Article translated from French -  original version by Daniel Jallageas – Member of the Corkscrew Club of France (Club Français du Tire-Bouchon)

The Corkscrewillustration-tire-bouchon

Instrument? Utensil? Equipment? Machine? Tool? What is a cork screw? Does it react against its subject? Does it perform its task? Does it transform energy? Is it a simple machine or a complex one?

The corkscrew is everything. None of these terms suit it, by the simple fact that cork screws are plenty, diverse and varied. But how can we talk about cork screws without talking about wine, bottles and corks?

Up to the 17th century, wine was stored in barrels (earlier in flasks) and brought to the table in carafes, jugs, pitchers and fiascos. In that era, the bottle was already known, but it was under-utilized since it was fragile and expensive. A thick, solid, dark glass then made its appearance.

The cork plug was also known but it too was not frequently used. As for vessels that could be closed, the top preferences were oakum, hemp, glass and wood. However, there was an increase in the knowledge related to the conservation and aging of wine. The bottle was transformed and became solid. Little by little it would change its shape of an onion bulb and become longer. 

The cork plug gradually made its entrance. Partly sunk inside the bottle, it required nothing to extract it. But sometimes it broke in the process of unplugging. It was perhaps this situation which brought about an initial need for the utensil. Initially, two instruments were used for uncorking wine bottles:

1) The drill bit, the « pique -vin », a small piercing implement, the « perce-fut » or better yet a bang of the fist which pierced the barrel to allow for the extraction of wine for tasting. The hole was then closed by a faucet (a small wooden peg). This tool was T-shaped and had a straight tip and slightly tendrilled at the end.

2) The « tire-bourre », which was used to clean the canon of percussion firearms of that era (for example, the harquebus). It was a kind of rod, with several sections and a spiral (something like a thick pigtail) at one end to which was attached a cloth.

So there you have it… the presumed ancestors of corkscrews. In the beginning the number of wine drinkers and waiters confronted with the problem of a too deeply plugged or broken cork was certainly as uncountable as those who opted for one or another of the abovementioned utensils. But, who was the first person to come up with the idea of creating the corkscrew, an instrument capable of resolving uncorking woes? Who was the first person to engineer this tool which today has become absolutely indispensable and valued?

Up to this day, no one can answer this question. Some say that the first corkscrew was French? Others believe it was English!

The French had always been big wine producers and at that time the English were big importers… we can therefore conclude that they were both big wine consumers.

Inspired by Archimedes' screw and, more poetically, by the vine’s gimlet, the first corkscrews were thus born sometime towards the ending of the 17th century. In the18th century, these handmade corkscrews were generally made from steel or iron. They were well sculpted and wrought, carefully chiseled and decorated. The most precious ones were made from silver, gold, ivory or mother-of-pearl etc… Among several of these were masterpieces of refinement.

Let’s bear in mind that the corked bottle was not very prevalent and that only a certain class of society (the aristocracy) used this object.

Corkscrews had a simple design, a T-shape, but with an open cage or a foldable section… and always of excellent quality. These corkscrews normally bore a seal but also a whistle, and a stuffed pipe etc.

The bit, protected by a case, is generally Archimedean, but sometimes rectangular or even having the form of a pigtail. From that period onwards, corkscrews could be found among multifunctional objects. 

It was at the end of that century, 1795 to be exact, that the first patent for a corkscrew was granted to Reverend Samuel Henshall in England. It was not until 1828 that a similar event would take place in France thanks to François Rever.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century would allow the corkscrew to fulfil its mission. By then the bottle became more common and its form started to resemble more and more the bottles we know today with a completely sunk cork. The usage of the corkscrew thus became popular.

From here on, the most ingenious men have relentlessly perfected this utensil in order that the user only needs to exert minimum effort, and at the same time ensuring that the bottle and its contents are not agitated. The corkscrew became more functional but it would often lose its preciousness and elegance.

The 1926 Larousse defines corkscrews as follows : "Certains dispositifs à levier, avec un écrou, à oreilles, permettent à la main la plus débile, d’enlever les bouchons les plus serrés."

[“Certain lever tools, with a nut, handles which allow even the weakest hand to extract the most fastened corks.”]

Writer G. Olive took an inventory of the registration of corkscrew patents in France, statistics which appeared in his 1995 publication:

  • 146 patents from 1828 to 1900
151 patents from 1900 to 1973

A total of 297 patents in 145 years.

We were outstripped by the English since more than 350 patents were deposited in their country between 1795 and 1908.

Procedures are not always synonymous with efficiency and after been tested many corkscrews are better off in a show window than in the kitchen drawer.

Simple corkscrews have always been T-shaped, now we have moved on to systematic and mechanic corkscrews…simple lever, double lever, spring, screw cap ; extendable ones, with a winch, rack and pinion mounted on ball bearings or using a pulley system. All kinds of bits are affixed to these corkscrews: pigtail, Archimedean, beveled, grooved, quick bits etc.

Some are dextrorotatory for right-handers, levorotatory for left-handers or there also exists the famous “farces et attrapes” corkscrew. However, not all corkscrews have one bit, some have two and others none; that is, when they are designed with a needle, hook or double blade.
The 19th century and the first third of the 20th century, a period of ingenuity and creativity, offered us more interesting mechanic corkscrews. Corkscrews were a promising market at that time and many companies jumped on the opportunity.

In his book on French corkscrew factories, writer, G. Bidault, estimated that there were approximately 240 manufacturers between 1820 and 1970.   For a particular period, some started their activity while others ceased activity and all did not have the same ambitions. Sometimes they would only produce one model for a period of 2 to 3 years.

The most important of these factories numbered around eighty. Many ceased their activity in the first half of the 20th century. World War I, the demands of 1936 and World War II posed difficulties for steel supply and placed manufacturers in a catastrophic situation. Several were not able to revive their activity after the war years. Only a few scores of patents would be deposited between 1950 and 1970. Nonetheless, among these we would find the Kariba. This was a telescopic corkscrew made from stainless steel and having four pulleys and a nylon cable was able to resist a maximum traction of a tonne.

Today about five companies continue to play a role in this field. With the exception of the zig-zag, a famous extendable corkcsrew model still being manufactured since 1919, the other models are for the most part  either a relproduction of old ones and not very interesting like this dear grapevine design which is very common. With foreign competition, there are of course corkscrews from synthetic materials, made in Taiwan but also other attractive models like Pulltap’s (Spain), Zyliss (Switzerland), Screwpull and Leverpull (U.S.A) etc...

Engineers sought more and more to improve this utensil. More recently, some bits have been covered by anti-adhesive material, such as Teflon, in order to enable penetration. The force now required for this rotation seems to be four to six times less.

We now are in the 21st century with other innovations coming to the forefront, thus proving that the ideal corkscrew does not exist. But, what do we call the individual who collects this more than 300 year old object? Many prefer pomelkophile but helitapophile and helixophile are sometimes used. Between us, we are more or less “corkscrewers”

A symbolic opening implement dedicated to Bacchus, the corkscrew is present at party time. It allows us to almost effortlessly access wine, which accompanies us at all the important and happy life events; even if it sometimes helps us to drown our sorrows and despairs.

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