Robin Butler on Twitter



September 2013

I don’t suppose I am alone among my readers when I write that I use a corkscrew more than once a week.  The history of the corkscrew is an interesting one and the number of patents and registrations, both in this country (the UK) and elsewhere around the world is quite astonishing - thousands literally.  I thought you may be interested in knowing a little more about these ingenious devices.  First, however, for the uninitiated and to simplify matters, I must tell you the basic elements which go to making up a corkscrew. 

The business end, which penetrates the cork is the ‘worm’ or ‘helix’, and is attached to the handle by the ‘shank’.  There are more complex devices which have mechanical means of making the withdrawal of a cork less burdensome.  Very often, antique corkscrews have a brush for removing the detritus which can accumulate around the cork - Oh! How I wish I could have £1 each time someone asked, “Is it for shaving?” 

Although corkscrews are known from the late 17th century, and nobody knows for sure how they came to be made originally, it is generally assumed that they derived from the helices used at the end of long rods to remove wadding from guns. The earliest seem to date from the 1680s - 90s. Whatever their original inspiration, corkscrews from before the mid 18th century are distinctly rare and command commensurate prices. 

One of the principal problems when drawing a cork, is overcoming the adhesion that builds between the cork and its bottle over time. The longer it is left, the more firmly it becomes stuck. However, once the original adhesion has been released, then pulling the cork becomes considerably easier; it is the initial overcoming of the bond between cork and bottle that has to be addressed. 

On August 24th 1795, the Rev. Samuel Henshall patented the first corkscrew design in which he added a ‘button’ above the helix, the underside of which (the button, not the helix) was radially grooved.  When driven home, the button engaged with the cork and by continuing to twist the handle, the bond was broken - and drawing the cork was much easier.   Henshall’s patent, like all others, expired after 14 years but many makers subsequently copied his design for much of the following century.   Last week I had occasion to test its efficacy for myself.

I have had a succession of modern corkscrews, most of which are based on the technology that a Teflon-coated helix penetrates a cork more easily and that its slippery qualities mean that it can be used to extract the cork in addition to penetrating it.  The problems have been that the teflon wears off, the mechanisms are poorly put together and fail, or they simply wear out too quickly.  Just recently I bought a re-chargeable electric corkscrew with a Teflon-coated worm; it withdrew less than a dozen corks before it lost the power to do its job any more - an utter failure only relieved by the fact that I bought it on an on-line auction for less than £10!  It currently resides in our dustbin.  Twice in recent months, I have had to raid my stock to ‘borrow’ a Henshall and unlike some modern versions, after nearly 200 years, it still works well.   Why did I buy a new one?  That is a question I ask myself on almost a daily basis!  I should have borne in mind one of my favourite sayings - “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”.

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Now that summer seems to have done its somewhat belated best and we address the storms and cooler temperatures of autumn, many of us turn to the pleasures of the table - fine food and wines.  I am thrilled to have developed  a couple of recipes in the Italianate style together with finding two wines I had not known previously and which come into the ‘affordable’ category.   Was it Brillat-Savarin who, in one of his 20 aphorisms, said that the discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a new star?  So true! 

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Since I last wrote to you, I have been stocking up on decanters and other accessories which are all fresh to the market.  Among them is a fine magnum decanter with a tasting stopper (c.1800) - the second time in as many months that I have had such a rarity. I have also found three pairs of fine Victorian decanters, each of which are excellent examples of their kind (and very affordable).  However, one of my more interesting purchases recently has been a claret jug made of of bronze (of all media) and the shape, deriving from an ancient Greek pouring vessel, an ‘askos’. 

Originally, an 'askos' was a vessel used by the ancient Greeks for carrying and pouring oils and wine (although probably not together!).  It was formed from the intestines of a goat. The form was revived in the 1830s as a claret jug of which the first were probably by the celebrated silversmith Paul Storr.  He used both all-silver models and silver-mounted glass and they are among the most collectable of claret jugs. 

The askos form of claret jug re-appeared on various occasions during the 19th century, and unless it is at least partly of silver and carrying hallmarks, such a jug would be difficult to date with any precision.  In my book, "Great British Wine Accessories 1550 - 1900" I illustrate three versions, one each of 1836 and 1840, and the third of 1871 which is very similar to this example - except that it is of silver.  However, one question remains - Is it a claret jug?   While it looks just like the silver models, it is much heavier (well over 4.5 lbs. or 2 kilograms).   I suppose that is for you to decide...  It is a delightful talking point and a rarity.

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