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City Folk

The Bottle Cap Crown

Frank DiCara spent over 40 years at Crown Cork & Seal, when Baltimore bottle caps ruled the world

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden


Billions of bottle caps, damn-near 5,000 employees (many of them factory women), and a deafening sound echoing across the skies of Highlandtown: BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

That was the din of machines punching sheets of metal into discs to be crimped into bottle cap “crowns” and affixed with a thin wafer of Spanish or Portuguese cork to preserve the fizz of soda pop and beer.

It was the mid-20th-century prime of Crown Cork & Seal, the former Southeast Baltimore bottle cap and can works off of Eastern Avenue, near the railroad “underpass” east of Haven Street. The 35-acre site, long in decline, was known throughout the city as “the Crown.”

Frank DiCara was there for a good stretch of the glory years after serving in the South Pacific and his Army discharge, in 1946, the year Crown pioneered the great-for-profits and bad-for-the-ozone aerosol can.

He is the last of six DiCara siblings born to Italian immigrants Rose and Joseph DiCara before the Depression on East Pratt Street near the old Esskay meat-packing plant and remembers his mother buying smelts from a fishmonger named Crusty Albert and “frying them up like potato chips.”

Frank put in a little more than 40 years at the Crown, starting with fabricating wings for B-26 “Martin Marauder” planes in a wartime partnership with the Glenn L. Martin Co. By the time of his 1987 retirement, he was making $29,000 a year as a quality control supervisor.

“We made bottle caps for Pepsi, Coke, Suburban Club, Rolling Rock, Schlitz, and Schaefer beer—every one of ’em,” says DiCara, set to turn 88 on Aug. 20. “We printed the labels on sheets of metal, maybe 288 caps at a time, depending on the size of the sheet.

“Later on, we went from making crowns to screw tops for mayonnaise jars and [motor] oil cans and aluminum caps for milk bottles.”

The steel for Crown’s packaging products (they had a World War II defense contract for gas-mask canisters, once made metal ice-cube trays, and in 1963 introduced the razor-like “pull-top tab”) came in 23,000-pound coils from many mills, including Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant.

“The cork came in 3-feet-wide slabs,” says DiCara, speaking of a “composite” cork ring, invented in 1927 by Charles McManus, who merged his company with Crown. “We put the slabs in a slicer, and it would peel off 1/8-inch [wafers] before they were glued into the inside of the crown.”

The metal bottle cap was invented and patented in Baltimore in 1892 by Crown founder William Painter. The company started in a shop in the 1500 block of Guilford Avenue before global success (some 40 billion bottle caps a year) led to consolidation of operations at the Eastern Avenue site in about 1930.

In 1958, after mismanagement had led to near-bankruptcy, the Crown board moved the company’s headquarters to Philadelphia, leaving behind smaller divisions and a warehouse that moved to O’Donnell Street in the 1970s. At the end, not long after DiCara retired, there were only about 300 employees left.

Today, the old Crown building is in general disrepair, its cavernous rooms used by artists and musicians, cabinet-makers and woodworkers, and a succession of coffee-roasting companies. In the evening, if you stand outside of Samos restaurant at Oldham and Fleet streets and look down the hill at the sunset, hundreds of broken and empty windows of the once-glorious works glow pink and orange.

 

Born Francesco Gabriel DiCara, Frank begins many a conversation by saying, “Let me tell you a story. . . ”

And then, going through the index cards in his mind of this one and that one (like the time his brother Joe the arabber claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus in a dark Highlandtown alley), says: “I’ll tell you another one first . . . ”

“The Blessed Mother should have appeared to me,” says Frank. “Maybe I’d have lived a better life.”

Some of his best yarns involve fast women, slow horses, and the slick salesman of paint and varnish and enamel coatings who called on him at the Crown to get business.

“They took me everywhere,” he said. Everywhere included the Block—where a burlesque barker called “Cock-a-Roach Johnny” would bet well-quenched gentlemen $1,000 that they couldn’t pick a drag queen out of a lineup of knock-out strippers.

He’s the kind of street-smart funny guy who likes to invite Jehovah’s Witnesses into his parlor for entertainment; a big man of big appetites somewhat reminiscent of a Sicilian Jackie Gleason, answering the phone at his Dundalk home in a gruff, ominous mumble: “You have reached the Vito Corleone residence.”

Last year, he lost his last sibling—his older brother Angelo, a devotee of the rosary—and his wife of 64 years, the former Irma Castegnara, known since childhood as Tootsie.

“Everyone’s gone in my family but me. I can’t go into a store without seeing a Tootsie Roll and thinking about her,” he says, more matter-of-fact than morose. “I go to the graveyard and talk to her. Sometimes I tell her I’m sorry for this or that.”

(If you see Frank at his favorite crab house on North Point Road, ask him to tell the story about Tootsie enraged to the point of manslaughter, a spilled gallon of milk, and a .38 revolver shooting blanks with the promise of live ammunition “the next time.”)

He has a standing Thursday date with old friends to bet on simulcast horse races. He leaves Dundalk about 2 p.m. with a $100 budget and comes home about midnight with a few bucks, a bellyful of roast turkey, and another evening of laughs.

A really good day is when one of the neighbors drops by with some food for the widower.

“The Greek lady brought me some lamb one day, and another time lima beans in a nice tomato sauce—a whole tray!”

And he really likes when a waitress at one of his haunts calls him Frankie while serving him crab cakes.

“It makes me feel young,” he says.

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