A Tourist Abroad Spurs the American Cutlery Industry

In 1832, Zachariah Allen published the book “The Practical Tourist, or Sketches of the State of the Useful Arts, and of Society, Scenery, &c. &c. In Great-Britain, France, and Holland.”

If the above title wasn’t long enough, then you will be relieved to know that the book is just as long, because it was published in two volumes! Now before we get to the good stuff - you know - sharp, pointy things, let’s find out a little about our esteemed author.

Zachariah was born in Providence, RI in 1795 and was later laid to rest in that same town in the year 1882.¹ His earliest claimed memory is that of George Washington's funeral!² Zachariah was many things: a lawyer, historian, traveler, inventor and entrepreneur. Already, we know we're in for a treat. However interesting Mr. Allen's life was, we must continue on for the sake of brevity. If you are interested in learning more about Mr. Allen, I'd encourage you to read more on Wikipedia or in the referenced sources below.

In the 1820s, Zachariah traveled to Europe to gain more knowledge of the woolen manufacturing process and captured his travels in our subject book.³ One of the many locales that he visited is our beloved Sheffield, England. There, he witnessed the making of steel and of cutlery itself and it's a great little read.⁴ So great, that I've included some of the account below for your reading pleasure.

Image from the book Picturesque Franklin, 1891⁷

Now, how does this relate to American Cutlery? Well, according to Martha Van Hoesen Taber⁵, John Russell claimed he was inspired to enter the cutlery business (a business in which he knew nothing about), by the reading of this passage. Hard to believe that someone would risk it all on an industry in its infancy in America by simply getting caught up in a passage of a book. But risk it he did, and in 1834, The Green River Works (for the manufacture of cutlery) was established in Greenfield, MA,⁶ and about 40 years later, that company gave us that beautiful barlow knife that we all know and love. I hope you all enjoy the view of Sheffield cutlery presented below. Thanks for reading!

Passage from the Practical Tourist⁴:

After going over the works for manufacturing cast steel, we were accompanied by the son of one of the proprietors to view in detail various branches of the manufacture of cutlery , for which Sheffield is famous. The show - rooms of Mr. Rogers, whose razors and penknives are well known throughout the Christian world, wherever chins are shorn or quills are clipped , contain a glittering array of polished steel and silver plate, arrayed in glass cases. Every stranger who visits the rooms usually purchases a few articles , as a sort of douceur for the sight of this museum of curiosities, fabricated by refined skill in the art of cutlery . Here, as at Birmingham, are shown scissors which are almost large enough to admit a person to walk under their colossal blades when placed on their points on the door. Knives with a single blade, like that of a falchion, and with nearly two thousand blades, bristling in all directions from the handle, like the horrid quills on a porcupine's back, form also a part of the exhibition. Steel on all sides glitters and flashes in the sunbeams, like the surface of mirrors. To view the processes of art by which these works in metal are thus perfected, we descended to the adjacent ranges of workshops. A gray headed old man, whom I found at work there, told me that he had spent thirty -six years of his life in forging penknife blades. From long practice, he caused erery blow of his descending hammer to fall with such well-directed energy upon the glowing steel on the anvil, that the plastic metal seemed to spring into the desired shape with magical celerity. By twice heating a small bar he completed the formation of knife - blades with almost as much precision and similarity of form, as if they had all been cast like pewter spoons in a mould . Where forging is thus perfectly done , the subsequent labor of grinding away superiluous parts of the metal is inconsiderable. At an adjacent forge, workmen are busily occupied in making the sides and springs of the penknives, and in still another apartment, the several pieces or parts are put together. The handles of the knives are carefully wrapped up in papers to preserve the ivory and tortoise shell from being soiled by the hands of the workmen , who polish and grind the blades.*

In almost every department of manufactures in England , the classification of labor is carried to a surprising extent. Few articles of hard-ware , made either in Sheffield or Birmingham, are entirely completed by any one mechanic.

In the manufacture of scissors, and numerous other small articles made of steel , the separate parts are forged by workmen at their small workshops, which are scattered over the town and the adjacent country. These forged pieces, bearing merely the unpolished outlines of various implements, are by the manufacturer put into the hands of the grinder to be reduced to their delicate and just proportions, and polished and fitted for market.

