Living Columns & Blogs

Prying open the reason we use the word ‘church key’

A vintage-looking church key from
A vintage-looking church key from

Q: Why are some bottle/can openers called “church keys”?

Jane Bergo, of Belleville

A: I’m sure some would describe their beer as the nectar of the gods, so a church key opener became critical to worshiping their favorite brewski. And while this explanation may not be accurate, it certainly hints at the two most popular proposed origins for this seemingly odd nickname.

For those unfamiliar with the term (like myself), the opener that became associated with “church key” was a simple device used to pry open a new type of bottle closure that was invented in 1892 — the bottle cap or “crown cork.” Since necessity is usually the mother of invention, someone in Canada in 1900 is thought to have patented a new style of opener that, apparently to many, resembled a large, simple key.

Then, soon after Prohibition was repealed, steel beer cans with flat tops began to appear, requiring the same type of opener. So to help drinkers slake their thirst, D.F. Sampson with the American Can Company devised a similar tool with a sharp point on one end. He even offered helpful opening instructions printed on the cans.

But why a “church” key rather than a room key or car key? Two theories, both of which poke a bit of fun at the clean-living priests and ministers usually extol from the pulpit:

In one, wordsmiths remind us that centuries ago, many of the best brewers were monks. To protect their aging beers in their monasteries, the monks locked them away in lager cellars, for which only the monks had the keys. It is theorized that the openers reminded someone of these keys — either because of their shape or use — and started calling them “church” keys.

Some, however, point to the fact that canned beer requiring such openers first appeared on the market in 1933 after President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act on March 21, 1933, allowing the sale of beer with 3.2 percent alcohol. Some suggest that calling openers “church keys” was another way for drinkers to further poke their thumb in the eye of religious groups that had fought for Prohibition 13 years earlier. Others suggest the name then spread rapidly as a joke.

“It is said if you used a church-key opener (i.e., you drank beer), you would be less likely to open the door of a church to attend service,” according to the Churchkey Beer Co. in Bellevue, Wash., at

Catching up on some recent odds and ends:

New lab work: In a recent column on pin oaks, I suggested a reader have his soil tested at SGS Alvey Laboratory in Belleville. At least, that’s what’s in the phone book and what popped up on Google. However, unbeknownst to me or my plant expert, Charles Giedeman, Alvey moved in mid-August to Hamel, where it opened a brand new laboratory at 375 N. Old Route 66.

“This new location will allow our lab to expand and offer even more great testing opportunities,” according to the note they sent me, so you’re still welcome to send samples to them by mail. Call 618-633-1995 for details.

One former pin oak grower, though, says my reader ultimately may have to throw in the towel. Ron Matikitis said he tried nurturing his new pin oaks for nearly 15 years on his property just above Collinsville High School. But as time went on, he watched the trees go downhill despite soil testing, ground injections, sulfur, end caps — even the suggestion by the University of Illinois of putting down white pine needles. Fearing his topsoil was simply no long rich enough after the high school construction, Matikitis chopped them down earlier this year.

Updated ratings: Those trying to research the worthiness of various charities as the holiday season approaches should be aware that Charity Navigator has launch CN 2.1, a revamped system that it hopes will provide an even more accurate rating of not-for-profits for would-be donors. In launching the tool, the watchdog organization says it gave new scores to 8,000 charities, upping 19 percent by one star while lowering 8 percent by one star. More than four dozen charities earned perfect scores of 100. See the latest at

Rock on: My reminiscences about the Hall of Fame music stars who played the metro-east had Julia Welch remembering a lively night 50-plus years ago in Fairmont City, where she watched Chuck Berry perform his cavalcade of hits.

They rang a bell: Superman might want to consider moving back to Metropolis, Ill. Lisa Ashley, of Smithton, writes me that she knows at least three phone booths in the area — the Monroe County Courthouse in Waterloo, the post office/fire department in Prairie du Rocher and by Mary’s Restaurant in Ruma.

“I believe they all work, too!” she wrote. “How cool is that??”

Way cool.

Today’s trivia

In 1999, which song did Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) say was played more times than any other on American radio and TV during the 20th century?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: I had always heard that Massachusetts and the Northeast produced most of the nation’s cranberry crop, but it turns out I heard wrong. Once called “crane berries” because of their blossom’s resemblance to the sandhill crane, cranberries have been grown since 1860 in Wisconsin, which now accounts for more than 60 percent of the nation’s crop.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer