Museum Artifact: Fox Deluxe Beer Bottle Openers, 1940s
Made By: Vaughan Novelty MFG Co., 3211 W. Carroll Ave., Chicago, IL [East Garfield Park]
The beer bottle and the bottle opener—a vital symbiotic relationship that’s been mildly inconveniencing mankind for generations. No one ever knows exactly where their bottle opener is at any given moment, nor where it came from in the first place. It used to be on your keychain, probably, but then you let someone borrow it at a party once, and now, who knows?
Most openers are distinguishable only by the faded name of the company on its label—perhaps Coca Cola, or Budweiser, or maybe an old defunct brand of yesteryear, like Fox DeLuxe—“the Great Chicago Beer.” What most of us fail to notice, however, is the manufacturer ID that’s also cut into millions of these metal doohickeys. If it’s a slightly older model, there’s a good chance it says VAUGHAN—a name that removed more caps in the 20th century than every playing of the National Anthem combined.
Even during the 1930s, when most manufacturers were wallowing in the economic sinkhole of the Depression, Chicago’s Vaughan Novelty MFG Company was enjoying a significant upswing, cranking out truckloads of pocket-sized paraphernalia each day. There were three key factors on their side—(1) Prohibition was ending, (2) Americans were starting to drink out of aluminum cans, and (3) pull tabs didn’t exist yet.
The new novelty of canned beer, in particular, was a game changer. It had come about largely to help post-Prohibition breweries like the Peter Fox Brewing Co. (makers of Fox DeLuxe) save on production and shipping costs. Consumers, as an added benefit, got to avoid paying the extra deposit required with glass bottles. This win-win innovation didn’t arrive fully realized, however.
For one thing, beers and sodas poured from a tin can maintained a distinct, generally unpleasant metallic taste. Secondly, the flat, airtight, factory-sealed tops of the cans made them frustratingly undrinkable without the appropriate, compatible device to pop them open. Using a knife was a dangerous undertaking, and older styles of can openers didn’t always fit the bill for this modern drinker’s conundrum.
The one proven solution was a new variation on the classic “churchkey” style of opener, developed by American Can Company employees Dewitt Sampson & John Hothersall in 1933—specifically to address the arrival of the drinking can. Their design (U.S. patent 1,996,550) was described as a “punch opener for producing a substantial pouring opening in containers having projecting end scams or joints.” Since the item was a bit outside American Can Co’s usual wheelhouse, they outsourced production to the company already known as “the world’s largest manufacturer of can openers”—the Vaughan Novelty MFG Co., of course.
The familiar churchkey openers that Vaughan produced in Chicago—like the ones in our collection advertising Fox DeLuxe—were made across several decades, and often have the original 1,996,550 patent number listed on them. Most are dual-purpose in design, as well, with a rounded bottle-opening end and a pointed can-opening end.
[The 1935 punch-style can opener patent used for the openers in our collection]
From kitchens to bar rooms to ballparks, just about everyone was either using a Vaughan appliance or sitting next to someone who was. And yet, from the 1910s to the 1990s, the company somehow remained largely anonymous despite its own ubiquity.
Opening Up the Can
The whole thing begins with Harry L. Vaughan—born in Versailles, Kentucky, in 1871. His father, the respected Louisville physician Dr. Robert Vaughan, was a decorated Civil War veteran—a lieutenant colonel in the Union army who’d been wounded at both Fort Donelson and Shiloh. Young Harry was the baby of the family, and grew up admiring his four older brothers, as well as his pops.
Harry’s education is hard to pin down, but it appears that he followed his brother Millard into a career in sales, rather than taking up his dad’s path in medicine. One of Harry’s early jobs was with Louisville’s Weissinger Tobacco Company in the mid 1890s, which may have given him his unexpected entry into the field of tin cans and can openers, as well as other accessories such as tobacco cutters and kettle scrapers. By 1898, he had relocated to New York City as a sales agent, and soon caught on with the Liquid Carbonic Company—an industry leader in soda fountains.
Now, with an established background in canning, bottling, and beverages, a 34 year-old Harry Vaughan took the next logical step in 1905, joining Baltimore’s massively successful Crown Cork and Seal Company as their western sales rep in Chicago. Crown Cork, still in business today as Crown Holdings, was the firm that had introduced the modern, disposable tin bottle cap (aka the “crown cork”) in 1892. That cap design has remained the gold standard for the subsequent 125 years, so it’s not surprising that Crown Cork was one of the fastest growing companies of its time, with manufacturing and distribution outposts around the world. This also made it no small responsibility for Vaughan to be the young face of that franchise in the Chicagoland market.
