#FixedBladeFriday – Who doesn’t love pics of antique knives?

There are plenty of books out there on swords, powder horns, and other objects. But surprisingly, there’s not a whole lot out there on antique American knives. In his 1984 book, Madison Grant wrote one of the definitive books on antique knives, with pictures of many examples, albeit in black and white, and with a purposeful lack of dating opinion. In his introduction, he makes several good points about the importance of antique knife collecting and research.

The subject of antique knives in America has received limited attention. Their relatively small size and hard usage are factors that have resulted in a constantly decreasing number of pieces available to study . . . .

Much is left to be done in the field of knife study but each informational effort lends another experience to the beholder . . . .

Through either necessity or desire, gradual betterment has marked the advance of knife making from the stone age through the derivatives of various types of ore. Since mankind is aggressive by nature, a great deal of attention was paid to weaponry. However, there have ben other benefits from this effort. Scientific progress now seems to be relegating the knife to the fields of food preparation and sport, and this is as it should be.

The Knife in Homespun America, by Madison Grant, 1984.

Blacksmith made 18th century likely knife, with a pinned tang, and a curved antler handle.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until recently that a book was published on the popular topic of Confederate Bowie Knives, perhaps one of the most sought-after categories of American antique knives – and the most faked. Seriously – buying a “Confederate” anything requires a PhD in whatever topic you’re buying in. In their book, “Confederate Bowie Knives,” by Jack Melton, Josh Phillips & John Sexton, published in 2012, more than just great color photos, it addresses some of the backstory of American knife making, and of the historical controversies and nuances of knife collecting today:

The blacksmith/file debate is further sparked by the many fake blacksmith-made knives encountered today. The knife-making blacksmith of today calls himself a blade smith. There are many such skilled craftsmen today in the custom knife world, as well as regular practicing blacksmiths, all of which can easily make a knife in a 19th century style and with largely authentic raw materials. Such a knife can then fall into the hands of the unscrupulous where it undergoes as [sic] series of treatments to artificially age it and deceive a potential buyer. Knives like this are often encountered at Civil War shows. Many of them retain traces of the modern file from which they were forged. With practice, however, all new collectors can learn to tell the difference between the modern fake and the authentic knife.

Some genuine specimens are found today with limited hammer marks, folding lines and occlusions in the steel, evidence of a lower quality steel to begin with and a hurried or limited finishing process. But some modern blacksmith counterfeiters pound out pitifully ugly and poorly finished specimens, replete with scores of hammer marks under the mistaken notion of creating what they think a genuine blacksmith made knife was like – that is, crude and sloppy. But “good blacksmiths regard inadvertent hammer marks as signs of inept workmanship. They made very few [marks] in the first place and went to some lengths to eradicate those that did happen. (There are, in fact, special tools, variously known as flatters or planishes, for such a purpose).”

Confederate Bowie Knives, by Jack Melton, Josh Phillips, & John Sexton (2012) pp. 26.

A folding knife excavated from the site of Byrnside’s Fort, next to the contemporary bench copy made from it for us by Scott Summerville

On this topic, Grant wrote that:

First, is it old? Examination should reveal natural aging in such materials as iron, wood, bone or brass. Next, are the various parts in harmony with each other, or does one part look like it has been added at a later date . . . .?

Details are important, such as normal shrinkage of wood, color of either bone or antler, rust pits, rivets or th black of them. Look for wear in normal places, corrosion or discoloration that only comes with age. If you are not confident in your own judgment, be willing to ask the opinion of someone with greater experience . . . .

There are, of course, occasions when a piece is either signed or dated and if they are genuine that settles the matter. In other cases, excavations of graves or historical sites with known spans of time can specifically tell us when an object was used.

The Knife in Homespun America, by Madison Grant, 1984, pp. 1

English bowie, Civil War era, with period homemade fringed leather sheath

Having seen what contemporary knife makers and artists can do, I don’t have any doubt that anything could have been made recently. Anything. That thought can steal the fun out of knife collecting, but it should stay in the back of your mind. When items are relatively inexpensive, it doesn’t matter all that much. But if, for instance, looking at a Confederate Bowie Knife, you better know what you’re doing. Or pay an amount a new one would fetch. Which also wouldn’t necessarily be cheap.

