Opening a bottle of wine seems such a simple affair. But, in fact, corkscrews are not at all ordinary. They are marvels of mechanical ingenuity, vulgar representations of erotic delight, and useful pocket tools. They are also works of magnificent beauty, with handles carved in all sorts of figures and shapes, fabricated of ivory, bone, horn, tusk, teeth, antlers, root stocks, wood, steel, iron, and brass. The worm—the screw part—can be helical, bladed, pointed center, Archimedean, even double helix. The withdrawal mechanisms of corkscrews vary enormously and have led to famous patents and registered designs, as well as to famous inventors. As for corkscrew collectors, they are a notoriously passionate lot.
What had been largely a private obsession was formalized only in 1974, when Dr. Bernard M. Watney and Timothy Diener—a Christian Brother, former Napa Valley vineyard keeper, and collector of 1,600 corkscrews—founded a select society limited to fifty members.1 This elite organization mockingly called itself “The International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts.” Democracy did not prevail until the Canadian Corkscrew Collectors Club was established in 1981; this group now claims over three hundred members worldwide. Other societies include the recently-organized and egalitarian Golden Gate Corkscrew Collectors, the Club Français du Tire-Bouchon, and the important, elite Associazione Italiana Collezionisti di Cavatappi, founded in 1988.
The populous Canadian Corkscrew Collectors subscribe to The Quarterly Worme, “the newsletter for the discriminating helixophile.” They scour the countryside, attend antique fairs, bid at auctions, meet yearly, travel together, buy online, compete in a friendly manner for intriguing corkscrews, and raise the going prices, so that a rare item can easily bring $5,000 to $10,000. The record may be $29,000 for an eighteenth-century pocket corkscrew with a twentieth-century inscription.
How did corkscrews come to be so highly regarded?
The story begins in antiquity when both Greek and Roman wines were stored in earthenware jars (amphorae). The stoppers were likely to have been made of clay or wood; only the Romans occasionally used cork, still the best material for preserving wine. The stoppers were sealed with clay, gypsum, or pitch, or sometimes with an adhesive called pozzolama, a sort of cement made from volcanic ash. The closure was secured by dipping in a substance such as oil, tallow, or wax—not an ideal solution. Despite the fact that a wide variety of ancient writers discuss the making, aging, and serving of wine, no mention has been found of Roman corkscrews.
Many different types of containers for wine were utilized during the succeeding centuries, but the art of making elegant wines suitable for aging was temporarily lost. The Renaissance witnessed the rebirth of this art along with the use of glass bottles in which to mature and store the wine. In the early eighteenth century, several important purchases were recorded. In England, Horace Walpole imported wine in 1706; in 1721 the Earl of Bristol bought some “Laffitte” and two years later a hogshead of Château Margaux. All of these purchases involved short, bulbous bottles that had to be stood up with the cork on top, thereby drying out the wine and effectively preventing proper aging.
When, later in the eighteenth century, the bottle acquired a true mallet shape (that is, less rounded, with more vertical sides), wine could be laid down for storage and maturation. But the stopper had further to evolve: it was still merely tied down with thread or leather and anchored on the glass ring at the bottle neck right below the opening. The corks themselves were cones inserted partway into the bottle and could be removed by hand. One theory about the development of the corkscrew is that the 1703 Methuen Treaty between England and Portugal created an enlarged English market for Portuguese wine. Transportation across significant distances required more secure stopper and also encouraged the maturing of wines. For bottles to be binned on their sides—to save space and to keep the corks moist—the corks needed to be of a standard size. This uniformity meant that a corkscrew was useful, if not essential. The development of sea shipping also led winemakers to discover that adding a small amount of brandy to the wine stabilized a perishable product. (This practice ultimately created vintage port.) Corks became the preferred stoppers at this time and even today are produced mainly in Portugal.
The manner in which corks are removed from bottles has a long, complicated, and uncertain history. There are many references to devices for cork extraction, such as gimlets and spirals, early “scrues,” wires, cork-drawers, bottle screws, and finally, in 1681, the first mention of a “corkscrue.”2 An amusing poem attributed to Nicholas Amhurst (1697–1742), published in London in 1724, described the role of the “cork-scrue.” The poem’s beginning reveals its jocular tone:
The Patten, Fan, & Petticoat,
Three modern themes of special Note,
In parlous, Rhimes immortal live,
If Rhimes immortal Life can give;
The Mouse-trap in sonorous lays
Transmits thro’ Ages Taffy’s praise,
While still unsung in pompous Strains,
“Oh, shame! The Bottle Scrue remains,
The Bottle Scrue, whose Worth, whose Use
All Men confess, that love the Juice;
Forgotten sleeps the Man to whom
We oweth Invention, in his Tomb.
