Antiques & Collectables - Corkscrews

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As with many things in modern life the invention or fashion was started by the Romans and, believe it or not, the Romans are credited with using cork as a form of sealing bottles.  The tree giving way to this material was the evergreen oak, Quercus suber, found around the Mediterranean.  The Romans had found  this was an excellent material for sealing jars or bottles that contained their wine.  Tamps or bungs were used to ensure the safe-keeping of the valuable commodity.  Again, as with so many techniques and products, corks seem to have lost use for many, many centuries though what we call the Dark Ages.


Writing suggests that Sir Kenelm Digby around 1630, an experimenter and alchemist with food and the like is responsible for what we now know as the wine bottle.  We are not able to prove that he was the true inventor of this particular device but certainly, he is credited with that product.  Then, of course, once you have got the cork in bottle you have the problem of how to extract it.


For the wine drinker there are many interesting antique items that assist this enjoyable 'hobby', and what could be more useful, and nowadays much collected, than the instrument for drawing the cork - The Corkscrew!


Until the middle of the 18th century, bottles were mostly stoppered by wooden plugs wrapped in waxed linen; then the use of corks from the Iberian Peninsular became widely available, and wine was laid down in bottles instead of casks.  This opened the door wide to inventors and between 1795 and 1908 there were nearly 350 British patents.  The Reverend Samuel Henshall, who had a well-developed taste for wines, was the first person to paten a corkscrew in 1795.


One of the most notable inventors was Sir Edward Thomason (1769-1849) who in 1802 patented his double action corkscrew, which ingeniously removed the cork by continuously turning the handle.


The first half of the 19th century produced many designs of corkscrew by makers such as Lund, Heeley, Jones, Dowler etc.  In the latter half, there was a multiplicity of patents with all steel lever and concertina examples becoming popular.  The Victorian and Edwardian period saw an array of corkscrews combined with other items including penknives, walking sticks, champagne taps, etc.  Bar corkscrews permanently fixed to the bar top were efficient and speedy, and made to survive their workload!


Today there is an increasing interest in collecting corkscrews, not only for use but also for investment.  For a fine example of the Thomason type you will pay approximately £300, and for the Heeley concertina type corkscrew £85.  However, good plain 'T' bar corkscrews can be picked up for as little £10 each.  As much fun can be obtained in the search as ink the finding, and regardless of whether the value is £15 or for the really rare examples, £1500 or more, the end result is the same - the joy of opening a bottle of wine.


My thanks to Christopher Sykes of Christopher Sykes Antiques of Woburn, MK17 9QL who is a specialist dealer in wine related objects.  Thanks also to Sally Lloyd.


'Corkscews and Bottle Openers' by Evan Perry.  Published by Shire Publications £2.95

Miller's 'Corkscrews & Wine Antiques" by Phill Ellis, Special Consultants Christopher Sykes and Sally Lloyd £5.99


The Canadian Corkscrew Collectors Club.  Contact Milt Becker, PO Box 5295, Englewood, New Jersey 07631, USA.  They have 35 British members.




© Mike Hicks

November 2003