In this article:
Cocobolo as an irritant (including statements from historic cutlery manufacturers)
A story of a boys knife
Sometime at the turn of the century (the 20th century that is), Saunders Norvell (another story for another day) was running the Shapleigh Hardware enterprise and recounts this story¹:
“One day I gave my own little son 25 cents. He disappeared and after a while returned with a one-bladed pocket knife. It was the worst looking pot metal knife you ever saw . The handle was made of two flat pieces of checkered wood. The blade had no edge and would not cut anything. My son had invested every cent he had in the world in that pocket knife.”
He continues that he summoned Mr. Alvord of Empire Knife:
“I asked him at what price he could make me a large quantity of one-bladed, cocobolo small pocket knives. I wanted something good. “In fact” -I added—“ I want the blade of the knife to be honed so it will cut paper like a razor.”
A little about cocobolo
We’ll come back to this story in a minute, but first, let’s learn more out about that beautiful wood we call cocobolo. Cocobolo is one of the finest exotic woods there is for the use of cutlery handles. Don't believe me? Well you don't have to take my word for it, Willard Hawes & Co ran an ad in the 1898 Connecticut Business Directory saying as much.
Still not convinced? One of America's most learned men on the matter of all things trees wrote in 1923³:
Cocobolo is one of the most important woods in the cutlery trade, being extensively used for knife handles on account of its beauty of color and grain, fine texture, dense structure, ease of working, and the presence of an oily substance which not only tends to waterproof the wood and keep it in shape after manufacture, but also makes it very easy to polish . If the smooth surface is rubbed with a cloth it acquires a wax -like finish without the use of oil, wax, shellac, or filler . Prolonged or repeated immersing in soapy water has little effect on the wood except to darken its color, an important consideration in the case of kitchen and butcher knives.
Cocobolo habitat and historic logging
Cocobolo is a beautiful orange-ish red to brown hardwood that can be found in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. It is primarily found in the under-story of large forests and in areas sometimes lacking rain. This is an extremely heavy wood, with light-colored sap wood that is next to useless. Historically, in remote regions, the logs were hewn of their sap wood onsite and then pulled out - making these timbers difficult to get to port, which contributed to their costs. A passage from a 1920's study on cocobolo reveals more about what this process looked like in the early 1900s⁵:
The wood is so hard that the felling of the trees with axes is too arduous to appeal to the natives, who prefer to burn them down, a method made possible by the highly resinous character of the stump portion. The sapwood is usually hewn off in the woods since it has no commercial value and adds greatly to the weight of the logs. (See Plate VII, No. I.) Under average conditions one laborer can fell and hew about one ton of wood in a .day. Panama cocobolo, however, is frequently exported with the sapwood on.
Hauling from the stump to the boat landings on the nearest stream is difficult and slow. Two~wheeled ox carts are commonly used and roads have to be cleared to each log. The heaviest hauling is generally done at night so as to avoid the intense heat of the day. An ox team works, on an average, only four or five days a week for about four months in the year. Tractors have been introduced to a limited extent, particularly in Costa Rica, and have made it possible to get out longer and larger logs. In some cases the men carry the wood out, but only small-sized material can be handled in this way.
Cocobolo got its start in cutlery somewhere in the 1880s by this author's research of old cutlery catalogs as well as additional reports⁵. This wood quickly became quite popular in the early 20th century, but its use slowed somewhat due to the Panama Canal. Those hunting the cocobolo trees at that time seemed to prefer the steady work of canal building instead of shimmying up a tree in an attempt to spot the unique foliage of another cocobolo specimen⁶. Anyway, we know that after the completion of the canal, the cutlery industry went gang-busters with the stuff, as export records from both Panama and Costa Rica show a greater than 300% increase from 1916 to 1917⁷⋅⁸.
The following photos of the import of cocobolo logs are early 1900s, NYC⁴
Cocobolo as an irritant
Cocobolo's hardness, stable dimensions, oily nature, and beautiful figuring make it is well-suited for cutlery. However, it can be quite toxic to work and many people find they have skin and respiratory reactions to the dust when worked. Cocobolo is a well-known irritant to both the skin and lungs. The fine dust arising in working cocobolo is poisonous to some people,and when a factory begins to use this wood for the first time a considerable number of the workmen are likely to develop a dermatitis resembling poison ivy⁵.
The following quotes regarding the irritation caused in working with cocobolo are listed in the bulletin Cocobolo⁵ and I've taken the author's footnotes to match up the words to known cutleries. It's a shame we aren't able to have the names of the cutlery men who spoke the words, but we'll just have to imagine. It's interesting to note here the speculation regarding the cause of such allergies range from perspiration, species, location of import, ventilation, and even race.
