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Hiding in Washington Square Park: America's Most Prolific Writer on Pocket Knife Manufacturing

Washington Square Park in Manhattan.


If you ever visit this greatest of parks for people watching in New York City, be sure to walk in from the north side through the grand Washington Arch. Unknown to many is that hidden inside the arch, where cars used to drive through until the 1950s, is a spiral staircase that ascends to the top. But this article isn't about the arch so we will just forget about that and move forward into the park. You'll no doubt see benches full of people, kids playing, hipsters pushing their dogs in $3,000 strollers, and countless other shenanigans. This park was once pastoral land, eventually claimed by the Dutch, and then transformed to a potter's field (there are thousands of bodies buried under the park). It's seen presidential campaigns, protests, riots, engagements, bandit weddings, and a plethora of other activities. Hangman's tree in the park is thought to be the oldest in the city and predates the formation of the country itself. All kinds of movies have been shot here such as Searching for Bobby Fischer, Avengers, and I am Legend. Counting Crows even wrote a song about the park. But none of this is as important as what you are about to read. America's most prolific writer on pocket knives in the 1800s resides here, or rather, a bust in his memory. That's right, every year, countless thousands of people walk by this most famous man, and nary a one of them stops to pay tribute to what this man did for the United States. You can of course get the layman's understanding of Holley over on Wikipedia, but that by no means conveys his genius and accomplishments. And it certainly does not mention knives (though it should!)

Bust of Alexander Lyman Holley in Washington Square Park

You see, Alexander was the son of another Alexander: Alexander Hamilton Holley, who in 1844, founded a major pocket knife manufacturing business in Lakeville, Connecticut that we know today as Holley Manufacturing Co. While the history of both the company and the men mentioned above is for another time, we must provide this background so you may understand how it was that Alexander came to write about pocket knives. It is this author's opinion that Alexander wrote his ten-part treatise on pocket knives in order to convince his father not to force him to study the classics in college, but to allow him to follow his passion and interest in engineering. Opinions aside, we certainly are lucky that Poor's railway journal published his series of essays in the summer of 1850 - for which Alexander was paid the handsome sum of $25 in cash and 27 copies of each article published.

And so, we begin. On Saturday, May 25th, 1850, while still in "high school," (America's ambition for universal forced schooling was just getting started that year) 18-year-old Holley had part one of his ten-part series on the making of pocket knives published in the American Railroad Journal. Although Holley's writing at times can be a bit tedious, and his youthful overuse of the comma is abundantly apparent throughout, this collection of essays is important for they provide insight on:

  • The processing of raw materials such as steel, brass, etc.

  • Equipment used in knife making

  • Detailed stages in the manufacturing of knives

  • The differences in the production of pocket knives between the Americans and Sheffielders

  • Pocket knife patterns

  • Handle material

  • And many other fascinating aspects of pocket cutlery manufacturing!

So do you want to know how to make a pocket knife, or at least know how they were made in 1850? Then read part 1 here.


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