A couple of red-handled trade knives, found in West Virginia.

And to the real point, here’s a bunch pics I’ve taken recently of fixed blade old knives. Some are blacksmith made, some are of European import. Massive numbers of bowies, for instance, were shipped to America from England around the Civil War era, and are still today regarded as great knives, and great steel – most notably from Sheffield, England.

Blacksmith-made original knife, made from an old file. Ex Dressler Coll, Cromwell Coll, and Barlow Coll.

Another thing to keep in mind about these imported knives is that these are much easier to date. Even without finding the specific manufacturer, you can usually tell at the very least if it’s pre-1890. Post 1890, U.S. law required imported knives to have the country of origin printed on them. If they don’t have that, and just the manufacturer, that’s a great indication that it’s pre 1890. Not that that necessarily narrows it down all that much.

A late 18th century to early 19th century knife made from a discarded sword, with a brass lion head pommel.

The beauty of the blog format, is that I can add photos in seconds, add/delete/change information, and so on. Here are some of the pics I’ve taken recently of fixed blade knives, and some swords thrown in as well.

German cheese knife style knife, also called a Nelson Knife, with travel sheath, dated 1637.

Here’s a good article, Fighting Blades of the Frontier, AUGUST 12, 2014 by PHIL SPANGENBERGER:

n the early 1800s, virtually every frontiersman packed some sort of edged weapon, largely because of the limitations and lack of surefire reliability of the firearms of that period. Regardless of whether one packed a pocket-sized folding knife, a medium-length hunting blade or a full-sized fighting weapon, a knife of some sort was essential to survival. Long before the advent of the bowie, blades of all sizes and shapes were commonly carried and were variously called long knives, rifleman’s knives, scalping knives, belt or sheath knives, dirks or the all-purpose butcher knives. Knives were quite simply a part of one’s everyday experience . . . .

Confederate dagger, made in Winchester, Virginia
Revolutionary War era sword, blacksmith made, with a horn grip.
Blacksmith made 19th century cavalry saber style homemade sword. From Wythe County, Virginia.
Excavated Confederate D Guard Bowie
Homemade blacksmith made original knife, made from a file, and showing heavy use. Rat tail tang.
Homemade double scrolled dagger with a bone grip with an animal head of some sword carved into the pommel.
17th century all-iron sword excavated at Jamestown, VA, ex coll. H. Petersen, ex coll. G. Barlow
Blacksmith made fighting knife, with a blade catcher, with a checkered wooden grip and brass ferrule.
Late 18th century, or probably early 19th century, to mid 19th century blacksmith made knife, with checkered wooden grip.
All metal boot dagger which belonged to a 49’er gold miner, and came with a travel gold scale and photograph
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife. Found in a hunting bag with attached powder horn and stitched knife sheath
Ken Hamilton scalping knife replica
Ken Hamilton “Cross over L” Scalping knife replica
Original scalping knife trade knife which came out of a large collection
Kem Hamilton scalping knife replicas
War of 1812 style eagle head pommel swords
War of 1812 era sword and belt
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
Blacksmith made Revolutionary War era pruning blade style knife, with bone grips
Winchester late 19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
A Ken Hamilton reproduction scalping knife, with a quillwork grip by Michael Galban, with an excavated scalping knife found in Michigan.
An original scalping/trade knife with a quilled neck sheath
Excavated scalping knife found in Michigan
Excavated scalping knife found in Michigan, in a quilled neck sheeth by Michael Galban
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
Excavated scalping knife found in Michigan
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife. This particular one was found in the pocket of an old Buffalo Robe.
Blacksmith made knife with ivory? handle with effigy animal on the pommel of some sort, found by Keith Collis
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
Eagle head pommel dagger, out of Virginia, likely 18th century, ex coll. G. Barlow. Possible blood rust stains on the blade.
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
Blacksmith made bowie with a rat tail tang inserted into a bone handle
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
Blacksmith made dagger with wooden grip and wooden guard, which came out of Virginia
Very old knife made from a sword, believed to have belonged to John Todd, who died at the Battle of Blue Licks, and who was also at the Battle of Point Pleasant, and George Rogers Clark’s western expedition. And also the uncle of Abraham Lincoln’s wife.
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
Homemade knife with a burl grip
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
Patch style knife, heavily used, with initials burned into the wood grip
No idea on this one. Possibly Mediterranean?
Primitive looking blacksmith made knife
Possibly made from a sword?
Small patch sized handmade knife with a decorated antler grip.
19th century western trade era skinning/hunting/butcher knife
Sheffield England Bowie with a custom old fringed sheath
18th century dated knife with 18th century dated tooled leather sheath
Knife excavated in the Tygart Valley of West Virginia
Primitive homemade antler gripped knife
French 19th century bowie

