Before pop-top cans and twist-off caps were a thing

“There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.”

—Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) British philosopher, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate

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What better way to start a new year than expanding one’s vast store of useless information? It’s an exercise especially helpful when trying to forget what we see every day on the evening news.

“Vast store of useless information” is a term I learned to appreciate from long-time friend, Randy Brogoitti. Randy and I grew up following the same paths through school at Mount Pleasant, Texas, and East Texas State University. Every Sunday we were both also at Southside Church of Christ. From there, Randy’s path led him to Kilgore and mine led to Center. 

Since our birthdays aren’t that far apart, I’m certain Randy’s vast store of useless information remembers a long forgotten but once essential household tool with an unusual name questioned by a Center friend last week. It came up while recalling everyday things that have disappeared from use since we were kids. Words like funeral home fan, payphones, rabbit ears, and more were bounced back and forth, but the conversation came to a screeching halt when I blurted out, “church key.” 

Truth be known, it had been a while since I heard anyone refer to a church key myself. I penned a piece about the once household item while at The Monitor up in Naples 20-something years ago and touched on the tool in this blog space a few years ago as well. They were extinct even when friend and mentor at The Monitor, Morris Craig, engaged the Methodist church secretary about the church key that day. To be clear, that conversation was about the small brass key used to disengage the lock securing the front door at the Northeast Texas house of worship, not the legendary tool necessary for opening cans and bottles.

However, I must admit my first connotation upon hearing Craig use the phrase wasn’t Sunday go-to-meeting related. What it did call to mind was a term I learned as a child from my father. When I was growing up in Mount Pleasant, a beverage in a can was something new, having just been introduced in 1959 before “pop-tops” and “twist-offs” made someone rich. Drink can tops were just as smooth and flat as the oil can tops at the local Esso filling station. So, whether it was Pepsi or Pearl to quench one’s thirst, 30-weight Quaker State to keep the family car running, or pork and beans from the local Piggly Wiggly supermarket, a tool to access any can’s contents was required.

Antique church door key

Can openers for food were standard in every home for mealtime. But the required tool for a beverage or sometimes an oil can could be found at home, in the garage, or even wired in a handy place under the hood of a car. They had a sharp point on one end to puncture cans while the other end was rounded and designed to remove bottle caps with ease. The small tool designed to perform either function was sometimes called an opener, but more often than not went by the nickname of “church key.”

Early bottle and can opener resembling an old church door key.

While varying explanations for the name associated with them abound, Wikipedia reports the term church key is thought to have been derived from the tool’s shape. The predominant version is “… the ends of some bottle openers resembled the heads of large keys such as have traditionally been used to lock and unlock church doors.”

Whatever the origin, anyone who lived during that time will never forget the convenience of the lowly “church key” or the frustration of looking for one when needed.

And for anyone born since then, here’s hoping that like Russell, you find pleasure in adding to your vast store of useless information in the new year. It might even help forget the frustrations of the old one.

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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