
Manual can openers come in many styles, each with a unique construction and operation.
Lever or claw models are some of the most basic, fitted with a curved blade and guard to prevent the blade from cutting too deeply into the can. This model is not often used nowadays, since the blade leaves a dangerously sharp edge on the can.
The church key style is made with a single piece of metal and often is used to remove bottle caps. The pointed edge is designed to puncture cans, rather than cut or remove the entire lid, and is best suited for cans containing liquids such as juices, broths or purees.
Butterfly-style can openers have a crank, lever and serrated wheel used in unison to open cans. The opener is held like a set of pliers, with the wheel mechanism facing the top of the can, rather than the side, which results in less sharp edges. The crank is turned to allow the serrated wheel to cut through the lid, while simultaneously turning the can.
Bunker or single-wheel models operate in a similar fashion to butterfly openers; the main difference is bunker openers often are magnetized, creating a strong hold on the lid. They also result in a smoother cut, which reduces safety hazards when handling cans after opening.
Electric Can Openers
First released in 1931, the electric can opener is an automated and hands-off way to open canned goods. In general, these openers are more expensive and come in countertop and under-cabinet models. Electric can openers can be especially handy for people with weak grip or hand strength, such as those who have arthritis. Most are fitted with a removable blade, drive wheel and magnetic lid holder to prevent the cut lid from entering the can of food. Cans are held in place by the machine, while the automated drive wheel turns the can and the blade cuts through the top. Most electric can openers also turn off automatically after cutting is complete.
When an electric can opener no longer operates, it should not be disposed of in regular household garbage. Contact local waste management authorities to determine the appropriate disposal of household electrical appliances.
All can openers should be washed after each use to prevent food buildup, which can harbor bacteria and pathogens. Many manual openers can be cleaned in the dishwasher or by hand with hot, soapy water and should air-dry completely before storing. If rust forms on blades, soak the can opener in vinegar for a few hours or overnight and scrub away rust with an old toothbrush before washing and drying.
Electric can openers should be unplugged prior to cleaning or removing parts. Most blade components can be removed and wiped clean with a damp cloth. The base and remaining parts of the can opener can be wiped with a damp cloth or sponge; use a mesh pad with warm, soapy water for stubborn spots. All parts should be dried completely and reattached to the machine prior to use.
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