Most of the things we use are brought about by necessity. Some objects evolve from other items that may have a similar form but a different purpose. One such object is the corkscrew.
In the early days, people used a crude instrument called the “gun worm” to clear musket barrels of wadding or bullets that failed to fire. “Gun worms” were made by gunsmiths and had metal claws attached to wooden ramrods. Their curled tip may have inspired the twisting shape of the steel worm, known today as the corkscrew.
The Romans used cork as a stopper for their wine containers, but the containers they used were not ideal for aging wine. Wine back then was stored for short periods, often for transport, and was served before it spoiled. The cork used in those containers had a small nub, making it easy to open the container. Wine containers were also stored upright to prevent spilling.
Improvements in glass-blowing technology in the 18th century saw the emergence of glass wine bottles with slim necks. These bottles made wine aging possible as the slimmer necks and openings can be stoppered with a cork and sealed. The British, with their practice of storing wine bottles sideways, required tightly sealed bottles. Corks were pushed in deep enough to prevent spills, and thus their removal by hand as it was done during the reign of the Roman Empire was difficult, if not outright impossible. A tool was needed, and so the corkscrew came to be.
The earliest reference to the corkscrew could be seen in a museum catalogue in 1681. In the catalogue, it was referred to as a steel worm used for the removal of corks from bottles. Later, people used the term bottle screw. It wasn’t until 1720 that the term corkscrew was used. It was coined by Nicholas Amhurst, a poet, who included the term in one of his poems.
Screwing Around: Patents and Key Innovations
The first patent for a corkscrew was given to Reverend Samuel Henshall in 1795, even though corkscrews have been around for quite a while. No one knows exactly who the inventor of the corkscrew was. Henshall’s model included a concave disk inserted between the handle and the worm, an improvement earlier corkscrews didn’t have. The disk forces the cork to turn until the seal between cork and bottle is released. The disk also prevents one from screwing too deep into the cork. Henshall was able to bring his corkscrew into the market with the help of Mathew Boulton, a prominent Birmingham manufacturer. This model was so efficient that for a hundred years, it was the most widely used type of corkscrew.
The next innovation came from Edward Thomason. His innovation employed nested screws which turned in opposite directions and was granted a patent in 1802. The nested screws allow the user to turn the corkscrew in one direction. Once a screw reaches its limit, a second one is engaged, allowing the cork to move upward.
Another is the “Waiter’s Friend” patented in 1882. This innovation by Carl F.A. Weinke, a German inventor, is also known as the “Butler’s Friend,” “Wine Key” and “Sommelier’s Knife.” It’s shaped like a pocket knife and is slim and foldable. It has a single lever and a screw, along with a handle that makes use of the bottle’s side as leverage to facilitate the upward pull of the cork.
The A1 Heeley Double Lever by H.S. Heeley was granted a patent in 1888. It is the origin of the “Wing,” a double-lever, rack-and-pinion corkscrew. The version of this corkscrew was patented by Dominick Rosati and reached the United States in 1930. It remains one of the most popular designs. A pair of levers rise on the bottleneck’s sides while one twists the screw into the cork. Pushing the lever down makes the cork rise. Wing corkscrews made of thicker and heavier metals were highly effective and more efficient compared to flimsier versions.
More modern innovations include Hebert Allen’s “Screwpull,” patented in 1979. Allen used his experience as an engineer in the oil and aerospace industry to create the Screwpull. The slim device is made of advanced metals and polycarbonate plastic. It wraps around the top of the bottle and turning the plastic screw frees the cork from the neck.
Allen also has a patent for another type of corkscrew, a single side lever corkscrew that was extremely easy to use. One must apply a down-up-down series of strokes to secure the screw into the cork. Once the cork is secured, one simply pulls it out and takes the cork from the screw. The “Rabbit” corkscrew made this type quite famous in America.
Screw That: Collecting Corkscrews
One can say that wine enthusiasts are also helixophiles, as sampling a special vintage requires first the removal of a cork, but not all helixophiles are wine enthusiasts. Anyone can be an avid corkscrew collector.
