Hardcore antique knife collectors will tell you that the golden age of American cutlery lasted from around 1890 to 1940. High American tariffs killed imports during this period and many skilled European craftsmen were forced to immigrate here to find work. This, in turn, raised the quality of American pocketknives to near works of art. Unfortunately, the Great Depression and World War Two caused most of those traditional cutlery companies to fall on hard times and close their doors. The period from around 1945 to the late 1960’s is considered the dark ages for lovers of fine knives but that was about to change.
In 1970 A.G. Russell founded the Knifemaker’s Guild to help promote the relatively small number of custom blade makers practicing the craft at the time. Knife collecting as a hobby was growing by leaps and, and regional cutlery shows started springing up in the eastern states. I’m not sure which was first, but I know my personal introduction to the phenomena was a show in Louisville, KY in the fall of 1972. The industry was starting to shake off its slumber and the late Blackie Collins founded the first newsstand cutlery magazine, The American Blade, in 1973. In 1975, the Oregon Knife Collector’s Club held a show in Eugene which has since grown into the second largest cutlery event in the world. 1976 saw the founding of the American Blade Smith Society to preserve the art of the handforged knife. While it might not have had the impact of the previous dates, 1977 was the year The American Blade published my own first knife article!
Moving into the 1980’s, probably the most important cutlery landmark of the last 50 years occurred, Spyderco Knives introduced the “Worker” one-hand opening Clip-It folder to the market. One-hand opening designs had always been possible but the sheep running the traditional Northeastern companies were afraid of running afoul of the Federal government and their switchblade laws. All the traditionalists wanted to do was build three-blade stock knives and keep their heads down. It took a free-spirited old hippie from Colorado, Sal Glesser, willing to think outside those non-existent restrictions to do that. One-hand opening has become almost mandatory on modern cutlery since then. In 1982 Bruce Voyles started his own knifeshow, first in Knoxville, Tennessee, but later moved to Atlanta, Georgia. This event has since grown into the largest cutlery fair in the world, the Blade Show and Exhibition. After a meeting with Spyderco at the 1986 SHOT show in Houston, Texas, I managed to sell a review of their one-hand opening folders to Canoe Magazine. This was actually the first published article on the Clip-It line, as they were still too radical for much of the cutlery establishment.
By the 1990’s the knife industry was exploding with new names. I still remember the phone call Les DeAsis gave me that year while he was on his way north from California with a small trailer of equipment to relocate to Clackamas, Oregon. At the time, I would have never guessed it possible for Benchmade Knives to grow from a garage size shop to the cutlery industry giant they are today. From a personal perspective, I would have to call January, 1994 the most important event of that decade as it was then that Tactical Knives Magazine was founded, with our first issue hitting the newsstand later that fall. Almost 20 years later, we have grown into the largest cutlery oriented publication on the planet.
It would be hard to list all the new names and cutlery innovations that have taken place since the turn of the 21st Century. While the Knifemakers Guild no longer dominates custom blades field, the list of new makers now numbers in the thousands. Of course, the fact the country has been at war for something like 12 years has also had a major impact on both the custom and factory made fields. For obvious reasons, tactical, close-combat, and survival knives have been the first priority for many makers and that trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down yet. On the down side, the airlines’ ban on carrying even the tiniest folder aboard a plane has been a major inconvenience for many of us and caused serious financial losses for some cutlery companies. Hopefully, someday we can return to more realistic restrictions concerning carry-on items. One other trend I’ve noticed in recent years, that may be a sign of more peaceful times, is a growing interest in high performance kitchen cutlery. Given these are the knives practically everyone uses daily, it seems strange it has taken so long.
Bottom line, I think we are actually living in the 2nd golden age of American cutlery right now. Happy 2013 National Knife Day!
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by Tactical-Life / Aug 23, 2013