Try saying that ten times in a hurry!
Now that’s done with, aren’t these the cutest little things you’ve ever seen in your life?
What you’ve got here are two tiny little two-blade folding penknives, probably from the late 1800s or very early 1900s. Their bolsters are nickel silver, and their scales are fitted with panels of ivory, and mother of pearl. I purchased them during separate visits to my local flea-market, separated by several months. They’re also made by two different manufacturers. The Mother-of-Pearl one is made by Southern & Richardson, a rather substantial manufacturer of cutlery based in Sheffield in the 1800s and first half of the 20th century. The second one, I think, was made by James Macklin & Son, a jewelry firm based in Salisbury. That being the case, I imagined that these date from around 1880-1910.
What Are They?
They’re called penknives. The original form dates back to probably the 1600s or 1700s, and they were originally used to cut the points on quill pens prior to writing, hence the name. When cheap, wood-sheathed graphite pencils became available in the 1800s, they were also used for sharpening pencils (pencil-sharpeners not being common until the early 1900s), and the blades were also used for cleaning dried ink out of the nibs of steel dip-pens in an attempt to prolong their useful lives.
Why are they so SMALL?
Basically because…they didn’t need to be any bigger! They were only designed to do a handful of tasks, and as a result, their size reflected this. They were meant for small, delicate, fiddly tasks, and this is why their blades aren’t larger than about an inch or two. Anything bigger would simply have been overkill. Like trying to slice a carrot with an axe.
In the accessory-obsessed world of the Victorians, pocketknives of all kinds were considered part of life. Men carried them in their pockets, women carried them in their handbags. They were used for cutting paper, string, fruit, opening parcels, cutting thread, sharpening pencils and a whole host of other everyday tasks.
What would these knives have been used for?
Almost anything! In the days of quill pens, almost everybody who wrote had to carry a pen-knife to cut the points of their feathers into writable quill-points. In time, these blades were used for just about anything else that you’d need a knife-blade for in everyday situations. When cheap, steel nibs became available (about 1835, 1840-ish), the main task of the pen-knife – cutting pen-points – became obsolete, but people still carried the knives, likely out of habit and because they were useful. This is how in some parts of the world – particularly the United Kingdom – people call small, folding knives ‘penknives’ as well as ‘pocketknives’, and the two terms are generally used interchangeably.
Are these knives practical?
That depends on what sort of practicality you’re after, but I would say, yes. For most everyday knife-tasks short of stabbing a yak in the eye, knives like this, petite as they are…
…are nonetheless, suitable for everything from opening parcels, cutting string, cleaning your fingernails, cutting paper, thread, opening food-wrappers, slicing open those pesky packets of ketchup that you get at cafes, and opening plastic wrapping. Their small size means that they’re not really considered a weapons-threat, and if nothing else, they’re a hell of a conversation-piece!
Are they difficult to look after?
Not really. Once you’ve given them a dose of oil they’ll pretty much sleep through the night.
But apart from that, cleaning and sharpening them is done the same way as with any other slip-joint folding knife, except in miniature! The only thing you might want to be careful of is to not apply too much pressure to the blade when sharpening them – obviously, they aren’t as strong or as snap-resistant as the blades of larger-sized pocketknives.
Why did you collect them?
Well, they’re tiny, and I thought they were cute. They were also cheap, and old, and useful. And I like antiques which are useful. That, and I’m always groping around for a pocketknife at some point or another during the day whenever I go out. And I got tired of not having one. These two are actually so small that they fit in my wallet! To me, that’s definitely got to be a plus, considering that I have very limited space when it comes to what I can carry when I’m out on the town.
They’re so cute!…Gimme!
No! Bugger off! Go get your own knives!
Awww…where do I get one?
Search places like eBay, or your local flea-market or antiques shop. Miniature, small or medium-sized slipjoint pocketknives were very common during the 1800s and for most of the 20th century, so finding them in good condition for cheap is generally not that hard. Just make sure that the knives are in good condition. Check for rust, broken springs, broken blades, cracked or loose scales, and firm opening and closure.
Discard any knives with broken blades, excessive rust, or with loose or damaged springs. The springs are what keep the knife open when it’s open, and closed when it’s closed. A weak or defective spring (the spring is that long, flat piece of steel on the backside of the knife) is a safety risk. The last thing you want is the blade opening or closing on you accidentally, and you ending up with a nasty cut!
How much do they cost?
In my experience, vintage and antique pocketknives can usually be picked up for anywhere from $5.00 to $30.00. I paid about $15 or $20 for each of these. Larger, more fancy or complex knives might command more, but honestly, they’re so common that high prices on antique pocketknives really isn’t a thing.
How do I clean or restore them?
Good question! I’ll write about that in a followup posting. It can get fairly involved…