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History of Cutlery and Tools with Geoffrey Tweedale


 
  The Forgotten Art of the Two-Legged Parser   1 of 5  

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.

Shields and Bow Drills

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).


 
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