Pocket Knives

I recently read an article which proposed to list the greatest tools in the history of the world. There was a glaring omission from this list, which in my mind, instantly destroyed any legitimacy for which it was striving. No list of the greatest tools in history is complete without the pocket knife. And anyone who fails to consider the pocket knife a tool has been using it wrong.

               Like most people of my time and place, I grew up in a world of men who considered the pocket knife another bodily appendage. I was taught that you never left the house without one. A dull knife was considered an abomination. I learned to emulate the old men I saw testing the sharpness of their blades on their arm hair. If it failed to shave a tiny bald patch, you were found lacking as a capable human being and were left shamed among your peers. Pull out a pocket knife in public today and you can be prepared to be the recipient of judgmental stares and fearful looks from fretting people who watch too much cable news or social media, and don’t get enough fresh air and sunlight. Though theoretically it could be used as a weapon in a pinch, just as a pencil can, the pocket knife is simply a tool and you never know when you’ll need one.

               The pocket knife has an endless array of uses. When life in general was more rural for the majority of the population, the pocket knife was handy for opening sacks of feed or seed. It could be used as an improvised screwdriver (a blade with the point broken off was a sure sign of this often frowned-upon use). A pocket knife was used for slicing food while at work or at play in the field, adding a hole to a belt or harness, cutting rope or fishing line, sharpening a pencil, stripping wire, cutting bait, removing splinters, cleaning fish, removing the dirt from underneath your fingernails, scraping corrosion off a battery terminal, whittling, or carving. Some of us still use them for many of these purposes and pocket knives remain a common tool of people living close to the land.

               The pocket knife can also serve well the most urbanized and soft-handed of today’s tech entrepreneurs, insurance agents, and financial managers from Silicon Valley to New York City. Modern day uses include opening that latest box delivered from Amazon, removing batteries from the TV remote, cleaning the dog poop from the tread of those hybrid dress shoes/sneakers with the white soles, prying Legos apart, removing staples, untying knots, peeling stickers, opening a bottle of wine, removing clothing tags, getting gum out of the carpet, popping bubble wrap, and opening that dreaded child-proof packaging at birthday parties and Christmas. Yes, the pocket knife has a use for everyone.

               There are a variety of somewhat informal alternative names for pocket knives that have been used through the years and are still used to describe different types of pocket knives. A double-ended folding knife less than 3 ½” in length when closed is called a “pen knife”. This name is said to date to the 1400’s and refers to their use in sharpening writing quills.  

The term Jack knife is commonly used to describe any knife with 2 blades that open on the same side, although some refer to any knife with 2 blades and measuring over 3 ½” as a jack knife. Others refer to all folding knives as jack knives. The term “jack” is thought to refer to the term “jack of the leg, which comes from the use of “jack” as a generic term for man. The use of “leg” refers to the fact that early handles of such knives were carved in the shape of a human leg. Thus, folding knives are still called “jocktelegs” in the north of England and Scotland. While some suggest the term “jack knife” refers to a celebrated late 17th Century Flemish knife-maker named Jacque de Liege, who is credited with inventing the first back spring assembly for securely opening and closing the knife, evidence for de Liege’s existence came into question in the late 20th Century.

The Barlow knife is a type of jack knife with a rounded handle and a long bolster (a metal cover or plate), usually on the right side of the handle at the blade end. First manufactured in Sheffield, England around 1670 by Obadiah Barlow, the Barlow knife became popular in America around 1745 as Obadiah’s grandson, John Barlow began exporting them to the U.S. The main advantage of the Barlow was its mass production and affordability.

“Jack knife”, “pen knife”, “Barlow knife”, “folding knife” or “pocket knife”, humans have been using this versatile tool for centuries. But early on, they weren’t called pocket knives because pockets in which to carry knives were not invented until the late 16th -early 17th Century. Until that time small pouches were strapped to one’s belt or to the outside of clothing. But, pickpockets and thieves could easily make off with these external pouches. Sewing the pouches into the garments themselves in the form of actual pockets gave an extra level of security for the items one carried.

The oldest known folding knife was discovered in southwestern Slovakia near the modern-day village of Velky Grob. The “Hallstatt” knife, as it is known, is named for the Hallstatt period of the early iron age. It has an iron blade about 9” long that folds neatly into a decorated antler hand grip. It is estimated to have been made about 2600 years ago by the Scythian people, who likely invaded the region from the steppe-lands to the North of the Black Sea.

Though folding knives have remained similar in basic design for thousands of years, there have been innovations to improve upon the form. The Romans added an extended tang (the stem of the blade leading into the handle) which had to be held in place by pressing the thumb against the blade to keep it from folding up, earning their knives the name “friction knives”. The Vikings had their versions as well, known as “penny”, “peasant”, or “farmer’s” knives.

