An Essay on Pen and Pocket Cutlery - Part I

Updated: Jun 16, 2021


Alexander Lyman Holley


Part 1:

A General View of Cutlery, and of the Mode of Manufacturing Pen and Pocket Knives


Published Saturday, May 25th, 1850


Note: I've hand-typed the below words from the original publication as the text, at times, is difficult to decipher and has proven impossible to perform OCR on.


Cutlery has been in use from the earliest ages of the world, and in its different forms, it is, and ever has been among the chief implements in war, manufactures, agriculture and architecture. It is indispensable everywhere, and in almost every kind of business, and pocket knives may be found in the possession of almost every man, woman and child in Christendom. Cutlery was probably among the earliest articles ever manufactured, and was first made in England in the year 1563. Here, the first specimens were of the coarser and larger kind, unwieldy and imperfect, though made expensively and with much labor. These, and the means and processes of making them, have met with great changes and improvements, and long experience in the business has produced many other varieties, which convenience and necessity have demanded, so that, at the present time, we have cutlery instruments in every desirable shape and form, each perfectly adapted to its particular work.


The chief point, and requisite in any piece of cutlery, is a good blade, one that will cut fast and easily, that has and will retain a fine edge. The excellence or imperfection of the other parts, however, are not usually in proportion to the quality of the blade, as some endeavor to make knives that will cut, whether finished expensively, or roughly, and others enclose cast iron blades, in a profusion of polished silver and pearl.

In regard to the other parts of pocket knives, there are as many different tastes as there are varieties. Within the last century at least, the manufacture of cutlery has been confined almost exclusively to London and Sheffield in England, the former city having produced chiefly fine, and the latter larger and coarser kinds, though at present the best pocket knives originate there, and owing to its local advantages and division of labor, all varieties are made there cheaper, and in greater quantities than in London. The cutlery of England has long been held in justly high estimation, and considered superior to any in the world but the fact that the English have made, and exported, great quantities of mere trash, and passed off iron blades for steel, together with the enterprise, thoroughness and honesty of cutlers on the western continent, has given great celebrity to American cutlery, and its reputation is constantly improving.


Blades are generally bought for, expected to be, and usually are, steel, but several Sheffield cutlers have tarnished their fame, and their blades, and imposed upon the community, by obtaining a patent for, and producing large quantities of blades, cast directly from a certain kind of iron. If those were distinctly marked, and sold for cast iron, no fault could be found, as the purchaser would then know what he was buying; but they are warranted to be, and placed in market for, the best steel, and are not only introduced among coarse, but fine knives, holding a good edge for a short time, and being susceptible of so high a polish, that the most experienced judges can with difficulty detect the cheat at sight.


This iron is, from the superabundance of its carbon, highly susceptible of liquidity, and readily cast into the required form. In this state the blades are very hard and brittle as glass, but are softened by decomposition, being subjected to a strong and long continued fire, in close vessels, and in contact with iron ore, or any substance containing oxygen, with which this extra carbon combines. This indeed saves all the trouble and expense of forging blades and purchasing steel, but on the other hand it is a system of robbery, carried on to the imminent detriment of the science of " Whittleology," in all its numerous branches. As aforesaid, the manufacture of cutlery has been confined almost wholly to Great Britain, but recently English operatives have immigrated to this country, and of these Americans have learned the fundamental principles of the trades, and leaving the beaten track of exclusive manual labor, are introducing their various improvements, and substituting machinery to perform quicker and more perfectly} many of those operations formerly accomplished wholly by hand. Although many and important improvements are yet to be made, the work as we shall show, is not capable of being wholly executed by machines. The manufacture of pocket knives in London has been divided into two separate trades, the blade maker's and the handle maker's. In Sheffield it now is, and at first was in the United States, carried on in four separate trades, viz: the blade, and the spring forger's, the grinders, and the cutlers. In addition to forging the blades, it is the business of the blade forger to mark, harden and temper them. They are ground, glazed and polished by the grinder, and the cutler makes the handle and finishes the knife.


To carry on the business, at least 42 different kinds of materials must be constantly on hand, and from 75 to 80 different tools used. A well-made, shell handle, four blade knife, passes through 387 different operations, before it is ready for market, exclusive of those performed on materials before they are prepared knife making, which, if taken into account, would at least double the number. The forger's business is easily accomplished, being much lighter than common blacksmithing, pleasant and lucrative. The grinder's is not hard, though unhealthy in some cases, but better in a pecuniary point of view than either of the others. The cutler's is pleasanter than either trade, and not unhealthy. The manipulations are easy, and must be skillfully performed. The spring forger's labor is now entirely dispensed with in America, machinery having been put into operation which executes his work much more rapidly and perfectly. American cutlers are now adopting a plan which bids fair greatly to facilitate the manufacture of knives, viz: to subdivide the cutler's trade. For instance, instead of obliging each man of twelve cutlers to make wholly a dozen knives, to have each man become master of one particular branch of the cutler's trade, and perform certain operations on every knife of the twelve dozen. Thus the operatives each doing a certain part, can expedite and perfect the performance of the various operations. By such a division of labor, the business is divided into many different trades, each dependent on the others. The use of machinery will of course be favorable to this place, and to all who wish to purchase cheap knives, as a boy, for a quarter of a dollar per day, can with a machine accomplish the work of half a dozen men at two dollars each.


We have reason to believe, that after this business has been a few years longer in the hands of skillful and scientific Americans, the aforesaid improvements will be enlarged, and perfected, and new and easily wrought substances and compositions will be introduced, which shall make good the places of materials now expensive, and imperfectly answering the purpose. The consequences of this will be excellent cutlery, perfectly adapted to its work, at a very low price.


To be continued



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