Some photos, with descriptions, of items in the Sheffield Museum in England:

Knife made of butcher’s blade with a straight back and the front edge curves to a point. Blade is marked “*L” and manufactured in Sheffield. Knife’s sheath is made of deer skin by the Native Americans (Sioux people). Along the top of one side, there is a band of stained porcupine quills in white, black, yellow, red and blue, with a fringe of pieces of tin (sound of bells ringing when move). There is also a small piece of loose fragment from the knife. Knife and sheath would have been carried under the belt. This knife was sold by a Sheffield knife maker Joseph Elliot who had businesses all over Americas and Europe. It was sold to Sioux people who made a hide sheath for it. It was then brought back to Sheffield by a local collector the 2nd Baron of Wharncliffe.
Date Made/Found: 1200s
Material and Medium: iron and steel, wood, leather

This group of objects comprises one knife with its original accompanying sheath and three other sheaths without knives. The two larger sheaths are embossed with depictions of animals and plants. The animals depicted include hare, dogs and boar. This suggests that they may have been used to hold hunting knives. The smaller sheaths are decorated with punching and gothic tracery (a pattern of interlacing lines, often used for ornamental windows). These two sheaths also have holes in the leather, through which a thong (thin strip of leather) could be passed. This would enable them to be tied to the owner’s belt or around their waist. Along with a large number of other finds, these objects were recovered from the River Thames in London. It is possible that many of the objects found in the river were simply lost. However, the high quality of some of these finds, which include swords, pottery vessels and axeheads, has led to the suggestion that many were likely to have been intentionally deposited as a form of ritual activity.
This knife and sheath was probably made in Sheffield and date to around 1650. The black leather sheath is decorated with impressed fleur-de-lys. The blade has a square tip and has been struck with the maker’s mark of a pawn and the letter ‘T’. The haft (handle) is made from carved green stained bone and is attached to the blade with a through tang. This is a rod of metal that runs from the end of blade through a hole down the length of the haft. It is secured with a brass end cap with a scalloped edge. The blade of this knife is inscribed with the phrase: ‘If you do use me Do not a buse me’. Next to this message is a cursive motif, most probably the owner’s monogram. During the 1600s, knives were sometimes inscribed with cautionary messages encouraging owners to not raise their blade in anger. Pairs of knives could be inscribed with different lines of verse. These messages are sometimes referred to as cutlers’ poetry. During the Medieval period knives were an essential part of everyday life. They were carried on the person in a sheath attached to a belt. Sets of travelling cutlery became very popular during the 1600s, as inns did not always provide eating implements. They were often composed of a folding knife, spoon and fork in a case. 
This dagger was made by Charles Ibbotson & Co in Sheffield around 1890. It has a double-edged spearpoint blade and a decorated handle made from mother of pearl set into nickel. The blade has been etched with a decorative scroll design and the words: ‘Never draw me without reason nor sheath me without honour’. It became fashionable to inscribe or etch fighting knife blades with impressive slogans, and this was particularly true for items destined for the American market. This phrase is a translation of a motto that was popular on Spanish swords.
This iron knife was found during the excavation of Sheffield Castle between 1950 and 1959. Sheffield Castle once stood on the site of Castle Market in central Sheffield. It dated from around 1100 to 1648, when it was demolished. Mary Queen of Scots was kept here by George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, for fourteen years of her imprisonment. From 1958 to the 1970s Leslie Butcher surveyed the site of the Castle during various building works. This knife was probably found during this work.
These knives are from the site of Sheffield Castle. Sheffield Castle was built on a small hill at the junction of the River Sheaf and the River Don. The first wooden castle was built around 1100, and a later, much larger stone version stood until 1648, when it was demolished after the Civil War. Before the castle was demolished, the moat began to silt up, and afterwards it slowly filled with debris. 
Bowie Knife
Date Made/Found: Mid 1800s
Manufacturer: W & S Butcher 
Material and Medium: Steel, nickel, bone
Dimensions: Overall: 65 x 317mm (2 9/16 x 12 1/2in.)

