Sunday, March 22, 2009
As an Anglophile I usually concentrate on the similarities linking us with the mother country. But sometimes the ways we diverge are truly striking. Everyone knows that in the past fifty years the Brits have essentially disarmed themselves. The population of the British Isles has forsaken it's ancient right to self defense to such an extent that the UK pistol team has to practice in France. Of course this only increases violent crime committed by armed criminals who have little to fear from a disarmed public. Having failed to stop gun crime by outlawing guns, the British government, undeterred by common sense, is now cracking down on pocket knives.
Meanwhile the American penchant for carrying blades in our pockets lead to an interesting and heartening phenomenon. The rural nature of America up till the 1950's meant that practically every man carried a pocket knife of some kind. These varied according to the trade and financial condition of their owners. Doctors carried knives with delicate pill-splinting ends and blunt, flexible spatulate blades for measuring powdered medicines. Horsemen and stable hands carried Harness Jacks. Trappers carried Trapper Knives and so on. Lincoln carried a pattern called the Congress. Of course pen knifes were crafted to trim the ends of pens and to sharpen pencils. Barlow knives originated in England and were prized for their reinforced construction, making them especially suitable for hard use. There were many such variegations, each with tools and blade shapes refined to perform specific functions. Most men preferred a particular type and brand. It was a milestone of maturity to get a pocket knife from your father or uncle. It was also a small but satisfying ritual to keep your knife sharpened, oiled and clean. Your knife said something about you. Carrying a large one might indicate insecurity. Carrying a cheap one was telling in that for a few cents more an ugly but better one could always be had from a hardware store. Carrying a cheap and gaudy one was a definite sign of bad character.
With the age of mass production came cheaper and gaudier knives. Every company imaginable gave cheap knives away to advertise themselves. After a time these knives lost all value as tools and became purely collectibles. Post-war men eschewed the pocket knife of old for the the tiny, imported Swiss Army Knife. The pocket knife got a bad reputation due to the switchblade of the 1950's juvenile delinquent. With fewer men lived on or even near the land, urbanization and mass production meant the end of the many cutlery manufacturers. Their cutlery operations were concentrated in upstate New York State, Pennsylvania and New England. One by one they fell away or were absorbed into one another to take advantage of economy of scale. A few, like KaBar and Ontario, survived on government contracts for bayonets and tools. But the age when American men sate around the barber shop and discussed the finer points of their favorite cutlery was over.
Then, a few years ago the Case company made headway with their collectible knives made to old standards and to the old patterns. Many of these were purchased as graduation gifts and the like. The recipients really appreciated them and began to collect them in all the old patterns and with endlessly varying handle materials. A market was reborn.
So now old names are reborn in the old towns of Pennsylvania and New York. Specialized cutlers are making fine knives for men who value the traditions of their grandfathers. Canal Street, Schatt and Morgan, Robeson, Great Eastern and many more, fine cutlers are reviving the heritage of Americans making simple, beautiful things from steel and natural materials. Anyone who reads this and has ever wondered what to get a grandfather or father should look into any one of these fine American craftsmen. You will be doing more than buying a treasured possession, You will be helping this Renaissance along and keeping skilled American craftsmen on the job.