Friday, June 3, 2011

The Vernacular Art of Cast Iron Bottle Openers

American vernacular art, according to experts Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco, often has a utilitarian purpose or origin that serves as a springboard for individual imaginations. Their book, American Vernacular: New Discoveries in Folk, Self-Taught and Outsider Sculpture,
includes a number of machine-made objects in order to drive home that point.

In that vein I have been fascinated by the variety and creativity embodied in cast iron bottle openers. They are far from being antiques. Most were manufactured in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Although the openers were cast from standardized molds, they were hand-painted by workers who often gave them individualized “personalities.”

The first group of castings shown here depict openers that were meant to be attached by nails or screws through holes in the ears to a wooden shelf or other surface. Maresca and Ricco mark the particular importance of sculptured faces in a contemporary times when most facial representations are two-dimension photographs. They believe three dimensional visages provide an important “presence” that photos cannot.

That may be the reason why the three faces shown here are so compelling. The four-eyed man, for example, shows up in a number of shapes and sizes with his teeth the hook for bottle caps. Seeing double he is a warning against overindulgence in alcohol. The Goofus face, another popular bottle opener, by contrast seems to be encouraging us with a wink to “let the good times roll.”

The top-hatted man with the sour look generally is known as “Mr. Dry” and comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and coloration. He is a Prohibitionist advocate and his frown greets anyone uncapping a beer bottle on his face. While the origins of many of these cast iron objects are unknown, “Mr. Dry” was created by Wilton Products, Inc., of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania.

The Wilton family began casting metal along the Susquehanna River in 1893. It was not until about 1935, however, that the company, presided over by a Wilton heir, began producing hand-painted cast iron objects, including bottle openers, trivets, candle holders and a wide variety of novelty items. These were most popular during and after World War Two.

Another popular sculptured opener is a figure at a sign and/or lamp post. Often he is a drunk as indicated by his posture -- clinging to the post for dear life -- and an “x” over his eye. Less common is an item depicting a New Orleans hooker, provocatively showing a suggestive amount of ankle and thigh. The woman with the rolling pin obviously is waiting for her drunken husband to show up. Note that the hook of the opener is located at various points on the posts.

Mermaids are another popular cast iron format. Two are shown here but the variety is substantial. My hunch is that mermaids give an excuse for crafting a figure with bare breasts. After all it is largely men who are looking for a way to pop the top on their brewskies.

The black boy with the alligator nipping at his pants also comes in several variations. This bottle opener has an action quality that makes it particularly appealing. Using the Maresca/Ricco criteria, this object, like others shown here, would qualify as a vernacular American art. Moreover, all are eminently collectible at reasonable prices.

As can be seen on several of the openers shown here the original paint over time and with wear often tends to flake off, leaving the bare metal below. In fact, if an casting is too perfect in its appearance, it may be a reproduction or a repainted item. In the case of American vernacular, a la Maresca and Ricco, some damage or flaws would seem to enhance the artistic value.


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  2. Hemraj: Thanks for your kind comments. I try to keep the blog interesting. Put a new one up every 2 weeks. Just did a new one on Kids Selling Beer. It is #70. Thanks for looking and commenting. Jack

  3. Thanks for posting such cool stuff. I have both the man and woman 4 eyed bottle openers. Have got to get my hands on the spooky Mr. Dry!

  4. Hello! Thanks for posting this -- I recently found the rolling pin woman bottle opener at a fleamarket, and your photo & info here is the only stuff I can locate on the web regarding it. Now if I can just research a price point I'll be all set! Thanks a bunch!

  5. I have what looks like a vintage Wilton 4-eyes bottle opener, owned previously by an 80 year old local gentleman. Most of those I found online have "Wilton" cast on the back, and some have a number one "1". This one has a zero "0" on the back and nothing else. Most likely a knock-off or perhaps a VERY early Wilton? Where would I take it for evaluation? Thanks!

    1. Dear Brian: Sorry to be so long in getting back to you about your figural opener. Did not see a message on my computer. My thought is that your piece is authentic even with a "o". I am not familiar with a knockoff and as you suggest, it could indicate a very early Wilton. Jack

  6. How about a Wilton style 4eyes bottle opener with a #7 on the inside of casting?