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Why do they open beer cans with “church keys”?

Ben Steelman

Before pull tabs came along, around 1962, almost every beer lover kept one of these handy openers around — the kind with a sharp, triangular-shaped point on one side for opening cans and with a rounded side on the other that could pop the caps off beer or soft drink bottles.

Gas stations, hardware stores and the like used to give them away as promotions, usually with a little ad on the side. Naturally, a collectibles market has popped up, and you can find old church keys advertised on eBay and elsewhere. (The prices I saw ranged from $2.35 to $9.99.)

Where did the name originate? It’s hard to say. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says the term “church key” first appeared in the 1950s; the earliest written reference might date from 1951. Most sources agree, however, that it was in spoken use as early as the 1930s — not too surprising, since D.F. Sampson apparently developed the device for the American Can Co. shortly after the flat-top beer can was introduced in 1935.

One theory holds that the old-time bottle openers that preceded the church key really DID resemble keys — and a large “key” would obviously belong to a big public building, like a church. Another theory attributes it to the keys that monks used to wear on their belts, back when monasteries ran a lot of the breweries.

A more plausible version notes that the church key and the beer can both came along about the time that nationwide Prohibition was repealed.

According to etymologist Michael Quinion at the World Wide Words blog, “church key” might have begun as an irreverent joke. Beer drinking is not exactly churchly behavior, especially in the Bible Belt. Perhaps drinkers were taking a subtle dig at the churches who promoted temperance and Prohibition in the first place.

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One Response to “ Why do they open beer cans with “church keys”?”

  1. On June 18, 2009 at 6:59 pm Yvonne wrote:

    Thanks! I had often wondered about that!

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