No publick Honours grade his Name,
No pious Bard records his Fame,
Elate with Pride and Joy I see
The deathless Task reserv’d for me.
Say, gentle Muse, in living Song,
Whence First this useful Engine sprung.3
This new implement, the “cork-scrue,” may have evolved from the gun tool “worme,” or from a gun-cleaning tool called a “shot rake”; or perhaps it came from the awl or gimlet tool, or a tool called a “hook.” The hook-type cork puller was placed between the cork and the inside of the bottle, then rotated until it extracted the cork.4 Expensive wines of the period were bottled with corks driven flush with the top—thus, the gentlemen who drank them must have been equipped to open them easily. If the first modern vintage Bordeaux was Château-Chalon in 1774, or the 1787 Château-Lafite, as some claim, then the corkscrew, whatever its origins, was already well established by then. Incidentally, almost all of the expensive corkscrews manufactured at that time were portable. It is readily apparent that these original corkscrews were intimately associated with aristocratic high culture, with expensive, elegant wines, with eighteenth-century hand-blown decanters, and with a way of life far removed from plebian pleasures.
Right: A carved Corozo or Tagua Nut (vegetable ivory) corkscrew, Left: A twentieth-century Italian “coffee-grinder” corkscrew, Right. Collection Stephen J. Gendzier
The first corkscrew patent was awarded to the Reverend Samuel Henshall in 1795. Soon the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the middle class, and the development of the restaurant—all coming at the beginning of the nineteenth century—changed the class bias of corkscrew production. Few people could afford the silver “roundlet” corkscrews, the silver travel corkscrews, the “Thomas Lund,” the “John Loach,” the “King’s Screw,” or the “Thomason” models first patented in 1802 by an ingenious Birmingham industrialist. Thomason’s patent application noted: “In respect to principle, I cause the cork to be extracted from the simple continuation of turning the screw to the right hand, and this performed without any rack wheel, lock or spring, and I cause the cork to be discharged from the screw without laying hold of the cork with the fingers by the simple continuation of turning or unscrewing towards the left hand.”5 Some Thomason models have ivory handles and barrels decorated in bas-relief. Most have closed brass barrels, some have open pillar frames. Thomason himself made more than 130,000 of these corkscrews, and his imitators are legion.
Thomas Lund (patent 1838) updated the Thomason screw with a bottle-holding device and added a rack-and-pinion apparatus. John Loach’s corkscrew (patent 1844) has a sliding barrel and two sharp spikes hidden inside the top of the barrel, which prevent the cork from turning. It also has an ivory handle with a brush. The rack-and-pinion device was originally known as the King’s Screw, but the basic principle was so widely copied that no patent was ever issued. The King’s Screw, however, has four lovely shank posters with side handles that may be made of bone, steel, or other metals. Between 1795 and 1908 nearly 350 corkscrew patents were granted in England, with over seventy issued between 1840 and 1884 alone.6
With the expansion of wine production to meet the demands of the popular market, inexpensive corkscrews became available, such as those patented by Chinnock, Murphy, or Williamson, among others. The steel mills of Birmingham produced millions of inexpensive corkscrews that were easy to use. England and France were soon joined by Germany, Italy, and the United States in creating new, ingenious, and commercially viable wine-bottle openers. Once the “figurals” got off the ground there was no limit to the animals, birds, fishes, and other creatures that could form the handles. One model, the single-lever corkscrew (the waiter’s type), was patented by Karl Wienke in Germany in 1882; another patent was issued to the same inventor in the United States the following year. Some of these single-lever corkscrews have rather ornate designs. Since many were giveaways, they were ideal for advertising Italian, French, Spanish, and German beverage brands, including wines. Antique examples of this simple corkscrew are now ridiculously expensive. Not long after the single-lever corkscrew appeared, French knife-corkscrews with polished brass handles flooded the market. Large cast-iron bar corkscrews with rack mechanisms used in trattorias and inns in nineteenth-century Italy were soon succeeded by stunning English Bar models of highly polished brass. The Don, the Acme, the Merritt, the Rotary Eclipse, and the Slam, among others, embellished taverns, restaurants, and public houses. American and English versions of cast-iron bar models, including those called the Champion, the Yankee, and the Original Safety, were also produced but were less elegant than the Italian originals.
