Vintage kitchenware utensil: 19th Century Bully Beef Can Opener


One of the oldest models of can openers from England’s “bully beef”, this lovely Victorian cast iron can opener, from the 1860’s, in the shape of a bull’s head, produced up to the mid 1930’s, was originally made of cast iron and often painted red. The bull’s tail curls round, to form a handle. It is really a must for any kitchenalia collector.

In a time of less reliance on tinned food, a can opener has become a piece of unnoticed and under appreciated item in the kitchen, the object shown in my main picture though, has now become a collectable kitchenware item. Whether they’re ancient or retro, almost all old food preparation, serving and storage items, appeal to collectors. And this is one, that can still be used for the purpose it was intended for or just be put on display, to give your kitchen that extra unique and original retro look. The kitchen might not be the first place you think of, when it comes to “collectible”, but as said before, the trend of having a soft spot for collecting kitchenalia, is pretty popular nowadays! Ninety per cent of people who buy these retro kitchen utensils are private collectors.

This retro kitchenalia collector’s dream is 180 mm (6″) long and weighs 308g. The bull’s head and face are perfect in every detail and the detail of the casting is very good. The blade is the original and is screwed in place. The casting is tapped, to accept the securing screw for the blade. This design has a sharp spike on top of the bull’s head. Traces of the original brown lacquer remain and the patina is quite good, with no rusting. The blade is original, a little rusted and fixed firmly in place with a heavy securing screw. This amazing, useful and good-looking collectors’ piece will make a great addition to a kitchenalia lover’s collection and will be available in my shop, soon to be opened.

For many soldiers, opening a can, meant avoid “danger”, using a hammer and a chisel or bayonets, knives, whatever. Cans were opened around the sides, not on the ends like modern cans. Made of cast iron, this can opener (pre WWI) was one of the first successful, mass produced openers, used for “Bully Beef”, better known on the continent as “Corned Beef”. Most surprisingly, the can opener was invented 83 years after cans were.

My mother in law’s cupboard, full of canned food storage, always surprised me. “Whenever another war breaks out my dear, I’ll be ready for it”, she used to say. “It is reliable, has a long shelf life and is tasty as well”. I think she was the inventor of the first survival kit ever!

The first canned food appeared in the Netherlands in 1772, mainly used by the Dutch navy, sparing seamen the monotony of salted meat. Ordinary seamen had been eating salted meat and hardtack (biscuit), and

malnutrition had killed more than half of all the British seamen serving in the Seven Years’ War in the 1750s

says Sue Shephard, author of Pickled, Potted and Canned. The Dutch never placed a patent on the product, so the recognition didn’t go to them. The tins were often much heavier than the food they contained.

A confectioner from Massy, South of Paris, Nicolas Appert, found a method of heating food in sealed glass jars and bottles, placed in boiling water. Sterilization was born, decades before Louis Pasteur showed the world how heat killed bacteria. But glass was heavy, fragile and liable to explode under internal pressure, so Appert, forced by Napoleon to make his discovery public, has gone down in history as the “father of canning”.

An army marches on its stomach

Although the French Navy used his method, it was the Englishman Peter Durand that got the patent to preserve food, using tinplated cans (heating and sterilizing within a sealed thin container). He sold the patent to engineer Bryan Donkin, who is known for the first mass production of tin cans food in his South London factory.

Food scandals go back a long way, one food scandal in the 1850’s, shocked the public and its confidence in this new invention was gone! In 1852, a crooked British government contractor, packed and sold tainted, inedible food, making the Victorians really angry towards the canner and the cans as well. The problem wasn’t with canning, but with a crooked canner trying to sell huge amounts of canned beef overseas, not fit for human consumption, even worse, not even beef at all.

Can you imagine the novelty of canned food, becoming a middle-class household status symbol in Europe in the mid 19th century?

All these bright minds were so occupied, thinking about the technology of food preservation, that they didn’t even think of making a device to open their cans. Instructions to open cans, kept on involving cutting round the top near the outer edge, with a chisel and a hammer. It wasn’t until 1855 that the invention popped up. Robert Yeates, an English cutlery and surgical instrument maker from Middlesex, invented the first claw ended, hand lever tool, for opening cans. From then on, can openers were issued with rations in the army.

In 1858, Ezra J. Warner invented the first US can opener, a design known as a “bayonet and sickle” type can opener. It never became a big hit, but was used, being a practical tool, as several parts could be replaced, if worn out. Unbelievable it took a lot more time, to design a “practical” can opening tool, even after this invention. In 1866, J. Osterhoudt patented his design of a tin can, that came with its own key opener, resembling current sardines cans. It took till 1870, for William Lyman to design the can opener that we still use today: a simple wheel rolling around the rim, cutting the can open, as it went. The serrated edges to the wheel, where later added by the Star Can Company. Half a century later, in 1931, the electric version of this design popped up.

The French referred to their army meat ration as “ Monkey meat” and one of the most common French openers, has “Le Singe” (the monkey) stamped on it. It was made of a silver metal alloy, about 13,5 cm long, with claw, had a hollow body and was arched. The handle was engraved: “Fabrication Française”.

What retro kitchen piece of kitchenalia do you enjoy? What are your kitchenalia collector’s dreams? Are you a compulsive collector or not? Share your views with me!

Loving retro kitchenware and thanking Napoleon for kick starting the inventions, admit one has to love the French,


2 Comments on Vintage kitchenware utensil: 19th Century Bully Beef Can Opener

  1. daniel darezzo
    September 3, 2017 at 12:19 pm (1 year ago)

    I have a similar Bully Beef can opener. I was curious as to the authenticity and value. Not sure how to send pics?

  2. Anna
    September 10, 2017 at 8:41 am (1 year ago)

    Hi Mr Darezza
    Sorry about this late reply I just now read your remark. You can send pictures on the mail of Woohoocuties via the contact button. I am not an expert in value what I do is go online and check everywhere to see the prices of the objects I sell, I look up their history and then put my object in the shop and as you can see in my shop the price I ask for such an old object is doable. Best check with an antique dealer if you want to know the value of yours!
    It is a cutie isn’t it!


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