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October, 2004


by Valerie

I have a strange little artifact which comes complete with a curious story. It is truly a relic, as its value lies in age and association. It is a fragment, a ruined bit of history, a memento, a souvenir.

This relic of mine is shown in the accompanying photo. It is a cast iron bottle opener in the shape of a man's face with four eyes. Here is its tale:

In the early 1970s, about the time that I was starting high school, my family and I often spent weekends at the Kankakee River State Park in Illinois. My father liked to fish and my mother, sister, and I would go hiking, wading, or exploring along various stretches of the river. One of our favorite areas was a segment of land that the park had acquired from a farmer. Back when the farmer owned the land along the river, he leased little shacks to local fishermen, including friends of my father. In their bachelor days, the guys used to gather for the weekend, and would stay up all night, fishing, drinking beer, and playing poker. I have only vague recollections of the inside of the little cabin, which I probably saw several times as a very young kid. It seemed dirty, full of linoleum, and lit by an unflattering fluorescent light.

Sometime following the state purchase of the property for the park, the cabins were burned to the ground. Not long after this occurred, my mother, sister and I happened to hike back to the area. We discovered that the only remains, surrounded by encroaching weeds, were piles of rubble, burnt linoleum, a few metal forks and spoons, rusty nails, and other nonflammable bits. We picked around in the pile that had belonged to our dad's friend, and that's where I happened to find the strange little metal face. I didn't even know what it was at first, but after cleaning it up, it was obviously a bottle opener that had once been mounted on a wall. The face was so weird that, even though the cast iron was badly corroded by the fire, I kept the trinket. Ugly as it was, it was also quite fascinating.

I thought nothing more about the stored curiosity for the next several years. Then something brought it to my attention once more. During my first couple years as an undergrad at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana I worked in the music library. One of my duties was to re-shelve 33rpm records that people had taken from the stacks. As I was mindlessly doing this tedious task one day, I saw a record cover that woke me from my stupor. There, in a full 12" image, was my four-eyed bottle opener man! I was so surprised that I never even noted the title on the album, but instead simply studied the photo, trying to memorize all the details. This version of the bottle opener was painted, making it look like a cheap carnival prize. However, the underlying structure was the same as mine, down to the four eyes, three teeth, handlebar moustache, and wart on the nose. Because my copy had been through a fire, the paint had all burned off. I think that it was like seeing the classic Greek statues in their original painted versions instead of the clean white marble with which we are familiar today. Although the bottle opener was still ugly as sin, without the paint it seemed to be elevated at least a minor degree above kitsch.

As I moved on to graduate school and eventually got married, the bottle opener remained in my possession, but I only noticed it when I happened to find it while packing or unpacking. I began to value it a little as a relic, a bizarre reminder of the enjoyable years I spent playing around the Kankakee River. Recently, I again came across it while looking for something else. Because we now have the internet for quick and easy research, I decided to do a little investigation.

Amazingly, I did not come up empty handed. I have learned that a version of this same bottle opener is still being produced today. It costs about $2.00 from a company on the web. Original versions, all painted, sell on various antique sites and eBay for anywhere from about $10 to $135. I found photos of at least three different cast iron designs with the four-eyed theme. Besides the bald guy with the moustache, there was also a woman, in both Caucasian and Negro versions. The painting on all of them varies considerably, with the man even portrayed as a Native American (quite a stretch of the imagination) complete with reddish skin and war paint. I also found a brass version, but it had a different look while still retaining the four eyes.

Although my fire-damaged copy has no discernable marking identifying the maker, some of the better preserved copies do. The company that made them was called Wilton Products and I was able to find some information on the site of Wilton Armetale, a company that today produces fine cookware. The first incarnation of the company was Susquehanna Castings, started in 1893 by the Wilton family along the Susquehanna River in Wrightsville, PA. This was a foundry producing iron products for industries and novelty items for consumers. It merged into Wilton Brass Co. (1954 to about 1985, later called Wilton Armetale) in the 1960s, continuing to make iron and brass objects as well developing a new metal from an aluminum based alloy called "Armetale." Wilton Products was formed around 1935 and decorated the iron products made by Susquehanna Castings. Novelty items hand painted and produced in Wrightsville, PA, and Santa Barbara, CA, were popular through the 1940s and 1950s. These included bottle openers, trivets, candle holders, and mechanical banks.

I also found out more about the album cover I had seen almost three decades ago. It was for an American release of a Pink Floyd record. While the album was produced in other countries, only those sold in the U.S. had the strange face on the cover, and there were actually at least two versions of that as well: one with the four-eyed woman (complete with a person's tongue sticking out of the opening) and one with the four-eyed man. I had just happened to run across the male version matching my odd little memento. And the name of the album? The 1971 release called "Relics."

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