I love tools and have spent hours in hardware stores, flea markets, and antique shows contemplating their culture and evolution and respecting their singular purposes. The tool that I and my children collect most passionately is the corkscrew. Uncorked is not an encyclopedia; it was never destined to include examples of every corkscrew ever made. Our collection is not about quantity or rarity or mint condition. We value evident tracks of use, as well as eccentricity of design and good functional condition.
As the curator and registrar of this collection, I became interested in how these intriguing devices came about. The arrangement of my collection and of this volume is meant to identify discrete and fluid categories of form and function within the evolutionary narrative of the corkscrew, which is succumbing to the advent of the screw-top.
I shared a bottle of wine each dinnertime for 49 years with my late husband Ivan C. Karp (founder and director of OK Harris Works of Art). Our first corkscrew came from the kitchen aisle of a supermarket, proffered between the measuring spoons and the manual can openers. It was a handy kitchen tool in a pre-pop-top era, enabling easy access to canned beer, soda pop, or wine. It is stamped EKCO,USA.
From earliest times, wine was stored clay vessels. Wine bottles were standardized with respect to shape (cylindrical), thickness (strength), and size (amount of contents) in England by the early 1700s. Compressed cork was used to seal bottles for transport, one collateral benefit being that wine could be aged in the bottle. Corkscrews have had a 300-year run of fascinating ingenuity, morphing through changes in format, fashion, and hundreds of patents. The first tools for removing the compacted cork were primitive, the most efficient of which were gun screws used in cleaning gun barrels. Gun screws had twinned helical worms and some corkscrews were made from one twisted steel wire with a double helical worm mimicking the gun screw.
Corkscrews existed in the century before the first patent was granted to Samuel Henshall in England in 1795. His was a Basic T form or Straight Pull corkscrew with a turned rosewood handle that had a brush on one end for removing debris from the bottle top before drawing the cork. The patent was granted for the domed button on top of the shaft. When the worm penetrated the cork to the level of the button, it turned the cork in the bottleneck, breaking its crusted hold and enabling easier drawing of the cork. This plain, small disk was a big idea that led directly to patents for concave buttons, serrated buttons, grooved buttons, toothed buttons, and daisy buttons. Thus began the great ingenuity directed toward finessing the pull.
Many inventive adjustments to handles and shafts occurred once the shortcomings of the Basic T and Straight Pull concepts became apparent (namely, it was difficult to keep it in one’s pocket, without piercing anything but the intended cork). These improvements meant made folding and pocket corkscrews portable, so the bearer was ready to open a bottle anywhere.
On the theory that tools in one’s pocket were handy conveniences, we see a blossoming of folding multi tools nested with the corkscrew. This certainly foreshadows the Swiss Army Knife.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, patents abounded in France, England, Germany, and the United States. Corkscrew inventiveness exploded both mechanically and decoratively in a wild array of improbable devices. Corkscrews define humankind’s ingenious and cumulative effort to draw the cork and get to the elixir with an element of grace. Henry Boker’s folding Celluloid figural mermaid (1890) with long tresses and hands to her breast, has scales on her tail and a single lever to rest on the bottleneck, creating leverage to ease the raising of the cork.
The most elegantly compact of corkscrews is the Peg & Worm, as the design is so simple. The peg (handle) resides within the helical worm. When called into service, it slips out of the worm and is inserted into the hole in the worm’s shaft.
A flourishing of creative engineering evolved into a multiplicity of improvements to more easily remove the cork from the bottle, then from the worm of the corkscrew. It was a tough task to choose just one corkscrew to represent all the advances in its evolution, but I selected this Split Barrel because it represents a change. It has a sliding lock ring and ball bearings to ease handle rotation; after the cork is drawn, the lock ring may be lifted and the cork easily twisted off the worm.
Another adaptation was the incorporation of a lever into the process. There are many single lever corkscrews, the most familiar of which is called the Waiter’s Friend. We’ve all seen them used in restaurants. If one mechanical lever works, two must be better. Two hands playing an active role in elevating the cork split the human power required. Smythe’s Hooch Owl, patented in 1936 in the USA, is a double lever corkscrew. The levers are wings with bottlecap opener tips; when raised, they appear as if in flight; when the levers are pressed down and the cork is raised, the owl appears to be at rest—even its eyes are expressive.
There are about 650 corkscrews in my family’s collection, so it was challenging to select 12 to represent Uncorked. Oddly, it’s easy to disclose my favorite: Wier’s Double Concertina (1884). Concertina and Tong corkscrews have compound levers. With the levers compressed, the worm is turned to penetrate the cork; the cork is then extracted by raising the handle straight upward. Once the cork has been pulled out, the levers are again compressed and the exposed cork may be twisted off the worm. While being clearly functional and exquisitely designed, it reminds me of a Rube Goldberg cartoon and gets an A for originality.
Probably made in Colonial America, this Revolutionary War officer’s multi-blade tool has pivoting implements, including a short tapered helical worm. It was found in a military cache in Maine with other articles, which date this corkscrew to pre-1730.
Novelty corkscrews deliver a message that tells a great deal about the time, place, and culture where they come from. Prohibition (enforced 1920-1933) was legendary, and its near end was hailed by the four-part novelty corkscrew of the corpse of Prohibition, depicted as a three-dimensional figure in a coffin shaped box. The patent was applied for in 1932, in anticipation of the end of Prohibition. The corkscrew is in the top hat.
Marilynn Gelfman Karp is Professor Emerita at New York University. Uncorked is her latest book; previous books include In Flagrante Collecto and I Married An Art Dealer: Art, Enlightenment & Death with Ivan Karp. She divides her time and her corkscrews between New York City and a farmhouse in Upstate New York.