Why Are Can Openers Still a Thing?

We have the technology to just peel cans open, so why don’t we use it?

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May 20 2016, 7:30pm

Image: YouTube

I eat a lot of beans. I'm vegetarian, and I'm busy, so canned beans are a staple in my diet. And nothing gives me greater joy than when I pluck a can out of the cupboard and see one of these bad boys on the top:

Image: WikiMedia Commons

Of course this is a thing. Why would you want to dig out a can opener, crank it all the way around the top, and risk slicing yourself on the edge when you can just rip that shit right off in two seconds. In fact, canned fish like sardines have long had peel-away lids, so it's kind of surprising it took so long for the technology to migrate to cylindrical cans.

But the peel-off style of cans are still fairly uncommon, making a can opener a required kitchen tool even for the most basic cook. You can't even eat a can of soup without at least having some kind of can opening device. This is a mechanical tool that was invented in the 1850s (oddly, about 50 years after the can was invented) and though a few modest improvements have been made in the century and a half since, it's essentially the same device now as it was then. We have the technology to make peel off lids, so why are can openers still a thing?

The first can opener was patented in 1855, almost 50 years after storing food in cans became a thing. Before that, the best solution we had for opening cans was to cut away the top with a chisel and hammer, according to Meredith Sayles Hughes, an author and food historian. This first designs didn't look much like the one we have today, but it was an improvement over the chisel method. Here's the first US designed can opener:

Image: US Patent Office

The classic toothed-wheel crank design most people use today was created shortly after, in 1925. Since then, there have been dozens of different designs, but that classic can opener seems to endure.

"I remember my father buying an electric can opener and bringing it home," Hughes told me over the phone. "I don't think any of us ever really used it, for some reason."

The idea of yanking a ring to peel off a lid was first introduced in the 1960s—if you're old enough, you might remember that this design was used to open beer and soda cans back in the day, with the tab peeling off to reveal the opening:

Eventually, this peel-off design was applied to full tops of cans...in 1980. That's right, we haven't needed can opener for more than 30 years, yet we're still all cranking on openers like chumps.

Part of this is due to cost: the peel top cans are more expensive to produce than the standard design. It's not so much that consumers aren't willing to pay more: One market research firm found young people in particular are just not into opening shit, with 28 percent of 25 to 34 year olds saying canned food is hard to open.

It's more likely that brands themselves are reluctant to make a change, however. A trends report by the Can Manufacturers Institute from 2005 (there's...not a lot of research on opening cans, surprisingly) said market research shows consumers are down with easy-open cans, but that "our job is to demonstrate to food processors how to meet that demand with reliable technology based on science, not assumption or opinion." In other words, they were still trying to convince the food producers to get on board.

But even if we completely converted all our cans to peel off lids, Hughes told me it's hard to imagine the can opener ever completely vanishing. For one, the peel off lids can actually be harder to open for people with limited dexterity—but there are plenty of hands-free can opener options to meet their needs when it comes to traditional tins. And the peel off design isn't without its flaws, Hughes pointed out that the ring can sometimes snap off, leaving you digging around for a can opener anyway.

"In terms of keeping food for a long time, keeping it safely, and it being impervious to heat, cold, et cetera, the can is hard to beat," Hughes said. "It's hard to imagine the can going away."

And as long as there are cans, there will be can openers. Besides, you don't want to risk being unable to open a tin of food in case of a zombie apocalypse, so you might not want to toss out your opener yet.