“Pshhh!” “Tsssk!” “Fwshawww!” However you spell it, it’s the sound of summer: the peal of a pop-top cracking a cold can.
The pop-top, the umbrella term for the various tab openers that have graced the crowns of cans over the last 60 years, is a patently American invention. It can be heard at cookouts and concerts, block parties and ballgames. But it wasn’t heard at all until Ermal “Ernie” C. Fraze, a Dayton, Ohio, inventor, found himself at a 1959 picnic, peeved and unable to open his beer.
“As the story goes, Fraze was at a picnic and forgot his church key, so he had to pop a hole in the top of his can using the fin of his car,” says Brady Kress, president and CEO of Carillon Historical Park, a museum that celebrates Fraze’s legacy in its Heritage Center of Dayton Manufacturing & Entrepreneurship. “He was frustrated you needed to carry a tool to open your beer. He wasn’t going to attach a church key to the side of each can. So he started thinking of a way to create a self-contained opener.”
The pop-top may seem like a simple invention. But by the time Fraze came around, the gadget was 150 years in the making.
On cans and can openers
In 1795, during the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, troubled by his troops’ spoiling rations, offered a 12,000-franc prize to anyone who might advance food preservation. Fifteen years later, French chef Nicolas Appert finally won Napoleon’s prize by inventing the first hermetically sealed glass container; that same year, 1810, English inventor Peter Durand patented the first tin-coated iron cans.
Early cans, a niche item, were opened with a chisel and hammer. “Glass jars were more popular because consumers could see through the container,” says Amy Bentley, a food historian at New York University. “In the beginning, there was a lot of distrust over canning because, at the time, there was so much food adulteration. Being able to see the product boosted consumer confidence.”
As the commodity caught on in the mid-19th century, American inventor Ezra J. Warner, spotting a need, designed the first can opener: a blade that sawed a circle around the lid’s rim, leaving a sharp metal edge in its wake. Patented on January 5, 1858, Warner’s invention aided Yankee troops during the Civil War. Sixty-eight years later, on May 20, 1926, Charles A. Bunker patented the modern can opener.
But these openers removed the can’s entire lid, which is necessary for opening, say, beans, but gratuitous when cracking a beer.
The picnic incident
A church key is a small, double-edged metal tool found in many kitchen drawers—one side is triangular-tipped for piercing metal cans, the other rounded for opening bottles. (The bottle-opener side resembles the handle of an old-fashioned church key; hence, the name.) In the 1950s, when opening a beer, drinkers punctured a triangular hole in either side of the top of the can—one hole for drinking, the other for airflow.
Had Fraze remembered his church key at that 1959 picnic—had he never been forced to wield his car fin as a can opener—we might not have the modern pop-top. But the owner of Dayton Reliable Tool Company, a machine tool business, did forget his church key, and while the episode maddened him at the time, it had him uttering that age-old inventors’ creed: “There must be a better way.”
“Other people had the same idea. It’s just Ermal Fraze brought it to fruition,” says Peter Liebhold, curator emeritus in the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History. “His picnic story actually diminishes how smart he was. With any invention, you have to accomplish three things: You have to develop a good idea; then scale it, or bring it to market, which is incredibly difficult; and finally, you need people to adopt the idea, which doesn’t always happen. With the pop-top, Fraze succeeded in all three. And it became an incredibly big deal.”
Tinkering with the pop-top, Fraze found his answer in a rivet, the small metal pin that bolts the pop-top to the lid of the can. When lifted, the bolted-down pop-top tab is transformed into a lever that breaks a prescored metal sipping hole near the edge of the can—right near the lip, where the drinker sips—making an unmistakable sound. Unlike the push-in-fold-back tab we know today, the first pop-top design, the zip-top (also known as the slip-top and snap-top, among other names), was a pull-off tab: It was detached from cans and thrown away. As Fraze recalled in a 1987 speech, it was after drinking an after-dinner coffee at The Pine Club, a storied Dayton steakhouse, that he awoke in the middle of the night; overcaffeinated in the predawn darkness, he solved the riddle of the pop-top.
