Brewers’ Hall, Addle StreetLondon and its Environs in the Nineteenth Century
The British Museum 1880,1113.5646, AN817474001.

A paper written by Mr. Walter A. Riley, F.C.S., a Fellow of the Chemical Society, was presented on January 22, 1906, regarding the history and use of corks and stoppers in bottles, at a meeting held at Brewers Hall, Addle Street, in London, England. Mr. Riley stated in that paper, “a great many methods have been invented for the purpose of closing bottles containing wine, spirits, beers, cider…and of these, the only ones in use commercially are corks.” He continues with, “Although cork is perhaps one of the least known substances with which we come into daily contact it is yet one of the most important items in the bottling of wine, spirits, beers, and mineral waters.”

Riley reveals that in his research the first mention of cork was in the mid-sixteenth century and says it was “principally used for making soles,” continuing with, “in fact, we can find no trace of its use as a stopper till the seventeenth century, when it is said that a monk name Dom Perignon was the first to use a close-fitting cork.”

After reading his paper, one ascertains that about 1820 was when stripping the bark of a live oak became a regular and recognized procedure, and this process began to supply the world with cork. In 1876, the Department of Agriculture in the United States distributed a large quantity of cork-oak acorns to various points in the south Atlantic and Gulf states, in the Southwest, and throughout California to determine if the species could be successfully grown in America. By 1897, 10,000 seedlings of cork-oak were distributed to these same regions hoping that in the near future America would commercially cultivate cork and become a country to add to the list of countries mentioned in the following 1903 list.

By 1903, the chief cork-producing countries had forests with production as follows:

  • Portugal: 750,000 acres
  • Spain:  625,000 acres
  • Algeria: 702,500 acres
  • France: 371,250 acres
  • Tunis: 205,000 acres
  • Italy: 200,o00 acres

Wine bottles get corked, with corks made of cork. This wasn’t always the case; but when it became important for better wine storage and delivery, the dilemma to be solved was: how could one insert and fix a cork into a wine bottle easier? Challenging, but during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when winemakers bottled their own product more often than not, they found they needed tools or devices to assist with the process.

The cork needs to be inserted into the bottle in an easy and safe manner. Inventing a tool to insert a cork into a bottle in a single motion would involve placing the cork in the mechanism, positioning the bottle correctly, and pulling the lever(s) down until the cork was fully inserted. The main difference between these corking tool inventions throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, comes down to speed.

Several different inventions were designed to create tools to assist with the conundrum. All of these inventions provided a way to cork a bottle one at a time. As one can imagine, the process to cork a bottle took a great deal of time, eventually being replaced by an assembly-line approach to bottling. Nowadays, there is a wide range of wine corkers from semiautomatic corkers, push button corkers, and vacuum corkers. The small home winemakers still may use in many cases, these early designs that are described in this article.

To start with, cork corks are known for their elasticity. That is, they can compress to about half their width without losing any of their flexibility; which makes them good closures for wine. Corks are usually cut larger than the opening of the bottle they are going into. And, they are also usually compressed before being inserted into the neck of the bottle.

The earliest corking tool in the Wine History Project collection has a patent dated circa 1862, and the latest corking tool is from the 1950s. The Wine History Project collection has obtained five different types of these early cork inserters, sometimes also known as corkers or drivers:

  1. Hand-held wood
  2. Sit-down wood bench
  3. Bench style
  4. Hand-held metal
  5. Double-levered, scissored hand-held

TYPE #1 HAND-HELD WOOD BOTTLE CORKERS/INSERTERS

The hand-held corker tool was traditionally used by cellar workers. Each corker has a compressing iris that evenly compresses the cork from all sides, down to about the diameter of a dime. Then, the corker drives the cork into the bottle. Some corkers had a leather hinge with a metal insert. Others had metal hinges. Some hand-held corkers only had plungers. Some had a cut-out opening on one side and some did not. There are five different models (including one on loan from Anne Brown) of this type in the Wine History Project collection.

