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A Supreme Court Chief Justice Tangles with Ulster Knife Co

President Ronald Reagan Greets John Roberts During a Photo Opportunity with Members of The White House Counsel'S Office in The Oval Office, 1/6/1983 - Credit: National Archives.

Author’s Note: I hope you enjoy this little tidbit of never before written knife history, because it’s just that - a tidbit. I’ve taken the liberty of jazzing the story up a bit with a little conspiratorial flare for your reading enjoyment.

If you are reading this at the time of publication, and you’ve been watching what passes as news these days, then you know It’s that time of year again when the United States Supreme Court talk makes its way into public discourse and we begin to think of that 3rd branch of government. I’ll shy away from current cases and politics though and focus on what you came here for - the knives! You no doubt are quickly growing in either anticipation or frustration of why you continue to read these words, but fret not and read on my patient friend!

When John Roberts graduated Harvard Law School and finished his clerkships with several judges, he made his way to the White House as a staff attorney in the Reagan administration. Peddling memos all day and reigning over ever-important bureaucratic busy work kept this future Supreme Court Chief Justice busy through his late 20s. A review of his memos shows a man who had a tremendous ability to dispatch letters with lightning quickness and it was this prodigious production of paperwork that found its way to a cease and desist order to Ulster via its distributor/marketing partner World Book, Inc., a subsidiary of Scott Fetzer Inc., a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. Yes, I know, it’s a stretch.

1985 was not a great year for Ulster. It was another “year of survival” for the company that was caught in the crosshairs of this country’s adventure with offshoring manufacturing to the Orient and a decline in knife sales. Ulster was still making pocket knives in the USA though, but from all accounts, quite desperate to find the market for them. Enter World Book and its marketing department. Using the Exxon logo, World Books marketed a 3 ½” brass pen knife for Ulster using all of the best cliche marketing techniques from the ‘80s: symbolism, patriotism, eagles, layaway plans, “buy 2 and save” gimmicks, and they even called it the “Great Seal Knife,” as in the United States Presidential Seal. It was this latter statement that eventually got them into trouble. It is one of today’s great mysteries who reported World Books for their shenanigans, but trust me when I say that something smells “fishy.”

It was a brisk November day in 1985 when John Roberts, seated at his desk, received a memo from Fred Fielding asking him to send a letter to World Book over the above pen knife as they did not have permission to use the seal, the photo of the White House, and so on and so forth. (Note: I’ve included a copy of the advertisement, the inter-office memo, the letter that Mr. Roberts sent, and the response from World Book below for your reading pleasure.) One of the more humorous details of the add is that World Books detailed the length of the knife as 3 and 3/6" in length, which I found amusing. But I digress, so let’s get to the heart of the matter: who lodged the complaint? Unfortunately, it may become one of America’s great mysteries, but it is suspicious. Mr. Fielding is an operative of operatives, and for some time was considered to be the infamous “Deep Throat” that would eventually doom President Richard Nixon. Why was Mr. Fielding sending memos internally at the White House over presidential seal use when he was surrounded by a cornucopia of junior lawyers that could easily dispatch such trivial work? Was there a government conspiracy to end Ulster’s pocket knife production once and for all? Was Ronald Reagan going to war with Warren Buffett? Was this Bill Howard’s handiwork while on breaks at Queen? The world may never know.

Documents courtesy:

Ronald Reagan Library. Memo, Fred F. Fielding to John G. Roberts, November 11, 1985, Roberts, John G. Files Collection, Folder JGR/ Seal of the President (8/9), Box 49,, (accessed 02/17/2021)


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