Top Left: German pocket “legs” corkscrews made of celluloid. Late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Top Right: English corkscrews with silver fittings and sheaths, handles of mother-of-pearl, dyed green ivory, natural ivory. Eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Bottom: A four-poster, rack-and-pinion King’s Screw with bone handle and brush, Left; A boar’s tusk with a long iron shank and carved ivory elephant head, Center; A King’s Screw with a Thomason-type bronze barrel and brush, Right. Collection Stephen J. Gendzier
After three hundred years of corkscrew evolution, it would seem that the arrival of a perfected tool would forestall further innovation. What could be more efficient, for example, than the famous Screwpull invented by Texan designer Herbert Allen and patented in 1981? It uses modern plastics and has an ideal Teflon-coated helix. With three quick thrusts of the lever, up, down, and up again, the cork is out. But the issue is not just speed. Mature Bordeaux, Burgundies, California Cabernet Sauvignons, and other wines gradually precipitate out the wine tannins as sediment. These older wines have to be stood up for a goodly amount of time and then carefully decanted. Extraction of the cork must not cause the bottle to move, disturbing the deposit and ruining a great wine. So the best corkscrews for these wines resemble the Screwpull. But because most people do not age their wines, few such demanding wines are bought, cellared, and decanted. Consequently, the utilitarian aspect of the corkscrew takes second place to its attractive qualities, leaving the market open to innovative designs, some of which involve experiments with high-tech metals.
These modern beauties include Monopol’s “Bacchus,” a highly burnished German steel model; Hervé Pennequin’s “Sommelier,” a bone and metal waiter’s corkscrew more substantial than the ordinary, ubiquitous versions; Giovanni Alessi Anghini’s “Anna G,” available in blue, green, red, and yellow, and made of polyamide and chromed zinc, aluminum, and magnesium alloy; and Laguiole’s latest collection of curved knife-corkscrews, made of bone and polished steel, equipped with a capsule cutter, a bottle-top opener, and a waiter’s lever neatly folded over part of the worm. These new corkscrews demonstrate that the creation of wine-bottle openers has a life of its own.7
The desire to create, collect, and display corkscrews cannot be satisfied by the mere acquisition of hundreds, or even thousands, of examples. Numerous articles in The New York Times, The Wine Spectator, and trade journals substantiate this point. We know who the antique corkscrew specialists are in America, France, England, and Germany. Christie’s in London has had corkscrew auctions twice a year since 1994. The quest goes on, a thirst that cannot be satisfied. Addiction may be just the right term to describe such a fixation. Certainly “collecting” is much too mild to describe the rush of excitement when a long-sought creature is spied in an uninformed antique dealer’s stall. “Eureka!” is the carefully stifled cry of the mad hunter. What bliss!
4. Ferd Peters, Mechanical Corkscrews: Their Evolution, Actions, and Patents ([Holland]: Huntjens, Stein, 1999), 20. For an illustration of these tools from Jean Jacques Perret’s 1771 book on cutlery, see Giulian, Corkscrews of the Eighteenth Century, 25–6.
7. See Donald A. Bull, The Ultimate Corkscrew Book (Atglen, pa: Shiffer Publishing, 1999) and Paolo de Sanctis and Maurizio Fantoni, The Corkscrew: A Thing of Beauty (Milan: Marzorati Editore, 1990) for the vast possibilities in corkscrew design; and Fred O’Leary, Corkscrews: 1000 Patented Ways to Open a Bottle (Atglen, pa: Schiffer Publishing, 1996) for the voluminous number of corkscrew patents that have been issued.
Bull, Donald A. The Ultimate Corkscrew Book. Atglen, PA: Shiffer Publishing, 1999.
Butler, Robin and Gillian Walking. The Book of Wine Antiques. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1995.
Giulian, Bertrand B. Corkscrews of the Eighteenth Century: Artistry in Iron and Steel. Yardley, PA: WhiteSpace, 1995.
O’Leary, Fred. Corkscrews: 1000 Patented Ways to Open a Bottle. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1996.
Peters, Ferd. Mechanical Corkscrews: Their Evolution, Actions, and Patents. [Holland]: Huntjens, Stein, 1999.
Robinson, Jancis. The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Sanctis, Paolo de and Maurizio Fantoni. The Corkscrew: A Thing of Beauty. Milan: Marzorati Editore, 1990.
Watney, Bernard M. and Homer D. Babbidge. Corkscrews for Collectors. London and New York: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981.