Whether wine is used for drinking or cooking, or both, the corkscrew must surely be an essential tool in every kitchen. In its simplest form, it consists of a pointed metal spike attached to a handle. Generally, the end of the spike is curved into a spiral so that, as it is plunged down into a cork or bung, it can be twisted around in order to embed it firmly. This improves the purchase so that when the handle is pulled upwards, the corkscrew and the attached cork are extracted cleanly from the neck of the bottle.
As wine bottles need to be well sealed to prevent spillages and exposure to the air, corks make an excellent stopper, and nowadays these bungs come in a range of other materials, including rubber, although often the synthetic varieties are still called corks. In general, corks are small, smooth, and tight-fitting, and without a corkscrew would be extremely difficult to grip and remove. The handle of a corkscrew, often a horizontal wooden rod attached to the spike, allows for a secure grip, which eases removal of the cork.
Corkscrews and Gun Worms
It is possible that the earliest corkscrew was an English invention based on an implement called a gun worm. This tool was used to remove unspent charges from the barrel of a musket and had a single or a double spiral at one end. In the early part of the 17th century, blacksmiths began to make corkscrews for removing corks from bottles, and in 1795, Reverend Samuel Henshall became the first patent holder in England for a corkscrew that included a simple disc between the worm and the shaft - this became known as Henshall’s Button.
Types of Corkscrews
Basic corkscrews have changed very little and still consist of a metal spike or worm, the end of which is shaped in the form of a spiral, and they usually have a wooden or bone handle. Antique corkscrews are popular collectables. Some versions dating from the late 1800s were made entirely in iron, most probably as a result of their having been forged by blacksmiths originally, whilst brass corkscrews are more likely to have been crafted in the 1930s and often have decorative tops. There are also very attractive basic models available with turned wooden handles.
First invented in 1939, a wing, angel, or butterfly corkscrew, has two levers, one on either side of the central spike. As the spike is twisted into the cork, the levers are automatically raised. This action explains the name, as the levers appear to be a pair of wings spreading outwards. When fully erect, depressing the levers lifts the cork up and out of the bottle in one fluid motion. The most common design has a pinion and a rack that connects the levers to the main body. Sometimes the head of the central shaft is modified in the form of a bottle opener, and corkscrews of this type are particularly popular for general household use.
A waiter’s friend, also known as a sommelier knife or wine key, is a corkscrew in a folding body similar to a penknife. It was invented by the German Karl Wienke in 1882 and was patented in Germany the same year, and in England, France, and America in 1883. The addition of one or more arms and levers makes the action of removing a cork extremely easy. One arm is extended to press against the lip of the bottle improving leverage when removing a cork. In some implements, there are two steps on the lever, and, as with the wing corkscrew, a bottle opener is also often included. Finally, a miniature hinged knife blade is housed in the handle end and this is extended and used to remove the foil wrapping that surrounds the neck of most wine bottles.
When wine is to be sampled and then re-corked, a twin-pronged cork puller is often used, as this does not pierce the cork, thus preventing damage and enabling it to be replaced intact. Sometimes known as "Ah-So" the twin-pronged cork puller extracts the cork or stopper by pushing thin metal prongs attached to a handle either side of the cork, between it, and the neck of the bottle. By grasping the handle, the cork can then be twisted to remove it from the bottle. Replacing the stopper involves placing it between the two prongs, then twisting it back into the neck of the bottle before carefully withdrawing the prongs.
For the contemporary kitchen, there are now stylish automatic wine bottle openers that take all the hard work out of wielding a corkscrew. Some come with recharging units so they can be used cordlessly, and will open up to 40 bottles on one charge. Recharging takes eight hours, so can easily be accomplished overnight. Electric automatic corkscrews have foil cutters and cork removal is facilitated by the touch of a button. These corkscrews are particularly useful for people with arthritis or similar conditions in their arms or hands. There are also cordless wine bottle openers that are easy to use and are designed to accommodate wine bottles of standard shape and size; batteries power these. They will cut the foil around the top of a bottle and remove and eject the cork; one set of 4 x AA alkaline batteries will open up to 60 wine bottles.
With superb engineering and crafting, antique corkscrews are a joy to own and there are many avid collectors who enjoy browsing the available models on eBay, which come in a range of materials and finishes, including silver, brass, and wood. Some have little brushes attached, sometimes of boars’ hair, used to clean the spirals of the corkscrew, and many have unique handles made from a variety of polished woods, ivory, bone, and antler horn. Art deco embellishments are popular additions and some of the quirkier designs include wooden painted heads, stylised birds, and animals. Brass corkscrews are often incorporated into key or tree shapes and modernist metal types often feature fish and animals.
Unconventional corkscrews make fun gifts and can also be a talking point around the dinner table. Designers have a fine time with new ideas and novelty corkscrews reflect popular hobbies, the seasons, contemporary politics, and the ubiquitous risque variety, carefully created for a touch of adult humour.
Buying Corkscrews on eBay
As might be expected, corkscrews are found in several sections on eBay and a good overview is gained by entering “corkscrew” on the Home page. From this point, the menu on the left hand side offers a guide as to which category might be most relevant. For everyday use, this is likely to be Cookware, Dining & Bar; for antique corkscrews go to Collectables. eBay's facility for asking questions when contemplating buying a product provides useful additional information. On the listing page, the seller’s ID is displayed, and it is standard practice to ask for additional details or photographs if this helps to establish answers to any questions. It is good practice all round, and helps ensure that goods are sold exactly as described. The numbers in parentheses displayed beside a seller’s ID leads to a feedback list. From this, it is easy to get a brief synopsis of how other buyers view their transactions with a specific seller.
Corkscrews are an indispensable piece of kitchen equipment and they are available in a range of practical and attractive models. They are also great to give as gifts, and with such a wide range available online at eBay, the perfect choice is just a click or two away. Collecting antique corkscrews is now very popular and some of the rare models make high prices.