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Antique American Pocket Knives

Updated: Jun 22

Many of us have either told, or have heard, stories about Grandpa's pocket knife. Some of us remember watching Grandpa taking out his pocket knife and peeling an apple with the skill of a surgeon. I can remember, when I was a kid, seeing old men standing on the grounds around the county courthouse whitling and swapping pocket knives. I also remember watching the Beverly Hillbillies on TV and hearing Jed Clampett and his nephew Jethro talking about whitling piles of "curlers" off sticks as they whittled. Yes antique American pocket knives are Americana and have a place in American culture and American history.

 

The American Industrial Period began around the middle 1800's in the northeast United States. Much of that energy and business was made to improve the American way of life - make living on farms and living in the American homes both easier and more comfortable. While many factories made larger farm equipment like plows and shovels and other farm implements, some factories made the smaller tools and instruments required on those same farms and in those same houses - things like hammers, saws, files, and knives.




three pocket knives of various styles
Three Case XX patterns. Top is a pen knife, center is a Sunfish pattern, and below is a folding hunter.

Over the years there have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American knife manufacturers. Most have failed as a business and only a dozen or so have produced knives referred to as "highly collectible" by those in the knife collecting community. So why are such a small number considered to be collectible out of all those old hunting knives and pocket knives? There are several factors that those collectible knife brands share.



The first factor is obvious - high quality. The top ten or twenty collectible brands of knives all produced a quality product. A second factor is variety of products. Companies that produced lots of different patterns and sizes of knives, either folding or sheath knives, are more likely to be recognized as a desirable knife in a collection. A more subtle factor is how well the knives can be authenticated as genuine. This is related to distinguishing markings or tang stampings that are durable and hard to fake or counterfeit. Similarly knives that were well documented in old ads and catalogs from back in the olden days can be authenticated better because many of those old ads and catalogs are still around and give a good description of the knives.


Russell

In 1834 a man named John Russell started a factory that manufactured chisels, ax heads and kitchen knives, in Greenfield, Massachusetts. The factory was located on the Green River and became known as the "Green River Works". Later they would become well known as the manufacturers of quality hunting knives and often those knives would simply be called Green River knives. By around 1875 the Russell company started making pocket knives and employed around 500 workers.


old pocket knife
An old Russell barlow, probably around 100 years old

Russell popularized the "barlow" style of pocket knife in both a one blade and a two blade pattern. For years thousands of Russell barlows were sold for 15 cents for a single blade or 25 cents for a two blade pattern. At that time they were the largest knife manufacturer in the world. In 1868 the factory suffered heavy fire damage which led to the building a new factory, much larger than the old factory and likely much larger than the business could support. When the business suffered bankruptcy in 1873 investors outside the Russell family took over. The company stopped making pocket knives around 1930 but continued to make kitchen knives and other items into the 21st century.


four old pocket knives
These old Russell knives are each about 100 years old

Case XX

In the late 1800's, in Little Valley, New York, the brothers in a family named Case became knife retailers and brokers. Around 1900 Case Brothers started a factory in Little Valley, New York to manufacture their own brand of pocket knives and the most successful line of American pocket knives ever was born. Their trademark was XX and was soon recognized as the mark of a high quality pocket knife.


four pocket knives
These four Case XX knives are from the 1970's

Other members of the Case family started a knife manufacturing facility about that same time in Bradford, Pennsylvania. When the Little Valley operation failed in 1914 the XX trademark was bought by the operation in Bradford where the brand flourished for many years. Case XX is still the leading American knife manufacturer.

During the period from 1920 to 1940 Case XX used various patterns of stamping their name on the knives they made. In 1940 they simplified to one pattern, simply the word CASE over the two letters XX.


two pocket knives
Two Case pen knives - top is stag handle, bottom is mother of pearl

During that period, the pocket knife business was almost entirely in working, functioning, usable pocket knives. Collecting was not a significant part of the market in the 1950's. In the early 1960's knives made in Japan started showing up in American markets. As a result, Congress passed a law that all pocket knives sold in the USA must have the country of origin stamped into the blade. That required American knife makers that did not already stamp USA into the blade tangs to start doing so in 1965. Because Case XX had not ben stamping USA on their tangs, the change immediately identified knives made before 1965, so collectors started hoarding the older knives that did not show the USA marking.

When the people at the Case XX business saw what was happening to their older knives, they realized that there was a significant market for knives that could be easily and accurately dated and they started a system of dating their knives.. Since 1970, all Case XX pocket knives are stamped in such a manner that an astute knife person can look at it and tell what year it was made. That combined with the high quality and variety of patterns made by Case, has made them the most successful knife maker in America for decades.



Kabar

In 1899 in Little Valley, New York, a man named Wallace R. Brown started a company called Union Razor Company. Later he would start manufacturing knives in addition to his line of razors and in 1909 the company changed its name to Union Cutlery Company.



picture of a pocket knife
Union Cutlery Company jacknife

Union Cutlery was very successful in the production of both hunting knives and pocket knives. They would later become one of the nation's leading suppliers of military fighting knives as well.


five pocket knives
Far left - two Union Cutlery knives, three right are Kabar knives

Somewhere around the 1920 the company received a thank you type letter from a fur trapper who had used a Union Cutlery hunting knife to kill a bear that had attacked him. While the letter led readers to believe that he was poorly educated, his message was clear. He wrote to thank you Union Cutlery people for making a quality knife that saved his life when he used it to kill a bear, or as he wrote it, to "Kil a bar". Smart advertising people at Union Cutlery used that letter in advertising and soon people were writing asking for the same model knife that had been used to Kil a bar - and so it became known as the Kabar knife.



old pocket knife
A Kabar hobo knife

Kabar was a successful knife maker for decades. Business conditions have made changes in places of manufacture and at times has caused pauses in the manufacture of Kabar knives. But the military fighting knives have been a mainstay. American military people fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have carried Kabar fighting knives.



Other old American knives

Different collectors like different things. While some are "pretty knife" purist and want old knives in great condition, other are more interested in the "old" part than the "pretty" part.


two old pocket knives
Two old Southington Cutlery Co. jackknives

Southington Cutlery Company manufactured pocket knives from 1867 until 1905 at their facility in Southington, Connecticut. Their knives were considered high in quality. Because Southington knives are so old and not well known they are usually not counted among the highly collectible brands of pocket knives but are desirable to many collectors.


In Closing:

There are dozens of collectible brands of old American pocket knives not mentioned here. Perhaps Picture Americana will do a follow up article in the future to discuss some of those other brands. There are lots of reference books out there that deal with knife collecting.


Being aware of the history of many antique American pocket knives gives one a picture of how things were made in American in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An appreciation of the usefulness of a good pocketknife adds to their a value as an American antique and as such makes old pocketknives very Americana.


And remember that comments are welcomed here in the box at the bottom of this page. I really like reading those comments. You can ask questions there as well. I will try hard to give you a good answer.


Email is pictureamericana@gmail.com. Also note that if you hit that "Log In" button at the top of this page and become a member of Picture Americana, you will get an email notification whenever a new blog is posted. I really appreciate people become members.


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3 Comments


Guest
May 19

Excellent I found about 35 or 4040 knives in my safe in the basement. Almost all of them are case folding knives and appeared to be fairly new very shiny blades. I looked for a book tell me about them but it was 35 or $40 on eBay so I didn’t buy it anyway your article was very interesting. Thank you Jim, Louisville, Kentucky.

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Frederick Patterson
Frederick Patterson
Jan 17

Interesting article.

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rockydbaker
Jan 17
Replying to

Thanks Rick. I hope you guys are well!

Rocky

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