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Dorri Partain
Contributor


The opener that is most often known as a “church key” was developed to easily open beer bottles and has taken many forms since its invention in 1894.


Originally sealed with corks, bottled beverages needed a new tool to open them when bottlers began using metal crown caps in 1892. Inventor William Painter (1838-1906) developed the metal cap for his Crown Cork and Seal Company, followed by devising a simple opener.


Numerous inventors and manufacturers have made various changes and improvements; two employees of the American Can Company devised a pointed end opener in 1933. Dewitt Sampson and John Huthersall applied for US Patent #1,996,550 but looked to another company to manufacture their invention.


Once an employee of Painter’s Crown Cork and Seal Company, Harry Vaughn (1871-1945) had begun manufacturing his own extended line of bottle openers by 1909. By 1922, his Vaughn Novelty Mfg. Company of Chicago, Ill. had begun to offer branded openers for advertising, especially to beverage bottlers.


As shown on this style of church key from the early 1950’s, the handle was stamped with the name of the brand, in this case Kansas City’s own Muehlbach.


Muehlbach Brewery was founded in 1868 by Swiss-born immigrant George Muehlbach. Following his death in 1905, his son George E. took over the reins of the company, as well as venturing into other business enterprises, including the building of the Muehlebach Hotel in 1915 and Muehlbach Stadium in 1923, where his baseball team, the Blues, played until 1932.


The brewery at 18th and Main Streets closed in 1929, but the name reappeared in 1938 under a partnership with Schlitz Brewing. The Muehlbach label returned to production, this time available in cans that required a punch opener.


Following the end of World War II, when manufacturers could return to making everyday household items, Vaughn Novelty expanded its facility to produce 100 million beer can openers a year.


The introduction of the ring-tab top beverage can impacted the production of church key openers, but Vaughn continued production until 1984. Muehlebach Beer disappeared from production in 1956, when Schlitz bought the remaining company rights.

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