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Bully Beef can Opener.jpg

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.

Article on Tin Openers [Research Pod]
History of the Can Opener [American Heritage]


12 Responses to Antique Tools: 19th Century Bully Beef Can Opener

  1. Jim K. says:

    Funny I ran across one of these yesterday at an antique fair. They wanted $95 for it. Hmmm… Cool, but pass…

  2. Dr. Girlfriend says:

    I’ve seen them online at eBay and other places for $25-40. Not bad if you really wanted one.

  3. rick edwards says:

    i have one with a wooden handle any info please

  4. Tom says:

    The wooden handles ones were made in Sheffield England,about the middle of the 19th century, by a company called Rogers & Sons.

  5. rick edwards says:

    thanks Tom I will look them up.

  6. Rob says:

    I found the head and half the handle of one in Mooi River(South Africa) whilst leveling sites for house construction. The site was camp to a division of the red coats during the Anglo Boer war 1899.The site was riddled with rifle cartridges,cavalry buckles, ink wells etc. A google search for this item led me to this web site.

  7. shirley shakeshaft says:

    Hi i have just been looking at the 19th century Bully Beef can opener and i have the sameone please could you tell me how much it is worth many thanks shirley

  8. Phil rye says:

    I have a bull’s head Warner style bully beef opener but it has BT and Co written on the side, not sure where it came from but ended up in uk.

  9. jamie says:

    I have an all metal Bully Beef can opener
    no inscriptions on it (could be worn off)
    won’t hold you to it, but est. value ?
    thank you

  10. Gaynor says:

    I have a bully beef can opener though mine does not have a screw behind the ear it does not have any screw anywhere.could anyone tell me how old it is thanks

  11. Tina pastor says:

    I have i think a can opener a bottle opener can you tell me what its really used for i ll send a picture

  12. Diane says:

    We have a cast uron opener just like this one, but no indication if where and when ir was made. How woyd we calue this item

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