The English made a great leap forward with the addition of the slipjoint, a folding mechanism with spring tension to keep the blade extended, in the 1600’s. In Spain, the slipjoint folding knife became the preferred weapon of bandits and thieves where strict laws forbid the common folk from carrying guns, swords, and fixed blade knives during King Ferdinand VII’s rule. As knife making came to Sheffield, England, the rich deposits of coal and iron in the surrounding hills, along with the power of the five rivers which flow through the city made the cost of knife production affordable enough for everyone from peasants to kings. It was here where the Barlow knife was born. After it was exported to America, the Barlow knife quickly became an obligatory item for every man to carry on his person.

The pocket knife is an item in which memory, story, myth, and superstition merge into the perfect tool. The old men whom we watch whittle away shavings from a stick or cut fishing line as they tie on another lure offer their age-old warnings. Though sober minded in nearly all things, they are dead serious when it comes to pocket knife superstition. “If someone gives you a pocket knife, make sure you give them a penny in return.” Otherwise, the blade will sever the relationship. “If someone hands you their pocket knife, whether open or closed, return it in the same fashion.” Breaking this tradition risks a run of bad luck. “If you drop your knife, expect a visitor soon.”

The Barlow knife was a favorite of Mark Twain and it figured prominently in his two most famous works. Tom Sawyer’s cousin (Aunt Polly’s Daughter), Mary gave him a “sure-enough Barlow knife” for learning his Bible verses. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim find a “bran-new Barlow knife worth two bits in any store” as they are rummaging around in a dead man’s house. Later in the book Huck spies a group of loafers whittling away at the awning posts of a dry goods store with their Barlows.

I have no way of knowing but I would wager that no President since Jimmy Carter has consistently carried a pocket knife. But, many of our best Presidents were pocket knife-toting men. Legend has it that George Washington’s mother gave him a 3” mother of pearl pocket knife when he was a boy along with an admonition to “Always obey your superiors”. As Washington sat in the frigid cold at Valley Forge, he contemplated giving up the command of the Colonial Army. One of his most trusted officers, General Henry Knox reminded Washington of his pocket knife and his mother’s instruction, telling the commanding officer, “You’ve been commanded to lead this army and no one has ordered you to cease leading it.” To this Washington replied, “There is something to that. I will think it over.” So, the pocket knife takes its place in the lore of the founding of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln was known to own several pocket knives. In 1989, one of these, fitted with a mother of pearl handle, 5 blades, scissors, and a nail file, sold for $100,000 at a Sotheby’s auction. Perhaps the most famous Lincoln pocket knife is the ivory handled “congress knife” made by William Gilchrist, with its convex curved handle, sporting six blades. Lincoln reportedly carried this knife to repair and tighten the arms of his eyeglasses, which frequently loosened. The knife and glasses were in Lincoln’s pockets at Ford Theatre on the night he was shot and are now housed in the Library of Congress.

Dwight Eisenhower was particularly fond of the classic Case brand pocket knife. Though he carried a small pattern #33 Stockman, Ike famously gifted hundreds of Case #63 pocket knives, a larger version, to White House visitors, military men, dignitaries from other countries, and his own doctors.

Pocket knives are carried by men from all walks of life and in a way, they take on a life of their own. There is an old wooden box in my closet that holds a few pocket knives that had belonged to my grandfathers and great-grandfathers. There’s a green, plastic-handled light-weight Buck with a locking blade that I saw one of my grandfathers use almost every day. It is one of many he had owned, some of which lay now at the bottom of Lake Blackshear after they fell from the wooden dock we fished from. There are a number of older Case knives of various sizes, all with their blades worn thin and narrowed to a concave sliver from constant sharpening. I do not remember to whom each knife belonged, but as I hold them I can feel the handles worn smooth from use and handling at the hands of these men.

As I go about my days I am constantly reaching into my left pants leg pocket, where I faithfully find my own pocket knife. Growing up I carried a Buck pocket knife like my paternal grandfather. Throughout  college, I carried a Victorinox Swiss Army knife. I have carried a black-handled Case Sodbuster given to me by a close friend. Most of these I still have. One of my favorites was an Uncle Henry pocket knife made by the Imperial Schrade Company. To my great chagrin, I lost this now hard to find classic knife made from 1964-2004. It was a beautiful knife with a stag antler handle and the famous plate on the side bearing the Uncle Henry signature. You can still find new Uncle Henry knives on the market but they are cheap imitations of the original and are now made in China. My maternal grandfather was fond of Case knives and for a number of years now I have carried a Case trapper with a jigged bone handle.               

For all of its practical versatility, perhaps the most valuable use of a pocket knife is that of a time machine. It calls up memories. Rolling my pocket knife around in my hand, I am reminded of the men who instructed me in life. As I feel the heft of the knife, the grooves, and smooth edges of the handle, I am reminded that life has a certain weight as well and with handling over the years, it also has a way of smoothing our own edges and grooves.  I am reminded of these kind-hearted old fellows who I still look up to, and I feel something of their presence, the heft of their words, their smiles, and laughter. I am reminded once again never to leave the house without my pocket knife. You never know when you’ll need it.

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