From Landers , Frary & Clark, New Britain, Connecticut:
“We use only two varieties of cocobolo , Nicaragua and Panama. So far as we know they are equally poisonous. Roughly our experience has been that one man in ten is poisoned from working in this wood. With this small proportion the simplest way out of the difficulty for us has been to assign the susceptible employees to other work ." In effect the poison is similar to a severe case of poison ivy. Only rarely are other than the exposed parts of the body affected , although several years ago we had one man who was confined to his bed for several months as a result of the poison which broke out in the form of sores and cracks all over his body. As a preventative, a mask covering the nose and face has proved fairly effective , but not absolutely so . As a remedy, various skin preparations have been used according to the individual whim of the men .”
From Salisbury Cutlery Handle Company, Salisbury, Connecticut:
“We have been using cocobolo for over 50 years in the manufacture of table cutlery. The man who has been superintendent of the cutlery division for 53 years has only known of four or five cases where people have been poisoned and it was always in the hot summer months that it occurred. In view of the fact that we have more than 100 people working in the departments where this cocobolo is used, it can be seen that only a few people are troubled in that way. The writer has been with the company 17 years and he knows of only one case during that time.”
From Northampton Cutlery Company, Northampton, Massachusetts:
“During the past year we have had perhaps four or five cases of cocobolo poisoning, occurring usually in warm weather, or to a furnace operator, as a result of cocobolo sawdust getting on his skin when perspiring. It appears that one out of every three persons is susceptible to cocobolo poisoning, the rest apparently being immune. We have had men working in cocobolo dust, that is, inhaling small quantities of it, for twenty years with no apparent ill effects or indications of poisoning. On the other hand, we have had men get cocobolo poisoning from walking through a room in which cocobolo logs were being sawed. The poisoning appears to be entirely a skin affection , resulting in inflamed and reddened condition of the affected surfaces with itching and irritation.
"All such cases have been referred to the local physicians who presumably prescribe an antiseptic and soothing lotion for external application to the affected parts, and in a few days the rash would disappear. In some cases the cure is a somewhat difficult matter while in others a day or two is sufficient to clear away the irritation, apparently depending entirely upon the susceptibility of the person affected.”
From John Russell Cutlery Company, Turners Falls, Massachusetts:
“We have been using cocobolo for many years for handles of the cheaper grades of cutlery, cutting same from logs, and we have found that the dust from this wood is decidedly poisonous in certain cases. We have had men who could not work on cocobolo over a day without having their bodies covered with an eruption from head to foot. Others would be afflicted with violent headaches. On the other hand, we have had many men who have worked year after year on this wood without bad effect. All our machines, such as saws and wheels , are protected by blowers which are supposed to carry off the dust, but it is impossible to prevent certain fine particles remaining in the air."
From Goodell Company, Antrim, New Hampshire:
“I have recently recovered from a case of cocobolo poisoning. There was a sudden swelling of the flesh around the face and eyes with a good deal of redness in the form of blotches. This swelling came and went for a few days, meanwhile burning and itching severely. The only treatment I had was a solution of menthol, etc., which tended to dry up the blotches and reduce the swelling. The latter disappeared after a time, only to reappear on other parts of the body not exposed to the dust and which did not come in contact through handling.
“Our superintendent, who has been here sixteen years, has never had an attack of the poisoning. As a matter of fact, we have a large number of men and women who have worked here for many years and who have never been poisoned by cocobolo . On the other hand , we have a man in our employ who is foreman of the department that saws up the logs who has to put up a continuous fight against cocobolo , and he has used sugar of lead occasionally to kill it out. About the same time the writer became poisoned, this man reported that the cocobolo he was working was the worst he ever saw . At this time there were two men in his department who were so badly poisoned that they had to give up the work, and there was one man who was so valuable to us that we had a physician see him several times, giving him daily baths, etc. ; and through the efforts of the physician we were able to retain this man 's services, although the attacks were recurrent at times in a minor way.
“Our men seem to think that people with a dark skins are not affected by the dust or other contact with the wood ; the foreman just mentioned, however, is very dark . It so happens that the others who have been poisoned are, like myself, of light complexion .”
From American Cutlery Company, Chicago, Illinois:
Using about 90 per cent Nicaragua cocobolo has had a few cases of poisoning. The physicians who treat such patients report as follows: "We do not have a case oftener than once in three or four months. The reaction generally assumes the form of acute dermatitis of the hands and face which yields readily to treatment. Some employees are unable to continue working in the wood as they are especially susceptible to the poison . A recent case of conjunctivitis was caused by the dust."
Now, back to our story
I promised we'd get back to the story at the beginning of this article. So without further delay, I present Mr. Norvell's words in their entirety.
