William Painter's bottle cap made Crown Cork and Seal a Baltimore power company
November 20, 1838 – July 15, 1906
Next time you pry off a bottle cap from a soft drink or beer bottle, send up a little toast to William Painter, who invented the “crown cork” bottle cap. His invention made Crown Cork and Seal a Baltimore manufacturing phenomenon for much of the first half of the 20th century.
Painter was a prolific inventor, with 85 or more patents in his name. He was close to 50 years old when he designed his most famous innovation.
In the late 1800s, bottles were typically sealed with a cork or other plug that was inserted into the bottleneck. It was a labor-intensive process with dubious sanitation standards.
Painter’s process involved a sealing disc on the bottle and topping it with a metal holding cap crimped around the outside surface of the bottle’s mouth. It was designed to be easily removed with an opener or by hand. Crown Cork and Seal’s foot-powered syrup-filler and crowner allowed an operator to fill and cap 24 bottles a minute, a remarkable speed for the time.
His invention changed the growing beverage industry forever, especially in Baltimore where breweries flourished.
Crown Cork and Seal’s first factory was located at Guilford and Oliver streets and was the site where equipment was custom built for beverage companies. By the time Painter passed away in 1906, Crown Cork and Seal was already an international presence.
The success of the crown cork was based, in part, on the fact that the bottle caps were disposable, a new concept. Painter once shared this notion with King Camp Gillette, a travelling salesman who worked for the Baltimore Seal Company, a predecessor of Crown Cork and Seal.
Gillette recalls the conversation in his memoir. William Painter once remarked to Gillette: “King, you are always thinking and inventing something. Why don't you try to think of something like the Crown Cork, which, when once used is thrown away? The customer keeps coming back for more. With every additional customer you get, you are building a permanent foundation of profit.”
Several years later, inspiration struck Gillette while he was shaving and found his razor to be dull. He went on to invent a razor with disposable blades and made a fortune with his Gillette safety razor.
On April 10, 1901, William A. Lewis, clearly a William Painter admirer, described his friend as such: “If you were to meet upon the street a tall gentleman of military bearing, with florid complexion and a white moustache; clad in the groomed manner of good taste, a silk hat and fashionable clothing: with kindly eyes, which have the twinkle in them that tells of a nature that has a moment to spare for the relaxation of a good story . . . you'd never set him down for an inventor.
“He has the appearance of a business man—and, strange as it may seem to be applied to an inventor, he is business man enough to convert his creative mind into substantial profit, and enough of it to become one of Baltimore's well-to-do citizens (to put it mildly and modestly.)”
William Painter died on July 15, 1906, well before he had a chance to see Crown Cork and Seal grow into the longstanding company that employed thousands of Baltimoreans over the years. Painter is buried under a distinctive gravestone in Pikesville’s Druid Ridge Cemetery.
By the 1930s, Crown Cork and Seal expanded to a massive complex located in Highlandtown. The first factory building still stands and is today the location for the CopyCat Building, an artist studio and living space in the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. The company has closed all Baltimore facilities and operates as Crown Holdings.
Bibliography and more:
Sierra Hallman, Crown Cork & Seal on Eastern Avenue, Explore Baltimore Heritage, accessed May 15, 2019,
Gillette in his early days the inventor of the razor and the company he built survived many close shaves with financial ruin but his fame never translated into a personal fortune. Money Magazine