History of the Robeson Cutlery Company
The history of the Robeson Cutlery Company has been described by Dewey and Lavona Ferguson in The Romance of Collecting Cattaraugus, Robeson, Russell and Queen Knives, and that history was essentially repeated in Bruce Voyles' The American Blade Collector's Association Price Guide to Antique Knives. I wrote an anecdotal history for Jim Sargent's American Premium Guide to Knives and Razors, 5th edition. However, Tom Kalcevic's Knives Can Talk; The Story of The Robeson Cutlery Co. as Told From Their Knives, Cutlery Products and Local History, 2nd edition, is the most exhaustive. There exists a small publication by Clark T. Rice and Elizabeth Hiddemen-Rice titled Historical Wyoming; History of The Perry Robeson Cutlery Company; Days of The Cutting Edge, written in 1993, but it was only available locally in Wyoming County, New York and surrounding areas.
All those contain pertinent and interesting information, and would be helpful to anyone interested in pursuing Robeson cutlery as a collecting hobby. I recommend them. Both the Ferguson's and the Voyles' books have numerous illustrations of pocket knives. The Ferguson's utilized old catalog illustrations. Bruce Voyles utilized photographs of a collection of Robeson knives that numbered over four hundred pieces. Knives Can Talk has many interesting knives illustrated, in color, and described in great detail by Mr. Kalcevic, relating them nicely to the historical timeline of the company. Unfortunately, I do not believe that Mr. Kalcevic plans any further printings of his book.
I will attempt to pull most of that together here, but in as concise and uncomplicated a manner as possible. I think I know some things that I've gleaned from looking at thousands of Robeson cutlery products since 1988. Some of my thoughts are in contradiction to the previously mentioned published histories. I'll try not to confuse the issue by arguing those points in this forum.
Millard Fillmore Robeson
Millard Fillmore Robeson was born April 8, 1847, in Farmersville, Cattaraugus County, New York, to Robert and Louisa M. Stacy Robeson. He married Malvina Emma Holmes. Mr. and Mrs M.F. Robeson had five children; George W. Robeson, Irving S. Robeson, Grace Carolyn Robeson, Blanche Robeson, and Robert Robeson. The reason I've detailed the children's names is that when one looks at old shipping notices from the earliest days of the cutlery business, one finds those individuals' initials, stating the knives were packed by or shipped by one or the other family members. Indeed, George and Irving were listed as officers in the company on a shipping notice letterhead in 1902.
Robeson apparently established his first cutlery business in Elmira, New York in 1879. I have a pocketknife box marked, “The Robeson Cutlery Co., Elmira, New York”. This concern was most likely operated out of the family home, and would explain the children's early involvement. I've seen later Robeson advertising material stating, "Since 1879". However, a full page Christmas advertisement in the December 3rd, 1910, issue of The Saturday Evening Post touts, "In our twenty-five years' experience...", which dates to 1885, not 1879. Prior to 1885, the cutlery items were marked simply "MILLARD F. ROBESON" or "M.F. ROBESON". Beginning in 1885, items were marked with "THE ROBESON CUTLERY CO." That incorporation date might explain the difference in the two disparate claims as to date of establishment. The Elmira City Directory, however, did not list The Robeson Cutlery Company until 1893.
Much has been written concerning how Millard Robeson began to sell pocket cutlery. Most have written that he was a traveling salesman; that he began to carry a selection of knives while traveling his sales route and that he offered these knives to his customers. I have for some time thought his sales representation to have been on behalf of The Rochester Stamping Works of Rochester, New York. They made pressed metal goods such as chafing dishes, silent butlers, tea kettles, cuspidors, and trays. Indeed, Tom Kalcevic ties Millard Robeson to Rochester Stamping Works as early as about 1875.
Millard, as a salesman for The Rochester Stamping Works, did quite well for himself, as he and George W. Robeson were listed as officers in the company on a shipping notice letterhead dated 1896. Historical Wyoming states that Robeson had purchased an interest in the stamping works in 1894. Knives Can Talk states he purchased an interest in the company in 1889, and that his son George W., began running it in 1895.