The procedure to use these tools included the following steps:

First, corks were soaked in water to soften. Then, the handle of the corker was pulled, one cork was placed on the lip of the neck to the wine bottle. The corker was placed over the cork which enveloped the neck of the bottle. The mallet was pressed to the cork, pushing in a plunger-like action the cork into the bottle to seal the liquid inside the bottle.

Two companies were known to design the earliest tools for corking bottles of wine. The two different inventors mentioned were by Henry Redlich Manufacturing in May 1862 and John Sommer, BEST STAR cork driver in August 1885, and are represented in the collection.

Earliest United States Patents

Patent #35,385, “Corking Bottles” by Redlich Manufacturing was patented May 20, 1862. The label, which was glued to the early corking bottle tool stated,
“Redlich’s Apparatus for Corking Bottles. H. Redlich Inventor. Instructions: Soak the cork, drop it into the opening then hit with a mallet or hammer. Redlich Manufacturing Co., Chicago.”

Redlich Manufacturing Co., was owned by Otto Henry Redlich, Jr., William F. Redlich, and Rudolph Redlich that were in the business of corks, faucets, etc. Their location was 375 -377 North Clark in Chicago, Illinois as listed in The Lakeside Annual Directory of the City of Chicago which was a complete general and business directory, miscellaneous information, and street guide published in 1887, compiled by Reuben H. Donnelley, and printed by R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Printers, The Lakeside Press. An index to advertisements in this directory acknowledges that Redlich Manufacturing Co. was in business as liquor dealers.

Fifteen years later, The American Brewers’ Review, Volume 16 dated July 1902 through June 1903, where an advertisement appears on page 27 that states Redlich Manufacturing Co. was established in 1858, and at least by the advertisement in this 1902 directory, O.H. Redlich, Jr. and Rudolph Redlich were then owners of a bung and cork business, which was located at 2 to 12 Oak Street, Chicago, Telephone North 479 dealing in brewers’ clarifying shavings and chips.

American Brewers’ Review, page 105 dated January – December 1905, lists Redlich Manufacturing Co., of Chicago; incorporators Otto H. Redlich, Jr., Bernard S. Schoffel, and Alexander E. Redlich, with a capital stock of $250,000 and in the business that manufactures bottlers’ supplies.

By July 1908, according to The Western Underwriter, a weekly newspaper of insurance, the business in Chicago was now referred to O.H. Redlich Manufacturing Company.

Another method for this hand-held device was patented August 25, 1885 as, “Apparatus for corking bottles” and was invented by John Sommer, Jr. (1857-1933). This tool was identified as the BEST STAR model.

As of November 14, 1908, the Sommer Faucet Co. was located at 355 Central Avenue, Newark, New Jersey and owned by John Sommer, Jr.

Early Corking Bottle Tool

Date: 1900-1940

Origin: France

Materials: wood (maple), brass hinge, tin

Object ID: WHP-C&CP21

Early “Beak down” type Corking Bottle Tool

Date: circa 1920

Origin: Sonoma County, California

Materials: wood (cherry)

Object ID: WHP-C&CP36

Early Corking Bottle Tool

Date: circa post 1900

Origin: Germany

Materials: wood

Object ID: WHP-C&CP58

Early Corking Bottle Tool

Date: 1950s

Origin: purchased in California

Materials: wood

Object ID: WHP-C&CP59

TYPE #2 SIT-DOWN WOOD BENCH BOTTLE CORKER/INSERTER

French nineteenth-century corking machines on mortise and tenon framed wooden stands were popular during this time period. There were used for for both champagne and wine bottles. The Wine History Project has in its collection one from San Francisco. It has a long handle that sends the plunger into a hole. The plunger handle is lowered. There is a gear located under the machine for raising and lowering the round base that holds the bottom of the bottle. Someone would have sat on this at the winery, corking each bottle as it was handed to him.

The Wine History Project’s wood bench cork inserter combines the wood bench with a take on the stand-up bottle corker. See illustration /patent description of a cork driver patented in 1893.

Although it may appear to be complicated, it is actually quite easy to use. Bottles are placed on the platform one at a time and a weighted lever cranks down to insert the cork. The lower basin collects any wine that may spill over in the process.

