Before handheld can openers, getting to the food inside a tin can required a hammer and chisel — or, for many soldiers, bayonets, knives, or even rifle fire. The first claw-shape, lever-type openers were developed in Britain and America in the 1850s by cutler Robert Yates in Middlesex in 1855, and by Ezra J. Warner of Waterbury, CT, in 1858. The U.S. Army adopted Warner’s design for the Civil War and issued the bull’s head can opener (above) with its rations of canned “bully beef,” or shredded corned beef mixed with gravy. (British and Australian soldiers regularly consumed bully beef, too, usually with hard tack crackers and, on Christmas Day, whiskey.)
Warner’s patent came on the heels of the development of thinner steel cans, which helped make the can opener more viable and less dangerous. From American Heritage:
[The lever-type was] an opener with a pointed blade that the user pressed, rather than stabbed, into the can. A metal guard kept the point from penetrating too far, to “perforate the tin without causing the liquid to fly out.” A second, curved blade could then be worked to gnaw along the rim and remove the lid. Warner’s patent claimed, with more optimism than prudence, that “a child may use it without difficulty, or risk.”
The bull’s head opener was made of cast iron and often painted red, with the animal’s tail curving into the handle. A web article from the UK illustrates:
A two-part steel blade was fastened to the bull’s neck; one short vertical spike rising from the head intended to pierce a hole in the lid, and the other a cutting blade (under the chin of the bull) for see-sawing round the rim of the tin.
The bull’s head tin openers were produced up to the mid 1930’s and can still be found as a collector’s item — though old cans of bully beef are harder to find.