Over the next few years, Harry not only refined his skills as a salesman, but also learned the nuts and bolts of designing and manufacturing the twisty, turny, metallic arsenal of an evolving industry. This included paying close attention to the feedback of customers, particularly the growing complaints about bottles getting chipped when crown corks were pulled off with standard bottle openers.
[1898 ad for the Crown Cork & Seal Company]
In 1909, with a network of Midwestern connections firmly established, Harry Vaughan became something of an in-demand free agent of the bottle cap business. In January, he left Crown Cork and signed with the New York Speciality Company, makers of “Security” brand bottle stoppers.
“Mr. Vaughan will have headquarters in Chicago and will visit the middle west in the interest of his house,” the American Brewers’ Review reported. “His extensive acquaintance in the brewing trade ought to be a guarantee of his success.”
Harry was certainly successful, but not necessarily loyal. Just six months later, in the summer of ‘09, he cut bait with his new employer and bunked up with yet another corporate mistress.
“Henry L. Vaughan, formerly traveling representative of the New York Specialty Co., is now Western representative of the United Cork & Seal Co. of Millis, Mass.,” Brewers Journal reported, “and will maintain headquarters at Chicago. Mr. Vaughan is well known to the trade and we wish him abundant success in his new position.” [pictured: Harry Vaughan in his later years]
Well known, indeed. But again, not one to be tied down. Within a few months, Vaughan ended his tenure with United Cork, as well. Apparently nobody thought to make the guy sign a non-compete clause!
It’s not clear if Harry was playing a game with all these companies, absorbing their secrets then jumping to the next one, or if his naked ambition was simply wearing out his welcome with employers. Whatever the issue, Vaughan finally decided there’d be no point in seeking any more suitors for his services. He was ready to set out on his own.
The Crown Throat and Opener Company
You gotta appreciate the balls it took for Vaughan to not only start his own company, but to call it the “Crown Throat and Opener Co.”—a blatant attempt to piggyback off the trusted name of his former employer, Crown Cork & Seal. He would surprisingly keep this name for several years before doing the inevitable re-brand.
In the meantime, early ads for the Crown Throat & Opener Company wasted no time promoting its first flagship product, Harry Vaughan’s own “Never Chip”—hailed as “the best stationary crown bottle opener made.”
A 1910 edition of American Bottler magazine detailed Vaughan’s triumphant entry into the big leagues.
“To overcome the long-continued complaints of the bottling trade, the Crown Throat and Opener Company, of Chicago, Ill., after months of experimenting, have at last perfected an opener, which they have appropriately named ‘Never-Chip.’ It is a very simple device, easily and quickly attached to the bar, the ice-box, or any other convenient place. It has been thoroughly tested by all the large breweries, and found an absolute preventative of chipped bottles.”
[Crown Throat & Opener Co. advertisement, 1912]
As the company name suggested, Vaughan was also making “crown throats” and drop plungers intended to help standardize the bottle-sealing process, as well. Tighter closure, easier removal.
“Mr. Harry L. Vaughan, inventor of these devices . . . is naturally familiar with every detail of the requirements of their manufacture.”
The original Crown Throat factory was located at 136 W. Lake Street, and by 1911, local sales agents were being recruited via ads in the Tribune’s classifieds.
"WANTED: Agents to sell 'A REAL HOME NECESSITY.' Vaughan’s Improved Never-Chip Stationary Crown Bottle Opener. It’s always ready for use and so simple a child can remove the tin caps easily and quickly. Made of steel and beautifully nickeled. Send 15c for sample and quantity price. Dept. A, THE CROWN AND THROAT AND OPENER CO., 136 W. Lake, Chicago."
Crown Throat’s national advertising campaigns touted its products as “One Good Thing After Another,” and called the Never-Chip “The Bottler’s Bottle Insurance.” Harry Vaughan’s name was also increasingly emphasized as a brand unto itself. “VAUGHAN’s Opener,” one ad read, “is a boon to the bottling trade; and indispensable for use on machine-made, or, in fact, all perfectly finished Crown bottles.”
Along with the wall-mounted Never-Chip, Vaughan was also producing quite modern looking, pocket-sized bottle openers like the nickeled “Nicklo”, the copper finished “Kant-Slip,” and the key-ring friendly “Prest-O-Lite.”
Production slowed during World War I, but Vaughan pushed forward, moving to a larger space at 711 W. Fulton Street. By 1915, the Crown Throat name had finally been scrapped, and—in a wise effort to leave the door open to more types of tools and gadgets—the Vaughan Novelty MFG Co. was born.
The Great American Novelty
The onset of the 1920s saw Vaughan Novelty relocate to what would be its primary home of the next 40+ years—a one-story, 100 x 100 ft. factory at 3211 W. Carroll Avenue in Garfield Park, built for just $25,000. This wasn’t exactly a sprawling operation, but when most of your goods fit in a person’s pocket, a lot of stock can move from a pretty small room.