This Bowie knife is made of bone scales with an etched steel blade depicting a decorative scroll design, the American eagle and motto, a buffalo hunt and the words: “CELEBRATED AMERICAN BOWIE KNIFE THE UNITED STATES THE LAND OF THE FREE AND THE HOME OF THE BRAVE PROTECTED BY HER NOBLE AND BRAVE VOLUNTEERS”. It was made in Sheffield in the mid 19th century for the American market by W & S Butcher. This style of knife is named after James Bowie, who famously fought and won a duel with his hunting knife in frontier Mississippi in 1827. Sheffield cutlers were quick to respond to the demand which followed in the wake of the legend and soon dominated the trade in this style of knife.
Bowie knife
Material and Medium: steel Antler

This style of knife is named after James Bowie, who famously fought and won a duel with his hunting knife in frontier Mississippi in 1827. Sheffield cutlers were quick to respond to the demand which followed in the wake of the legend and soon dominated the American trade in this style of knife. It became fashionable to inscribe or etch fighting knife blades with impressive slogans such as ‘Never draw me without reason nor sheath me without honour’, but this knife appears to misquote the phrase. Scratched roughly onto the blade are a scroll pattern and the words ‘Never draw me without reason nor sheath me without dishoner’. It is not clear whether the inscriber misremembered the quote or changed the words deliberately.
Bowie Knife
Material and Medium: steel Horn
Dimensions: Overall: 45 x 250mm (1 3/4 x 9 13/16in.)

This style of knife is named after James Bowie, who famously fought and won a duel with his hunting knife in frontier Mississippi in 1827. Sheffield cutlers were quick to respond to the demand which followed in the wake of the legend and soon dominated the American trade in this style of knife. The blade has been etched with the words: ‘Never draw me without reason nor sheath me without honour’. It became fashionable to inscribe or etch fighting knife blades with impressive slogans, and this was particularly true for items meant for the American market. This phrase is a translation of a motto that was popular on Spanish swords. The maker of the knife is unknown.
Carving knife, fork and sheath
Date Made/Found: around 1667
Material and Medium: iron and steel, silver, agate, leather

This carving knife and fork was manufactured by John Wharrey of London, around 1667. The blade is marked with the symbol of a dagger, the mark of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers of London. The maker’s mark of a heart and dart is also present. John Wharrey became a freeman after completing his apprenticeship in 1661. After registering as a Freeman, cutlers were able to register their own mark and could also take on apprentices. Records indicate that John Wharrey registered his mark on the 11th July 1667. The carving knife has a parallel blade and the fork has two steel tines. Each has a haft made from agate, which is attached to the blade and fork with a through tang. This is a rod of metal that runs from the end of blade or fork through a hole down the length of the haft. The end is secured with a decorative cap, made from silver. The ferrules, which cover the join between the fork or blade and the haft, are also made from silver. The leather sheath is decorated with impressions of thistles and has a silver mount. Agate is a hard mineral often used for the hafting of the highest quality cutlery and flatware. It has a translucent appearance with bands of different colour than running through the mineral. These are usually shades of grey and white but green, brown, red and black colours also occur. The earliest carving forks used in England date to the 1600s. As in this example, they often have quite short tines and were used to hold down the meat securely while it was being carved. Carving forks with long tines were often used in Europe, as meat was often carved in the air. The joint or bird was held aloft with the fork and carved from this position. This carving set is very ornate and would have certainly been a costly purchase. One explanation for this investment is that the act of carving was incredibly important at this time. The diarist Samuel Pepys illustrates the social significance of carving in the 1600s. An entry from 1665 reveals how carving could be used as a gesture of hospitality. Here, Pepys describes a dinner invitation at the home of Lord Sandwich. “At dinner he did use with me the greatest solemnity in the world, in carving for me, and nobody else” The host carving for his guest was clearly seen as a serious mark of respect. In contrast, Pepys describes a rather different encounter during a family dinner, “…the very sight of my aunt’s hands and greasy manner of carving, did almost turn my stomach”. Carving has long been an important part of formal dining. Learning to carve was a crucial social skill for young men within wealthy circles in the late 1600s. The importance of carving is evident by a number of etiquette manuals dedicated to the practice from around this time. The social significance of carving at important meals continues today.
Date Made/Found: 1830-1870
Material and Medium: steel, brass, rosewood
Dimensions: Overall: 40 x 348mm (1 9/16 x 13 11/16in.)