“I personally did not invent the easy-open can end,” Fraze told the New York Times in July 1963. “People have been working on that since 1800. What I did was develop a method of attaching a tab on the can top.”
Fraze, who leveraged both his equipment and business connections at Dayton Reliable Tool, sold his first pop-top design, the zip-top, to the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). Alcoa then fastened Fraze’s invention to Iron City Beer cans. In a 2005 Washington Post article, Fraze’s son Terry claimed the pop-top increased Iron City Beer sales by 400 percent; the piece also noted that “Dayton Reliable Tool reported $50 million in revenue and had 500 employees in 1980, when it was supplying much of the world with can-end machinery.”
From the early 1960s to the early ’70s, the zip-top was the world’s go-to tab. “Fraze was riding the wave of aluminum,” says Liebhold. “Cans were historically made of steel. But steelworkers, these big, bruising people, were more focused on railroads and bridges, not lightweight cans. This allowed the aluminum industry to compete, to take over the can industry. And, curiously, it’s easier to make a pop-top out of aluminum than steel. It was a bizarre alignment of forces.”
Still, the pull-off zip-top left consumers holding a razor-sharp piece of detached aluminum, wondering where to trash it. Those who lived during its heyday may remember the zip-top and the havoc it wreaked well.
In the ’60s and ’70s, Fraze’s zip-top littered the streets and sidewalks and beaches of America—so much so that the invention found its way into Jimmy Buffett’s vapid 1977 tropical-rock hit, “Margaritaville.”
I blew out my flip-flop
Stepped on a pop-top
Cut my heel
Had to cruise on back home.
But Fraze’s zip-top created problems beyond litter. “There are reports of bartenders who hated the sharp edge, so they’d flip the can over and open it with a church key from the bottom,” says Liebhold. “But along with litter, the big pushback was because of cuts and ingestion.”
In 1974, the New York Times reported, “The accidental swallowing of tabs and rings from beer and soft drink cans is becoming a serious medical problem. … Beverage consumers have swallowed the aluminum pull tabs and rings, which lodged in the esophagus, or gullet, and required emergency surgery for their removal.” These accidents happened because many people would pull the tab off and immediately drop the metal ring down into the can before drinking its contents, the article goes on to explain. “This is the procedure that many environmentalists have advised the public to do as a means of reducing the litter problem and protecting wildlife.”
In the mid-1970s, to address the zip-top’s health hazards, planetary threats (and Jimmy Buffett’s injured feet), Coors debuted the short-lived push-tab can, a dubious device that had drinkers, often inebriated, poking their fingertips through a sharp two-holed metal can (again, one hole was for drinking, the other for airflow). Formed by pushing down a circular piece of prescored metal, the sharp holes of the push-tab had unlucky drinkers imbibing beer infused with fingertip blood.
Finally, in 1976, Daniel F. Cudzik, an engineer with Reynolds Metal Co., patented the “Stay-On-Tab,” the push-in-fold-back tab we use today. Instead of ripping the pop-top off, the drinker breaks the prescored metal sipping hole, then folds the tab back, allowing it to stay on the can. The following year, 1977, Ermal Fraze patented his version of the “Stay-On-Tab,” the “Easy-Open Ecology End.” Soon, a nasty patent battle ensued, ultimately falling in favor of Cudzik.
Still, Fraze was the progenitor of the pop-top, the forefather of the modern tab. After his invention changed the world, he remained chief executive of Dayton Reliable Tool until his death on October 26, 1989. Today, his company, now known as DRT Holdings, is focused on metal packaging, custom machining and the aerospace industry; still headquartered in Dayton, DRT has 10 facilities across the world.
Thanks to the ingenuity of Ermal “Ernie” C. Fraze, we now find ourselves, ice-cold can in hand, listening to the sound of summer: “Pshhh!” “Tsssk!” “Fwshawww!”
“What else sounds like the opening of a pop-top? It’s a Dayton-invented sound,” says Kress. “All around the globe, billions of times a year, people hear this sound. And it comes from a device that is seemingly so simple. But it’s changed how people live.”