[Vaughan Novelty MFG Co. advertisement, 1922]
One newspaper report at the time now identified Vaughan as a “manufacturer of advertising specialties,” and that marks an important evolution in the overall business plan.
Vaughan did run some straight-to-consumer advertising, and they sold self-branded “VAUGHAN” gear direct to hardware stores and pharmacies. More of their revenue, however, was coming from arranged deals with other companies, in which Vaughan—acting like a pseudo advertising agency—customized its products with its clients names emblazoned on the metal.
Since many can and bottle producers were essentially dependent on their consumers having one of these Vaughan tools at their disposal anyway, the relationship was almost too practical to pass up. Canada Dry, for example, could order a giant stock of Canada Dry bottle openers from Vaughan, then package those openers as “giveaways” with a six-pack of their ginger ale.
“Now is the time,” a 1922 Vaughan ad claimed, “for the soda water bottler to make his name and his brands known. Advertise with Bottle Openers.”
Targeting the “soda water bottler” was, of course, a consequence of Prohibition. With alcohol now illegal, and no way to sell accessories to breweries and barmen above ground, Vaughan had to expand into new markets, including soda, dairy, and baked goods. The company started making more milk bottle carriers and cap lifters, mini spatulas for making pies, orange peelers, cork screws, ice picks, lemon squeezers, can openers, corn forks, and something called a Perfo-Siphon—“the perfect mixer for blending fruit juices.” A patented cap lifter / corkscrew combo called the “Nifty” was another consistent hot seller.
Supposedly, even some of the prizes in Cracker Jack boxes originated from the Vaughan factory. It was, as the name would suggest, a true novelty company.
Through it all, Harry Vaughan was always very hands-on in every aspect of his business, from collecting patents on new designs to training the sales team and expanding the clientele both within the trade and out in the general public. He kept up these efforts despite a series of personal losses, highlighted by the deaths of three of his brothers—William, Millard, and Dudley—all in a four year span between 1919 and 1923. To cope, Harry seemed to embrace the bottling industry as his alternate family, and as a nice bonus, they were making him a wealthy man of the roaring ‘20s.
“The ever growing business coming to me from all sections of the world,” Vaughan wrote in the intro to his 1927 catalog, “serves to increase the feelings of responsibility I have always felt towards my friends among the Bottlers. Their loyalty incurs upon me the duty not only of maintaining the quality and service that brings me their yearly specifications, but of constantly improving, by every possible means, the machinery of factory and office by which I serve these valued friends.”
The Vaughan Novelty MFG Co. hadn’t exactly struggled during Prohibition, but they certainly were chomping at the bit when the 18th amendment was repealed in 1933. Shortly thereafter, a series of new steel-wire bottle cap removers were introduced for the traditional crown-style beer bottle, and, by 1935, the Vaughan “Quick & Easy” can opener became the No. 1 way to crack open a brand new canned brew.
Around the same time, an opportunistic businessman named Peter Fox purchased the former Hoffman Bros. brewery in Chicago at 2626 W. Monroe Street, eager to bring it back to its former glory. Embracing the canned beer trend, the Peter Fox Brewing Co. built up a regional following over the next few years, enabling Fox to buy out additional breweries in Marion, Indiana, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the 1940s. Naturally, he also signed a deal with Vaughan Novelty to produce exclusive Fox DeLuxe openers.
We can pretty easily surmise that our particular museum artifacts were made in the late 1940s or early ‘50s. Metal rationing had made both beer cans and can openers relatively obsolete during the war years, and the Peter Fox Brewing Company went out of business by 1955, so we’re left with a fairly small window for these things to have been commissioned. We can also verify that Fox was using its “Great Chicago Beer” slogan during the same era, bringing the timeline together.
[Incidentally, the Fox DeLuxe brand didn’t completely die with its parent company. It remained in circulation under new, non-Chicago ownership through the 1960s, and was recently revived again in 2017 by the Creston Brewery in Grand Rapids, although the new version doesn’t appear to have any connection to the original recipe.]
Again, it’s worth emphasizing that all production of Vaughan’s usual line of products was brought to a screeching halt during World War II. For a solid four years, from 1942 through 1945, the Carroll Avenue plant was an appendage of the U.S. government, making bomb fuses for the army and navy. It was a profitable enterprise, but it also left the company a bit rusty and unprepared when the war ended, and peacetime can opener demands started cascading in.
“Canned beer is back,” the Decatur Herald reported on July 15, 1947, “but its return has accentuated another postwar shortage—the beer can opener.
“Vaughan Novelty Manufacturing Co., which claims to be the world’s largest manufacturer of can openers, said today a pressing demand has forced it to expand facilities and that it soon would be producing 100 million beer can openers a year.”