It is known that he established a cutlery company office at 141 Jones Street in Rochester, the same address as one of The Rochester Stamping Works buildings. There exists a photograph of another of the Rochester Stamping Works buildings, located at 12 Saratoga Avenue, Rochester, New York, with their sales representatives standing or sitting in front. Unfortunately, Millard F. Robeson is not included. It is of a wood framed building. It is from about the turn of the century, but is not dated. Interestingly, there is a sign on the front porch that clearly reads: "ROBESON CUTLERY CO. SECOND FLOOR"
Each man and his geographic area of responsibility is identified by name on the back of the photograph. One of them is C.W. Silcox. He is listed on early Robeson Cutlery Company letterheads as an officer in the company. Another is a Mr. Gillette. I have a letter, dated 1913, from the Robeson Cutlery Company to one of their retailers concerning a shipment of Continental pocketknives sold to them by Mr. Gillette. Correlating the address with the information in Knives Can Talk suggests a date of about 1896 to 1898.
The Robeson Cutlery Company
Robeson imported his earliest cutlery items, including knives and razors, from both England and Germany, as they were less costly than buying American made goods. However, strict tariffs on foreign made cutlery were passed in 1890, and again in 1897, prompting him to seek an American source. He settled on a small firm in Camillus, New York, owned by Charles E. Sherwood and Denton E. Bingham. They were brothers-in-law and both were immigrant English cutlers with experience. They made knives, on contract, for Robeson for several years, beginning about 1895. Some have reported that the Sherwood/Bingham concern failed, and Millard Robeson eventually took over the factory, retaining Sherwood, Bingham, and the laborers. Both Historical Wyoming and Knives Can Talk state that he had the blade blanks formed at the Rochester Stamping Works, and the blades finished and the knives and razors assembled in Camillus by the Sherwood and Bingham workers.
The knives produced by Sherwood/Bingham mostly had ebony handles and were old patterns, similar to those made in Sheffield, England. The tang marks were, ROBESON / CUTLERY Co. with "PREMIER" or "WARRANTED" on the back of one or more tangs.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Millard Robeson was lured away from the manufacturers at Camillus, to Perry, New York, which was closer to Rochester and the Rochester Stamping Works. There had been a harvester manufacturing business in Perry. They had vacated their factory and relocated to Jamestown, New York. The empty factory was made available to Robeson on terms that were quite attractive. He accepted, and established The Robeson Cutlery Company manufacturing facilities there about 1899.
While living in Rochester, Millard Robeson resided at 13 Arnold Park, a prominent neighborhood that included Mr. George Eastman, the founder of Eastman-Kodak, among its residents. Millard Robeson died in 1903, and was returned to Elmira for burial. His sons, George W. and Irving S. Robeson, assumed operation of the businesses.
A larger facility for storage and shipping was acquired in Rochester at 175-176 Anderson Avenue. Railway connections were accessible at that location, and knives made in Perry were shipped from that address. Letterheads from that time period illustrate both the Anderson Avenue, Rochester facility and the Perry factory. They soon outgrew the old cobblestone and wood frame buildings in Perry and added a three story brick building with a two level basement, in about 1906. This building had steam heat and an automatic fire prevention sprinkler system.
Robeson knives were manufactured in those buildings from that time until 1965. During the 1910's, 1920's, and 1930's, Robeson was considered one of the best manufacturers of pocket cutlery in America, and one of the best in the world. The knives had ebony, green bone and later brown bone handles. They also utilized Rogers Bone, stag, genuine pearl, and various composition material.
Robeson began a second line of premium quality knives and razors in 1910. They branded them “TERRIER CUTLERY CO.” or simply “TERRIER”. The knives were produced from 1910 to 1916. They placed six digit pattern numbers on the knives, but reversed the sequence, in that the three digits for the handle-die shape were first, followed by the three digits denoting handle material, number of blades, and bolster/liner materials last.
Robeson produced a vast array of patterns, some made by no one else. Mostly, they manufactured utilitarian knives for working men. They did, of course, produce many pearl or abalone handled "Gentlemen's" knives. Interestingly, the gentlemen's knives appear to have survived in far better condition than the working knives. Of course, the working knives were used, sharpened, used some more, and so on, until they were used up, so to speak.