These corkers compress and drive the cork just like the hand corker, but they do it in one single action. You load the cork and pull the handle. As you start to pull down on the handle the cork is being compressed. Then at the end of the handle’s throw, the cork is driven into the wine bottle. This single, swift action makes the corking process move along a bit faster.

Although it may appear to be complicated, it is actually quite easy to use. Bottles are placed on the platform one at a time and a weighted lever cranks down to insert the cork. The lower basin collects any wine that may spill over in the process.

Sit-down Wood Bench Bottle Corker

Date: 1870-1900

Size: 48”H x 42”L x 21”W

Materials: hardwood base, cast iron

Object ID: WHP-C&CP29

TYPE #3 BENCH STYLE BOTTLE CORKER

Yankee Brand Patent Applied for Wine Bottle Corker, nickel-plated cast iron, brass, and steel, gold-tone, fancy foliate pattern. Made in the USA. Lever locks the bottle neck, compresses the cork, and drives it into the bottle in one motion. Wear and tear from age, rust here and there, patina.

Bench-style Bottle Corker

Date: Circa 1900s

Size: 8”H x 9”W x 2 ½”D, handle 10 ½”

Materials: nickel-plated, cast iron

Object ID: WHP-C&CP2

TYPE #4 HAND-HELD METAL WINE BOTTLE CORKER/INSERTERS

Small hand-held wine bottle corker tool marked with “Sanbri.” Sanbri Company was a well-known French wine equipment firm. This tool has a chamber and you place the cork into it. A piston is adjusted so that the top of the inserted cork is flush with the rim of the bottle’s neck. The chamber is closed by bringing the handles together, and the cork is squeezed by hand pressure. Holding the handles closed with one hand and positioning the corker over the bottle, usually the other hand works a lever that drives the piston forward, driving the cork into the neck of the bottle. I believe that the corker in the Wine History Project collection is missing the lever to drive the piston.

Hand-held Metal Wine Bottle Corker

Date: 1910-1930

Size: 7 ½”L x 5”H

Materials: bronze

Origin: France (ours from a Napa Valley collection)

Object ID: WHP-C&CP9

TYPE #5 DOUBLE-LEVERED, SCISSORED HAND-HELD BOTTLE CORKER

Some plunger designs were difficult to use and took a lot of strength to forcefully plunge the cork into the bottle. But “Super Eclaire”, scissored hand-held bottle corker made the process easier. One needed to simply add a cork, push the levers down, and the cork was inserted into the bottle. A perfectly corked bottle. Each corker was constructed of solid materials (mostly steel) and there were no flimsy joints or rivets, even when exerting pressure while corking. Some found it to be easier to put it on a sturdy surface and maybe have someone hold the bottle so there was no movement.

This is not the easiest device to use. I have found a few helpful points to assist with corking a bottle when using this tool.

1. Make sure the corks were wet first, then press them firmly into the cork chamber, don’t just place them. This will help the corks set further into the bottle.

2. When corking, DO NOT use your body weight to drive the cork in. Rest the corker on top of the bottle, meet the two-side bracket as if you’re trying to touch your thumbs, and then break a stick.

Maybe once someone got the hang of it, they would want to bottle more often.

Double-levered, Scissored Hand-held Bottle Corker

Date: Circa 1920-1930s

Size: 13 ½”L x 6 ½”W

Materials: aluminum, steel

Object ID: WHP-C&CP17

NOTE: This image is similar to the object in the collection.

FINALLY

Today it is rare to see someone use one of these early corkers or inserters to bottle large quantities of wine into bottles. Now, wineries either hire a company to bring in a production line on a truck that bottles the wine, corks the bottle, and labels the bottle. But if they don’t have these traveling outsourced services available, a winery still needs to have equipment to bottle and cork their wines. They might purchase a push button corker that can insert corks up to 1,000 bottles, 375ml, 750ml, and 1.5 L bottles per hour. This piece of equipment is usually stainless steel with brass jaws, containing a 220 V single or 1 hp motor to run it and has a capacity of 500 corks.