The blade of this knife is stamped with the letters ‘H.B’ over ‘W’ within a heart. This mark is not registered to the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire and does not appear in the surviving records of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers of London. It is possible that it is a merchant’s mark, rather than a maker’s mark. Unfortunately, this means that we cannot identify who made the knife or where it was manufactured. Our original documentation states that the knife was made specifically for export to South America. This could also add strength to the argument that the blade is marked with the stamp of a merchant. The handle has been inlaid with the symbols of a flower and a hand holding a heart. These are made from brass. This decoration indicates that the knife is linked to an organisation named the Independent Order of Oddfellows. It is possible that this knife was presented to a member of the Order of Oddfellows. The hand holding a heart symbolises charity. This image is often used on memorials in the 1800s, particularly those belonging to deceased members of the Oddfellows. The Oddfellows was one of a large number of philanthropic ‘friendly societies’ founded in the late 1700s and 1800s. The period 1780-1850 saw a large increase in the number of these voluntary societies in Britain, particularly in industrial towns. They included, for example, mechanics institutes, literary societies, temperance societies, medical charities and philosophical societies. Voluntary societies were usually made up of the middle classes and each member had to pay a subscription fee. These fees were combined to form a pool of money that could be redistributed to members in times of need, for example, during periods of sickness. The societies were often involved in charitable fundraising for good causes. 
Knife
Date Made/Found: 600-700
Material and Medium: Iron
Dimensions: Length 12cm

Iron knife found at Wigber Low. Knives like this one are common in the Anglo-Saxon period. Both men and women would have carried a knife with them. It was an essential item for many tasks in their daily lives. It was used as a tool, not as a weapon. The iron has survived reasonably well and has been stabilised by conservation treatment. This gives it the darker, almost black colour. The handle would have been made of an organic material, like wood or bone. This has not survived in the ground.
Date Made/Found: around 1600
Material and Medium: iron and steel, ivory
Dimensions: Overall: 210mm (8 1/4in.)

This knife has an ivory handle that is surmounted with a carved skull. It was made in London around 1600. Objects decorated with skulls, or works of art including depictions of skulls, are often referred to as ‘memento mori’ (loosely translated from Latin as ‘remember your mortality’). They were sometimes used to commemorate a death or to help remember a deceased person. Queen Victoria revived the fashion for memento mori as she endured a long period of mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, who died in 1861. This new interest in remembering the dead is sometimes referred to as the ‘cult of mourning’. Brooches made from Whitby jet were very popular at this time and were worn as a symbol of mourning. Cheaper versions were made in Sheffield using pressed buffalo horn imported from the United States and India. Pendants containing locks of hair from deceased relatives were also worn as memento mori. 

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5 thoughts on “#FixedBladeFriday – Who doesn’t love pics of antique knives?

  1. Great pictures and wonderful narrative. Thanks for providing a good primer to early knives in America and their cousins in Great Britain. Most enjoyable.

  2. Thank you. This is the best information I have found regarding early knives. I have a particular interest in 18th century trade knives in particular the English Roach Belly. The other area of interest is the sheaths for 18th century knives. You have a picture of only the second one I have found. Thank you for your work in compiling and posting.

  3. I Found this knife and hardened leather sheath would like to find out some of or all history or any information possible pertaining my find?I’m guessing 17th, 18th century you can tell its hand made and the sheath as well.

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