This reminds me of another real selling story. One day I gave my own little son 25 cents. He disappeared and after a while returned with a one-bladed pocket knife. It was the worst looking pot metal knife you ever saw . The handle was made of two flat pieces of checkered wood. The blade had no edge and would not cut anything. My son had invested every cent he had in the world in that pocket knife. I did not say anything to him, but it was pitiful to see him attempt to cut a piece of white pine with the miserable piece of merchandise. I did ask him where he bought the knife and one evening after dinner I walked down to the neighborhood hardware store. I exchanged greetings with the proprietor, and told him I would like to see his line of boys' pocket knives. His cheap, one-bladed boys' knives were awful trash.
The next morning I went to our own cutlery department and looked over our line. We were carrying the same kind of trash. There was not a good knife in the lot-not a knife that had an edge or that would hold an edge. It struck me that if all the hardware trade in the country were selling knives of this description to the small boys of the country, we were just about due for a small boy revolution against the graft being practiced on them. So I told Leonard Matthews, Jr., the head of our cutlery department, that the next time Mr. Alvord of The Empire Knife Company called, I would like to see him. Mr. Alvord called. I told him the story of my son's purchase of the pocket knife. I asked him at what price he could make me a large quantity of one-bladed, cocobolo small pocket knives. I wanted something good. “ In fact” -I added—“ I want the blade of the knife to be honed so it will cut paper like a razor.” "But" -said Mr. Alvord— “Mr. Norvell, all this costs money. Honing is all done by hand.” "All right” -I said— "send me a sample of a first -class boys' knife and give me a price on a lot of 5,000 dozen. I am going into the business of putting a good knife into the hands of the boys of the United States."
In due time the sample came. I recall the price was 90 cents per dozen. I suppose prices have gone up since then! I remember the number we placed on this knife was 1801, and we had stamped on the blade “Norvell's Boss” and I also remember we made a price on the knife of $1.00 per dozen.
When we were supplied with a stock of these knives, I took up the matter with our salesmen. I wrote them a letter telling them how the knife should be sold. The blade was carefully honed. You could cut a sheet of paper with this knife, just as you could with any of the highest quality pocket knives. I advised the salesmen to ask the retail merchant to sell this knife to the boys in their towns at 10 cents each. In other words, we were willing to do our part by selling these knives practically at cost and we advised the retail merchant to do the same thing as an advertisement. It was my idea that selling the best boys' knife in the world at the lowest possible price would stimulate business, not only in our own cutlery department, but in the cutlery department of every one of our customers. We sold these knives in enormous quantities.
However, whenever you have anything good there is of course always trouble. One day Mr. Alvord dropped in to see me and stated that the workmen in his factory objected to working on these boys' knives. It seems that according to the scale of pay, the workmen received less for these " stickers” as they called them, than they did on other knives. Our sales were running so heavily on these boys' knives that they were having great difficulty in keeping their workmen contented. I do not know how the matter turned out. I have forgotten.
Yet, here in the case of this knife was another illustration of how a very large business could be built up simply by improving the quality of the goods -by giving the best value in the world on a certain item for the money. There is still a very large opening in all lines of merchandise in this same field. I always carried a supply of these knives in my desk.
Many times in starting out to talk to a customer about a new stock order, I first told the story of this boys' knife. When I traveled , I always carried a pocket full of these knives to give away. The natural conclusion of almost any dealer was that if we would devote that much care and attention to the cheapest knife in our entire line, we would devote extra attention to the higher grade goods.
--- The End
¹ Saunders Norvell. Forty Years of Hardware. First Edition, Hardware Age, 1924.
² “Connecticut Business Directory and Gazatteer.” Connecticut Business Directory, 1898, p. 204, hdl.handle.net/11134/30002:22098849.
³ Record, Samuel James, and Clayton Dissinger Mell. Timbers of Tropical America. Yale University Press, 1924.
⁴ C. H. Pearson & Son Hardware Co., Inc. Tropical Woods. New York, 1924.
⁵ Record, Samuel J., and George A. Garrett. “Cocobolo.” Yale University School of Forestry, vol. Bulletin No 8, 1923.
⁶ Unknown. “Some Valuable Foreign Woods.” Hardwood Record, vol. 2, 1908, p. 19.
⁷ Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, Department of Commerce. “Costa Rica.” Supplement to Commerce Reports - Daily Consular and Trade Reports, No 24a, 1918.
⁸ Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, Department of Commerce. “Panama.” Supplement to Commerce Reports - Daily Consular and Trade Reports, No 35a, 1917.
⁹ Find a Grave. “Saunders Norvell (1864-1949).” Saunders Norvell, 7 Oct. 2013, nl.findagrave.com/memorial/118355800/saunders-norvell.