The online community of knife collectors, A Knife Family Forged in Steel
As I reported in a previous blog, every year I send a few friends who are not collectors and know little about knives an inexpensive pocket knife (very inexpensive) which illustrates a traditional pattern. Along with the knife I send a short note about the pattern - at least what I have come to learn by spending too much time on the internet. This was the text I sent along with a Barlow knife. (I have removed the photos I send as I steal them from the internet.)
The Barlow Knife: An Appreciation
As the Navaja is to Andalusia, the Opinel to the Haute Savoye, the Gobbo to the Abruzzi, the Pattada to Sardinia, the Hironokami to Japan and the Laguiole to France, the the Barlow is to the U.S.A.
While the most common knife carried in America, now that ours is a “service economy” may be the “Peanut”, the Barlow remains a classic pocket knife still commonly carried - though ubiquitous until the 1920’s and the rise of the “Trapper” which supplanted it.
A Barlow knife pattern includes one or two blades, a distinctly long metal bolster, and a comfortable gently tear-drop shaped handle. Historically, a single bladed version preceded the now more common two blade version. The first or main blade was originally most often spear pointed in form but the clip blade eventually came to dominate after the Barlow’s Americanization in the 19th Century. American pocket knives are often clip bladed while more European knives the spear, leaf and flame shapes are more common. In England, the lambsfoot (often called in America, the sheepsfoot), was and remains a popular blade form. It ends in a downward curve and is most common in the U.S. as one of a Stockman pattern knife’s three blades and on marine or mariner’s knives. The secondary blade on a Barlow, when present, was and remains a small pen blade. Both are attached at the small end of the handle. Early Barlow handle materials were inexpensive - wood or bone (generally cow bone) often saw cut. These traditional modest materials still make the nicest Barlow handles.
Most Barlows were either the still common 3 1/4” to 3 1/2” (closed length) size or what is the “Daddy” or “Grandaddy” Barlow which is 5” - 5 1/4” (closed) with a blade of about 3 7/8”.
George Washington received a small Barlow knife from his mother purportedly as a reward for the boy’s obedience. That knife is on exhibit at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, A replica was made by a New York knife manufacturer, Camillus. It’s a variant of the archetypal form of its time.
This story is doubtless a part of the source for the entirely apocryphal tale which proposes that while at Valley Forge, George Washington commissioned a local knife maker named Barlow to develop a knife for his troops. Thus, goes the story, the Barlow knife was born. This is not true, of course, as both the inventor and the basic form of the Barlow knife were British. But the tale reveals the close association of the U.S. with the Barlow knife and helped to establish the Barlow as typically and classically American despite its having British origins.
In fact, (to the extent anything in pocket knife history is fact), the Barlow knife was invented by Obadiah Barlow - not to be confused with Thomas Barlow who was a British royal physician, known for his research on infantile scurvy. Obadiah is credited with the design and production of the first Barlow knife at his workshop in Sheffield, England in about 1670 shortly after the invention of the metal spring. Some say Obadiah’s grandson Thomas immigrated to America and began manufacturing Barlows here in the late 1820‘s. It seems John Russell became the first American (or at least the first American to be remembered) to make Barlow knives. Before that date Barlows in America had presumably to be imported from England.
Russell was a New Englander who established a factory called the Green River Works in 1834 on the Green River near Greenfield Massachusettes using imported English workers to make large quantities of Barlow knives marked with a capital “R” with an arrow crossing it horizontally. More recently, Barlows with this mark were made in Solingen, Germany.
A century or so after its invention, the Barlow, (with the traditional spear or the increasingly popular clipped blade and with the added smaller pen blade) achieved the distinction of becoming the standard pocket knife of the American people, especially on the frontier, in the South and in the Midwest.
Abe Lincoln is said to have told a story in which a Barlow figured prominently:
In the days when I used to be on the circuit, I was accosted on
the road by a stranger. He said: 'Excuse me, sir, but I have
an article in my possession which belongs to you.’ 'How is that?'
I asked, considerably astonished. The stranger took a 'Barlow'
from his pocket. ‘This knife,' said he, 'was placed in my hands
some years ago with the injunction of the community, through
its bearer, that I was to keep it until I struck a man homelier
than I. I have carried it from that time till this. Allow me
to say, sir, that you are fairly entitled to the testimonial.'
And this is the very knife the stranger gave me, which proves it.
James Fenimore Cooper, in The Pioneers, 1823, mentions the Barlow knife in Chapter 8:
Under his direction, Monsieur Le Quoi made some purchases,
consisting of a few clothes; some groceries, with a good deal of
tea and tobacco; a quantity of ironware, among which was a large
proportion of Barlow’s jack-knives,...
The most widely known and often repeated literary references to the Barlow knife are those made by Mark Twain who brings the knife up in both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn:
One morning, when we was pretty well down the State of Arkansaw,
we come in sight of a little one-horse town in a big bend; so we tied
up about three-quarters of a mile above it, in the mouth of a crick which
was shut in like a tunnel by the cypress trees, and all of us but Jim took
the canoe and went down there.... All the stores was along one street.
They had hite domestic awnings in front, and the country people hitched
their horses to the awning-posts. There was empty drygoods boxes under
the awnings, and loafers roosting on them all day long, whittling them with
their Barlow knives; and chawing tobacco, and gaping and yawning and
stretching -- a mighty ornery lot.
1884, Huckelberry Finn, Chapter 21 (during the raft trip)
Mary gave him a brand-new "Barlow" knife worth twelve and a half cents; and the convulsion
of delight that swept his system shook him to his foundations.True, the knife would not cut
anything, but it was a "sure-enough" Barlow, and there was inconceivable grandeur in that
-- though where the Western boys ever got the idea that such a weapon could possibly
be counterfeited to its injury is an imposing mystery and will always remain so, perhaps.
Tom contrived to scarify the cupboard with it, and was arranging to begin on the bureau,
when he was called off to dress for Sunday-school.
1876, Tom Sawyer, Chapter 8
Beyond novels, the Barlow was a subject for song.
One traditional song (Doc Watson) goes:
When I was a little boy,
I wanted a Barlow knife.
Now I want little Shady Grove,
To say she'll be my wife.
Another, which is fabulous and is available in many versions on the internet is:
I been a wagoner all my life
and all I got is a Barlow knife,
Barlow handle* and a Barlow blade, * variant: “Buck horn Handle”
best darn knife that’s ever been made.
Today, the old companies (Russell, Barlow and the rest) that once prospered producing Barlow folding knives have themselves folded. But when those of us who have come to respect, admire and even love Barlows fold ours we feel a direct connection, an affinity and a sense of solidarity not only with Cooper’s pioneers, Twains Tom and Huck but all those who preceded us from the Eighteenth Century to at least the 1920s as North Americans.
For relevant songs (available at iTunes) see:
1. “Barlow Knife”
Mark Gardner and Rex Rideout
Frontier Favorites: Old-Time
Music of the Wild West
2 “Barlow Knife”
The Fuzzy Mountain String Band
3. “Barlow Knife”
Jerry and Joan Paul
Songs from the Southern Highlands
LR 14 Dec 2013
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