Artifact Spotlight — Can Key

Kristi Nichols, Director of Archaeology, Collections and Historical Research
October 22, 2019
Ferrous can key artifact
Approx. Date of Artifact: 19th — 20th Centuries

During excavations of a unit just north of the Sacristy, a ferrous can key was recovered.

In 1795, Napoleon, spurred on by the number of troops that were suffering from hunger, offered a prize to anyone who could develop a method of preserving food for the French army. Over a decade passed before the process of canning was presented to Napoleon. Within a year, King George III awarded a patent for preserving food in “vessels of glass, pottery, tin or other metals or fit materials.” A little over a year after that, the first tin can manufacturing factory was opened in England.

The first versions of the tin can were heavy and expensive, and were used only for feeding the military. During the 1820s, the production of the tin can expanded to the United States. During the 1840s and 1850s, events such as the Gold Rush and Western Expansion recognized the need to improve the canning process to make them more readily available and safer.

Metal key opening a can of food
An example of a modern can key.

Gail Borden patented the milk condenser and promoted Eagle Brand Condensed Milk to the world as a way of responding to the needs of supplying the population with a safe food source. Gail Borden is also credited with publishing copies of the letter written by Col. Travis prior to the final surge of the siege on the Alamo in 1836.

In 1866, the can key was patented in the US by J. Osterhoudt. The key was used to lift a pre-scored stripe of metal and remove it by rolling it. This type of opener could be found on sardine can and later versions of canned meat such as corned beef and ham. The use of a key continued into the 20th century, with canned meat products exhibiting them into the 1980s. The pop-top or pull-tab eventually replaced the key by the late 1980s.