Published: October 27, 2020
Where would we be without wine? The celestial libation has been a staple of humanity for centuries, getting us through this day or that day until our final day – making it a bit easier, or harder, sometimes. With it comes its accessories, those tools that standardize the process and create a sensory timeline of sorts. It starts with the bottle, twisting it around in your hand as you unsheathe the corkscrew into position. A squeak when it enters and a pop when it succeeds: the beginning of the great release. The corkscrew has been with us for quite some time, since sealing bottles was deemed beneficial and since cracking a bottle at its neck on a hard corner was deemed perilous. We sat down with Marilynn Gelfman Karp, collector of corkscrews and co-author with Jeremy Franklin Brooke of the newly released Uncorked: A Corkscrew Collection, to pop the top on the new title and her collection.
Now, how many corkscrews are in your collection and when did you begin acquiring them?
There are about 650 corkscrews in my family’s collection. My late husband Ivan C. Karp (founder and director of OK Harris Works of Art) and I collected corkscrews beginning in 1963. We shared a bottle of wine each dinnertime for 49 years. Our first corkscrew came from the kitchen aisle of a supermarket, proffered between the measuring spoons and the manual can openers. This corkscrew was designed to pivot out from the center of a white plastic handle, making a simple T shape. Through our lifetime together we collected corkscrews for their compelling ingenuity and beauty as tools. Amie and Jesse, our children, are inveterate collectors in their own arenas. Corkscrews are a collection that we did and are doing together. Collecting is a compulsion, not a decision. I am driven to husband this collection as its curator and registrar.
When did the corkscrew come into use?
Corkscrews have had a 300-year run of fascinating ingenuity, morphing through changes in format, fashion and hundreds of patents. In 1720 Nicholas Amhurst wrote a poem called “The Bottle Scrue” intoning a finger pull corkscrew based on a gun cleaning tool. The first corkscrew patent was granted in 1795 to Samuel Henshall for his innovative button on the shaft of the Basic T corkscrew.
How many categories of form do you cover in the book?
Aside from the various parts of universal corkscrew anatomy (handle, shaft and worm), there are 50 categories of form in Uncorked.
Were there distinct milestones in the evolution of the corkscrew?
In the 1700s the manufacture of glass bottles became standardized with respect to shape (cylindrical), thickness (strength) and size (amount of contents). This revolutionized the transport of wine, simplifying storage and shipping as well. Bottles sealed with cork could be brought to the table at any location, from diverse places of origin. The glass bottle and cork necessitated the development of the corkscrew. Each corkscrew in Uncorked is a milestone of accrued ingenuity in a continuous thread.
Tell me about your favorite example in the collection.
Corkscrews define humankind’s ingenious and cumulative effort to draw the cork and get to the elixir with an element of grace. Wier’s Double Concertina is my most elegant and refined example of this.
I find I dislike some corkscrews. I have a battery-operated one that’s nice when it’s charged, which is never, and also a concertina & tongs, which I feel absurd using. I like the folding single lever. Do you feel stronger about some forms over others?
The territory of this collection is originality of principle, inventiveness of concept, inspired improvement on a preceding format and singular decorative adaptation. If a corkscrew meets these criteria, I cherish it. I don’t care about the others. When using one of my corkscrews, I tend to select one that I haven’t used for a while just to have the experience of using it. It’s a Zen thing. Upon further thought, I do have a special fondness for figural corkscrews.
It seems you collect right up to present day. Are there any advantages to a modern corkscrew?
After the 1930s, the Twentieth Century saw the rehashing of many of the corkscrew inventions of the last two and a half centuries, in contemporary materials. Reproduction corkscrews promise “a legacy of inspired uncorkings” as a corporate enterprise. The great flush of corkscrew ingenuity seems to have petered out except that the late Twentieth Century did yield up one corkscrew that is comparatively graceless and disconcertingly top heavy, and injector openers, which come with warnings of explosive possibilities, physical injury and inhaling of toxic compressed gas.
As the age of printed books winds down, bookends are often seen propping CDs and DVDs. What will happen to corkscrews when there are no corks to pull? These objects will become more collectible as tools that tell a cultural story. Adieu cork, vaya con dios corkscrews, hail the screwtop. Inevitable change accompanies the inexorable march of time.
You have a Revolutionary War example in there. Tell me about it.
The Revolutionary War officer’s Travelers’ Friend is a multi-blade tool with pinned pivoting implements that fold into an engraved steel handle. Seen clockwise from the corkscrew is a hoof pick, straight razor, punch, saw, knife, fleam, beveled knife and sharp pick. The corkscrew has a grooved flat helical worm (also called grooved ribbon helix), 1774-75. Made in France.
Are there any stories behind any of them?
A good flea market or antique show is an unreserved venue for seeking and possessing. Good corkscrews are still affordable. I love rummaging around in boxes of oddments and hardware. Imagine my great luck finding, in a coffee can filled with pieces of metal hardware, bolts and wingnuts, at a flea market for four dollars, an Eighteenth Century folding double-hinged, cut-steel pipe-tamp corkscrew with a firestriker pattern on its handle. To date, this is one of the earliest pocket corkscrews in my collection.
We’ve all been caught without one. What’s your go-to move when you have nothing to open the bottle?
I refuse to imagine a setting in which I would ever be in that situation.
Anything that you would like to add?
This book would not be in its present form without Jeremy Franklin Brooke who tweaked the photographs to perfection, edited the captions and devised its bespoke information system.
Ed Note: Uncorked: A Corkscrew Collection by Marilynn Gelfman Karp and Jeremy Franklin Brooke is available for $24.95 from Abbeville Press, 2020, and online retailers.
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