Swiss Army knives - with their bright red handles and ‘toolbox’
of blades and gadgets – have become so ubiquitous that it is
often assumed that the Swiss must have invented the multi-blade
knife. Not so. These knives have a history that stretches back
at least a couple of hundred years.
It was in the late 19th century – before the Swiss had even
introduced their first design – that the multi-blade knife
reached its peak in terms of quality, workmanship, and finish.
In those days, they were usually known as sportsmen’s knives.
The leading centre for their manufacture was Sheffield.
The illustration is from a trade catalogue by a leading
Sheffield maker, Southern & Richardson (which I photographed
recently courtesy of a friend, Geoff Allen).
The catalogue was published in about 1900. The quality is
self-evident. Besides the hand-forged and hand-ground blades and
tools, the genuine stag handles, and the pickers and tweezers
that slide beneath them, these knives have something that is
invariably lacking in modern mass-produced and plastic-handled
knives – a shield or escutcheon plate.
These were built into the handle (or scale) of the knife, so
that the proud owner could engrave his/her name. Even if the
shield was never engraved – and judging by antique knives, most
were left plain – the shield (produced in a variety of shapes)
was still an attractive embellishment.
When did shields first appear on pocket knives? It is an
impossible question to answer precisely. A variety of shields
can be seen on Sheffield pen and sportsmen’s knives in Joseph
Smith’s, ‘Explanation or Key to the Various Manufactories of
Sheffield’. This was an illustrated catalogue, dated 1816 (and
reprinted by the Early American Industries Association in 1975).
In my own trawls through Sheffield newspapers, I also turned up
a reference to a cutler named Daniel Hemmings. According to a
local worthy in ‘The Sheffield Independent’, 25 January 1873:
‘He was the first man who invented oval shields in pen knife
handles. That is seventy years ago’. This single recollection is
not documented and too distant to be corroborated.
Certainly, though shielding pen and pocket knives had become
routine in the early 1800s. Materials makers, such as Henry Duke
(who advertised in the local directory in 1828), supplied both
shields and shielding tools ‘on the shortest notice’.
Shields were inserted into the scales/handles using a tool known
as a parser (or parsey or parsa).