Artifacts and Ancient History
A Short Story and Something Completely Different
Hiking a mountain trail in Georgia recently we came across the old remains of a CCC camp facility in the woods and poking around the ruins I found an old beer can. It wasn’t just a piece of mountain litter but a true artifact. Looking at the can you could tell a lot about when that particular beer was opened and consumed.
First it was opened with a “church key” can opener leaving the two triangular shaped holes. That indicated that it had been opened prior to 1965. By the mid sixties almost all beer and soda cans had switched to the “pop top” style. It was also opened before 1955 because the top of the can was rusted out in the same way as the sides and bottom, meaning it was all steel. By the late 1950’s most brewers and soda companies had switched to an aluminum can top. It was easier to open an aluminum can and it cut down on shipping weight. It was also opened at least a year or two after 1947 because it took a year or two after 1947 for steel to shift away from mostly war production and back into commodity products like canned beer.
All this means that someone opened this particular beer can sometime between 1949 and 1955 in these woods, on this mountain, in rural Georgia. Since there were not any large scale beer breweries in the Southeast United States during that period there’s no way of telling what brand it was. It could actually have also been a canned soda but that is unlikely as most soft drinks in Georgia through the 1950’s were still being bottled.
Popular Culture and the Beer Can
There was some resistance to opening beers with those new fangled pull tabs in the 1960’s. There was a rugged individualism common among men. One practice was to crush a beer can with one hand when empty and still using one hand fold it in half. With the steel beer cans of the sixties that wasn’t an easy task and required some strength. It was also fun to turn the pull tab can upside down and open the bottom with a church key. Kind of a small way of resisting change. Within a few years a new seamless can design became common and it didn’t have the necessary bottom seam for the church key to lever against so you couldn’t open the bottom. Another trend taking hold was a switch to lighter weight aluminum cans and they were so easy to crush that crushing the can became a joke.
A History of the Evolution of Beer Packaging
It used to be referred to as a church key but it was just a simply designed can/bottle opener. It was actually mass produced by the beer companies and given away with the beer. What good was a case of beer if you couldn’t open the cans? One style of church key had a magnet attached so you could stick it on the dashboard of your car. Unlike todays plastic and vinyl cars, through the 1960’s car dashboards were mostly steel. Upscale cars may have had a padded top to the dash but the face was still steel. Without that church key it was difficult to get a can of beer (or soda) open. In a pinch you could poke a hole in the top with a pocket knife (which most men and older boys carried – even into school). The biggest problem with poking that hole was it was very likely to squirt a stream of beer from the hole.
Prior to the 1920’s beer was sold almost exclusively in bottles but in 1933 with the repeal of Prohibition, beer bottlers began to switch to cans. By 1939 there were almost a half dozen styles of steel cans including “cone tops” and “flat tops”. Cones had a screw cap while flat tops required a church key to open. By 1939 the flat top became the preferred can and the church key had become a part of American life. World War II forced a switch back to bottles as steel was needed for the war effort. But, by 1947 producing beer (and sodas) in cans was back and the flat top quickly became the only style.
In March 1963, the pull tab beer can, invented by Ermal Fraze of Kettering, Ohio, was introduced by the Schlitz Brewing Company. The pull tab was a ring that pulled loose a tab in the top of the can that could be just thrown away. Shortly it was adopted by every company. The pull tab became a trash issue as it came completely off the can and was frequently just tossed on the ground. Oddly the pull tab also spawned a craft fad for a while where people collected the pull tabs and worked them into creations from models to vests and hats. Six years later the “Pop Top” replaced the pull tab with the advantage that it remained still attached to the can and eliminated the litter of pull tabs. Nothing really new in innovations since then.
All of this because I found a beer can in the woods…