The Post-War Era
Sadly, Harry Vaughan never got to see his business return to its usual peacetime affairs. He died of pneumonia in 1945 at the age of 74.
Though he was still the president and treasurer of Vaughan Novelty at the time, he had long since moved into a life of pseudo-retirement, marrying his wife Dora late in life and spending much of the ‘30s and ‘40s jetting back and forth from high society events in their adopted second home of Miami. Back in Chicago, the pair were living in a swank apartment in the Edgewater Beach Hotel, with Harry leaving much of his company in the hands of his longtime second-in-command, John M. Grace.
In June of 1948, with Grace now serving as president, a small Garfield Park newspaper, the Garfieldian, published a story on the local business done good.
“Cruising right through the years when solid housewives frowned on the flip young bride with a busy can opener,” the paper reported [weirdly], “the Vaughan company grew to become the world's largest producer of can and bottle openers.
“. . . Still operating on its original [not actually original] site at 3211 Carroll, the factory, officially Vaughan Novelty Manufacturing Co., employs 125 persons whose main work is the production and packing of the openers.
“. . . Manufacture of the openers is mostly a punch press operation. One of the liquid can openers is turned out complete by a punch press at the rate of 100 per minute. After punching the openers, or parts in some cases, they are rolled for many hours in drums filled with metal pellets or sand. This rolling action knocks off all sharp edges which may be left by the presses, and polishes the openers to a bright finish. Completed openers may be stapled on an instruction card or packed in boxes for distribution to stores or beverage companies.”
One could say that the first hints of Vaughan’s eventual demise started appearing way back even before the war, as people were already experiencing a certain familiar annoyance.
Forbes magazine founder B. C. Forbes wrote a syndicated column in 1940 in which he references the “necessity for having either a can opener or bottle opener at hand before various products could be used.”
In the same article, the Vaughan Novelty MFG Company’s executive vice president, R. C. Harris, offered a statement on the subject: “The point you make about the bottle cap with the tab, which requires no opener, is well taken,” he wrote. “There are many angles to consider. One is the cost of the tab. Another is the employment furnished in manufacturing can and bottle openers—over 50,000,000 openers are distributed annually . . . We have constantly worked with can manufacturers and are now supplying one of our regular can openers with a can-punch built into the opener.”
Forbes seemed unimpressed. “My contention,” he concluded, “is that, if possible, every unit of merchandise should be made ready to be used without the necessity of having to find some contrivance.”
Calling Vaughan’s primary product a “contrivance” is a bit brutal, but over time, many have shared the opinion, and new technology has borne out society’s preference for something quicker and easier than “Quick & Easy.”
Perhaps sensing the oncoming tide, John Grace had the name of the company officially changed in 1950 to the Vaughan Manufacturing Co., dropping the “novelty” so as to seem, perhaps, a bit more serious.
The inevitable arrival of the pull tab on soda and beer cans, however, cut deeply into Vaughan’s can opener sales from the 1960s onward. Screwtop lids on bottles was a further insult. And new competition from cheaply made imported openers was the predictable death knell.
As late as the 1970s, Vaughan was still calling itself the “World’s Largest Manufacturer of Can and Bottle Openers,” which may have been more of a slogan than a fact by that point. By then the company had finally left its cozy Carroll Avenue factory and occupied the rundown former home of the Vanderkook & Sons printing press company at 900 North Kilpatrick Avenue.
Vaughan appears to have ceased operations around 1984, but information is frankly scant when it comes to the later years. If you can connect the dots for us on the collapse of this once mighty can opening empire, please let us know.
[Fox Deluxe ghost ad at 1635 N. Ashland Ave.]
"Lull in National Economic Upturn Analyzed by Forbes," The News-Palladium, Benton Harbor, MI, Feb 2, 1940
Brewer's Journal, Vol. 34, August 1909
"Opener Expert Offers 60 Styles" - The Garfieldian, June 10, 1948
"Container Opener" Patent 1,996,550, 1935
"Bottle Opener" Patent 1,490,149, 1924
"Heart Disease Terminates Dr. Vaughan's Useful Career" - Courier-Journal (Louisville), April 8, 1898
"Canned Beer Back, But How to Open the Cans Is Another Problem" - Decatur Herald, July 15, 1947
"Ghosts of Breweries Past," Beervana Blog
"Vaughan Novelty MFG Co." by Donald Bull, Bullworks.net
"Just For Openers from 1892 to the Present: A short history of bottle openers" by John Stanley, go-star.com
"Bottle Insurance" - American Bottler, vol. 30, 1910
American Brewers' Review, vol. 23, 1909
"Just For Openers" Newsletter, October 2010