Robeson added a factory in Mount Morris, New York, during World War I, and continued to operate it for several years thereafter, until 1922. The administration and distribution offices remained in Rochester, New York. Eventually, the Robeson Cutlery Company was merged with the Rochester Stamping Company, and the new corporation was called Robeson-Rochester Corporation. That merger took place in 1922, as well.
Robeson produced some fantastic pocket cutlery and razors. Their “PocketEze” line of knives had the blade backs ground flush with the knife’s frame, eliminating sharp corners and reducing pocket wear. Most, but not all such knives have a nickel-silver “POCKETEZE” shield with a red background.
They introduced a line of knives they called, “MasterCraft” This line of knives had bronze bearings mounted on the ends of the tangs along the surface that bore on the backspring. This reduced wear on the tang, and facilitated easy opening. Most of the MasterCraft knives were etched, “NEV-R-BIND OILESS BEARINGS” in a scroll banner on the master blade. MasterCraft knives had a nickel-silver “MASTERCRAFT” shield with a black background.
Robeson produced pocketknives with stainless steel.They called this line of knives, “NO- RUSTAIN”. The master blades of most of the early stainless knives were etched, “RUSTLESS-STAINLESS”. The knives had a nickel-silver “NO-RUSTAIN” shield with a blue background.
Robeson continued to make excellent pocketknives throughout the 1920's and 1930's, but stiff competition from German cutlers after WWI had taken a toll on sales. By the beginning of World War II, Robeson was in serious trouble. The company was offered for sale and was purchased by Mr. Saul Frankel. He hired Mr. Emerson Case, of the famous Case Cutlery family in 1940, and pretty much gave him a free hand, as General Manager, in revitalizing the company. Emerson Case did not disappoint him.
Mr. Case spent long hours at the factory and in the offices, and made frequent trips extolling the virtues of the company and its products. Today, he would be referred to as a "workaholic". This kind of work ethic was both costly to him, and paid him dividends. He had married his first wife, Helen, while working at Kinfolks Cutlery. After his move to Robeson, he was busily advancing The Robeson Cutlery Company, while she was very active in church and social work. They grew apart and subsequently divorced in 1941.
Emerson Case continued to work long and hard hours at Robeson, often working late. He frequented a local diner for his meals, and grew very familiar with a certain waitress there. When an opening for a billing secretary at the Robeson offices became available, he hired her for that position. Familiarity progressed to love, and he and Bessie Sheppard were subsequently married, and raised their family in Perry, New York. They remained married until Emerson Case died suddenly in 1975.
The time during and after WWII saw Robeson once again among the top tier of cutlery manufacturers, thanks mostly to the tireless efforts of Emerson Case. They had several contracts during WWII to produce the M-3 Commando or Trench knives for the United States Army. They produced machetes, and Mark II "Ka-Bar" type knives for the United States Navy and The Marine Corps, as well as the Mark I knives, and so called "Shark" knives for the Navy. They produced both a three and four blade verson of their 214 pattern scout/utility knives with bone handles for the Army and also a two blade easy open bone handled jack knife. They made wood handled TL-29 electrician's knives for the Army Signal Corps. The Robeson Cutlery Company consistently earned the highest ratings for their defense contract work during World War II.
Stevenson branded metal handled, four blade scout/utility knives exist and were manufactured with the proprietary Robeson screw-driver and cap-lifter/tin-opener blades, leaving one to conclude they were manufactured by Robeson. These knives do not have tang marks, but the bails are marked, "STEVENSON - 1943"or “STEVENSON - U.S.A.”. Stevenson bail marked knives with the later standardized MIL-K required blades do exist, as well. Whether or not they were made by Robeson is anyone's guess, I suppose. The majority of military collectors/writers have concluded that they were.
Sometime after Emerson Case’s arrival the MasterCraft line of knives was changed in that the bronze bearing was moved from the end of the tang to the inner surface of the backspring. The name of the line was changed to “Perma-Lube”. The master blades were etched, “PERMA-LUBE / OILESS BEARINGS” in two lines. Perma-Lube knives were identified by an unmarked bronze shield of various shapes.