As with any other collectable, one collector’s preference might differ from another. One could decide to collect corkscrews with a particular mechanism, while others might look at the place of origin or age of a particular corkscrew. Others might even choose to collect corkscrews that have a particular aesthetic. Regardless of one’s preference, here are a few things worth knowing should one choose to be a helixophile.
The British are known to be the first to make use of corkscrews. The earlier types of corkscrews date back to more or less 200 years ago. The age of these items makes them quite the helixophile’s prize. Some collectors consider British corkscrews as top-quality pieces and would break the bank for such a piece compared to those from other countries. Notable British manufacturers are from Sheffield and Birmingham. There are also good manufacturers from London like Thomas Lund, known for their sidewinder with bottle grips.
Early Steel Corkscrew
The early steel corkscrews often require tremendous force and were difficult to use. Henshall’s innovation was quite an improvement. Notable pieces of this type have the markings of BB Wells, J.J. Mechi, Georg Palmer, and Henri Verinder.
These are corkscrews that make use of Thomason’s innovation, hence the name. Corkscrews produced by Thomason’s factory were marked with the phrase “Ne plus ultra”, which means “cannot be improved further.” Though more than 200 years old, Thomasons are still operational and very much sought after by serious helixophiles.
Other Corkscrew Types
Direct pressure and straight-pull corkscrews are often seen as early steel types. These often do not have any additional improvements that would require lower force application. Sidewinders have a winding mechanism on the side of the handle. They often employ rack-and-pinion mechanisms. These are easier to use in comparison to the first two types.
Another is the sliding frame. These types have a sliding frame that makes centering the worm easier. John Loach sliding frame corkscrews are the most popular of this type. Loach corkscrews can be polished to restore its original patina. The Loach II is considered the crown of English patented corkscrews, even 150 years after its emergence.
Corkscrews that rely on lever mechanism are called lever corkscrews. These are simple and functional types that have a lever arm turning around a fulcrum to extract the cork. This type is most common in today’s bars. Lund and Hipkins were the original to patent the two-lever corkscrew. Heeley’s is also a lever type.
Markings and Badges
Corkscrews may have the manufacturer’s markings and badges. These badges may be simple – just containing the manufacturer’s name and type or model – or elaborately designed with a coat of arms.
Famous Corkscrew Makers
Corkscrews made by notable designers or manufacturers are of course highly sought after, not to mention high-quality items. Helixophiles collect corkscrews made by Robert Jones, BH Harris, Georg Mechi, CF Lee, C Jones, Wilmot and Roberts, Dowler, and Rogers & Sons, to name a few.
Well-known manufacturers include Hipkins, Lund, Cotterill, and Heljestrand.
As with any collectable, criteria for gauging the value of the item include its condition (chips, scratches, rust, etc. may lower its value), former owner (items formerly owned by well-known personalities increase an item’s value), and whether it is still operational.
Collectable items like corkscrews are never safe from counterfeiters. They may swap the badges of a lesser-known manufacturer to that of a more prominent one. These may also have fake badges or markings. Watch out, as newer models may be altered to look old or parts may have been replaced in seemingly vintage screws.
Determining fakes requires that the collector know his items. Books like those written by Don Bull, member and former leader of the International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts (ICCA), and those written by other members of ICCA could be quite informative. Comparing a seller’s picture of the item with those in a good corkscrew reference book and requesting detailed pictures is good practice. One may also check out ICCA members’ sites for references and a list of trusted sellers.
For some, collecting corkscrews may seem quite peculiar. Some would even note that these items look pretty much the same (certain models actually do), while some would even say that corkscrews do not even possess aesthetical appeal (which cannot be said about some of the vintage caged corkscrews featured by Don Bull and Allen’s 1981 Teflon-coated Screwpull displayed as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection). Peculiar or not, collecting these curiosities may be a means of preserving a small part of the history of humankind and its tools.