Swing-A-Way Hand-Held Can Opener, Model #407 (Swing-A-Way Manufacturing Co.)

One interesting aspect of covering the consumer beat is that I subscribe to a bunch of product- and brand-oriented trade magazines. One of these is Supermarket News, which has articles on new grocery items, new merchandising strategies, and so on. The one constant in the magazine's pages is that each weekly issue carries an ad for the Swing-A-Way can opener. "The Original," says the ad. "We invented it in 1955. America's #1 brand."

It might not be a bad idea for the Swing-A-Way folks to design a new ad (I'm getting tired of looking at the same one each week, plus the one they're using has a badly outdated version of the Good Housekeeping seal), but they're probably operating under the notion that "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and who can blame them? Their flagship product -- the Swing-A-Way model #407, one of which is probably in your kitchen right now -- hasn't changed in 44 years, and has become an American classic along the way. It doesn't exactly make opening a can fun (let's face it, nothing can do that), but it does give the task a certain satisfying ease and efficiency.

The Swing-A-Way Manufacturing Co. was founded in the '30s by one Idus L. Rhodes, whose nephews are the principal owners today. The company initially made a wall-mounted can opener, which attached to a hinged bracket that could swing back and forth -- hence the firm's name. But Swing-A-Way's focus shifted after World War II. "It became increasingly difficult to find a good place to mount a wall bracket in the kitchens of homes that were being built at that time," explains Swing-A-Way president Al Packer. So in 1955, the company came out with a hand-held model. Hand-held can openers in those days were primarily cheapo, flimsy affairs, but Swing-A-Way's version incorporated the same high-quality gear-driven mechanism used in the firm's wall-mounted model. Initially selling for $1.98 (compared to the $5 to $7 it commands nowadays), it soon became a hit and, as a company catalog modestly puts it, "changed the way people opened cans."

Over four decades later, Packer estimates that the firm has sold over 100 million of model #407. This is all the more impressive when you consider that there's no planned-obsolescence factor -- the damn things just never wear out. "We get letters from people who say they've had theirs for 40 years," says Packer. "As long as you treat them well, they're almost indestructible." The product's high quality is rooted in its 40 stainless steel parts, which are assembled at Swing-A-Way's St. Louis plant -- the last remaining can opener factory in America.

In addition to model #407, Swing-A-Way also makes a lower-priced "Junior" model and a maple-handled "Americana" model. The firm test-marketed a left-handed version in the late 1960s, but sales were weak, so the experiment was abandoned. Did the firm ever consider branching out into other products? "No," says Packer. "Can openers have always been our business -- we've never made anything else." If this seems a bit single-minded, consider that Packer himself has worked at Swing-A-Way for 52 years.

While the Swing-A-Way is a fine can opener, my favorite thing about it is the little metal talon that protrudes from its lower handle, which is meant to be used to open bottles. It works quite well, but does anyone actually use it? "I don't really think so," admits Packer. Then he hits the inconspicuous nail on the head: "But it's handy, and it's a nice touch." Exactly.

(Swing-A-Way Manufacturing Co., 4100 Beck Ave., St. Louis, MO 63116)