After WWII, Emerson Case was made company president, and continued to be very innovative. He developed, in 1950, a heat treating process for stainless steel blades that is still used world wide today and virtually unsurpassed in its effectiveness. He called the process, "Frozen Heat", and it was used on both pocket and kitchen cutlery. A fifty year old Robeson Frozen Heat kitchen knife is as good today as anything manufactured by anyone anywhere in the world. Frozen Heat sets sell routinely on Ebay for not very much money, and would be the best knives in almost anyone's kitchen. I suggest buying a set, and putting them to good use.
About 1955, Emerson Case also developed a line of knives with tungsten carbide applied to one side of the blade edge. This was a complicated process, and the knives' virtues were not readily understood by many people. The problem was the knife was designed to be sharpened only on the side that did not have the tungsten carbide layer. Honing the knife in that manner left a fine microscopic serrated edge of tungsten as the cutting edge of the knife. The knives were called, "Flame Edge", and were made in jack knife, stockman, and hunting knife patterns, as well as kitchen knives.
Jean Case of Kinfolk's Cutlery Company, of Little Valley, New York, voluntarily closed that business in November, 1957. Union organizers had convinced the employees to unionize. Jean Case told them that if they did so, he would close the factory. Apparently, the workers thought they had the upper hand, and voted to unionize the shop. When they showed up at work the next day, the factory was closed. There was a sign which simply read, "Plant closed. Gone horse racing". Emerson Case, Jean's cousin, had spent several years there, and was instrumental in having Robeson Cutlery acquire the rights to the Kinfolk's name.
During the late 1950's and early 1960's, Robeson produced several pocketknives carrying the "Kinfolk's" tang mark. Most of these knives had Strawberry Bone handles. Some had PakkaWood or Robeson’s own ShurWood. Several were of the "Flame Edge" variety. They also produced hunting knives under the Kinfolk's name, with some having the "Flame Edge", feature, as well. Some of the Kinfolks folding hunters were etched, “HUNTERS PRIDE”.
After 1948, and until about 1959, Robeson utilized the prettiest bone handle material ever, the now famous, and above mentioned "Strawberry Bone". The bone had the colors of fresh strawberries, and no one has ever successfully duplicated it. In about 1959 or 1960, they replaced the strawberry bone with a strawberry colored Delrin imitation bone. It wasn't nearly as pretty as the bone, it tended to fade more rapidly, but it was more durable.
Once again, hard times befell The Robeson Cutlery Company. Sales were down. Knives were made, but not shipped. The owners decided they had no other choice, but to sell out. Cutler Federal Corporation purchased The Robeson Cutlery Company in 1964, with the stipulation that Mr. Case remain to assist with the transition for a period of one year. He did so, then retired in 1965. The manufacturing facilities in Perry, New York were closed.
Cutler Federal Corporation continued to market knives with the Robeson name on them, but they were manufactured by Camillus Cutlery Company in Camillus, New York. Cutler Federal eventually sold the Robeson name to The Ontario Knife Company. They continued to market knives with the Robeson name on them until 1977.
Ontario Knife still retains the name and have, for several years now, been producing what they call a "reproduction" series of knives, as they have done with the old Schatt & Morgan brand. The knives are made by Queen Cutlery. They are of great quality and have a devoted following by collectors of Queen knives. They have, however, produced patterns carrying the Robeson name that I do not believe Robeson ever made, such as a canoe pattern, a stout three blade surveyors pattern, and an elegant whittler, similar to those made by the Joseph Rodgers and Remington cutlery companies, and referred to as "Norfork Whittlers". They have recently produced a Robeson Mountain Man knife, similar to some Remington bullet knives, or old Utica and New York Knife Company large trapper pattern knives. I do not think Robeson ever produced that pattern.
Ontario Knife also produces "PocketEze" knives that do not have the blades sunk flush with the frames, and "MasterCraft" knives that do not have the obligatory bronze bearing between the tang and the backspring, but carry the shields bearing those old Robeson vintage trademarks.
So, the Robeson name lives on in these high quality knives made by Queen. Opinions may vary, but as a vintage Robeson knife collector, I do not consider any knife made after the closing of the Perry plant to be a Robeson knife, any more than would a Schrade collector consider the current knives produced in China to be Schrades.