To many of the cottages near Sheffield a small forge forms no uncommon appendage. During the intervals of household labor, the females may sometimes be seen participating in the labors of the anvil, shaping dexterously the red -hot metal, and completing many of the manufactured articles of iron, which are sold at such moderate prices in the United States. A gentleman, long resident in Sheffield, stated to me that he had seen a grandmother and her two granddaughters busily engaged around the same forge; and in these districts I have had opportunities of observing young girls wielding the file and hammer amid wreaths of smoke, with their ruddy cheeks rivaling the glow of the red-hot iron , and the shows of their necks tinged by the soot of the smithy. They flourish files and rasps with such effective strokes, that they even might excite the emulation of the journeymen blacksmiths in the United States.


...The operations of grinding and polishing the cutlery form a very important branch of the business of Sheffield. We went through numerous apartments of a building, 300 feet in length and 40 or 50 broad, each apartment of which contained two grindstones, and two polishing or emery wheels. Our Sheffield friend informed us that this long building was erected by a company of gentlemen for the purpose of leasing out the separate small rooms, each furnished with the necessary steam power. The grinders and polishers, who hire these apartments, are a poor and improvident class of people. The Company receive as rent for each of their rooms about 100 dollars a year, and derive a profitable income for their investment from their numerous tenants.

On entering one of these rooms, you observe men intently occupied in holding pieces of steel or iron upon stones, which are revolving with frightful rapidity. So rapid is the motion of the large stones for grinding table knives, that the absolute centrifugal force of one of them has been estimated to be equal to a power that would raise 45,000 pounds, the velocity of their circumference being nearly 1000 feet in a minute. It sometimes occurs, when these stones are impaired by flaws, that they are rent to pieces by the centrifugal force, and the fragments pass through the partitions and floors with most destructive violence , producing effects nearly as fatal as those resulting from a cannon ball. This branch of business, it is well known , is very injurious to the health of the grinders, who inhale into their lungs the small particles of steel abraded and floating like dust in the air, the stones being always used dry. These small particles lodging in the cells or air vessels of the lungs, produce inflammations and ulcerations, which finally terminate in consumptions, and destroy these men in the prime of their days. Few of them, it was observed, ever become old men; but like the sailors , whose constitutions are early impaired by exposure to various perils, they lead what they unhappily consider a merry life to make amends for its shortness, and are found dissipating much of their time and money in the ale houses.

Philanthropic philosophers have made many attempts to remedy the unhealthiness of this trade by various contrivances, calculated to expel from the rooms, by means of revolving fans and trunks or tubes, the floating particles of steel; or to collect them on magnetic mouth pieces from the air, (as the particles containing iron in black sand are

separated by the magnet) before they pass into the lungs. Owing either to the insufficiency of these contrivances to answer the purposes for which they were intended , or, as is most probable, to the reckless indifference of the workmen, I saw these inventions in actual use in only three or four rooms.


* According to the author - the manufacture of various articles of fine cutlery has been successfully commenced in the United States. At Worcester, in the State of Massachusetts , penknives and razors of an excellent quality are made on a large scale.


¹ Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 05 February 2021), memorial page for Zachariah Allen Jr. (15 Sep 1795–17 Mar 1882), Find a Grave Memorial no. 19066305, citing North Burial Ground, Providence, Providence County, Rhode Island, USA ; Maintained by Scout (contributor 47319613) .

² Perry, Amos. Memorial of Zachariah Allen. J. Wilson and son, 1883.

³ “Zachariah Allen Papers.” Rhode Island Historical Society Manuscripts Division, Rhode Island Historical Society, 1989, www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss254.htm.

⁴ Allen, Zachariah. The Practical Tourist, Or, Sketches of the State of the Useful Arts, and of Society, Scenery, &c. &c. in Great Britain, France and Holland, Volume 1. 1832.

⁵ Taber, Martha Van Hoesen, and Van Hoesen Taber. A History of the Cutlery Industry in the Connecticut Valley. Department of History, Smith College, 1955.

⁶ Holland, Gilbert Josiah. History of Western Massachusetts. The Counties of Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire. Embracing an Outline Aspects and Leading Interests, and ... Hundred Towns (Volume II) Part III. 1855.

⁷ Unknown. Picturesque Franklin [Mass.] 1891. University of Michigan Library, 1891.


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