History and Origin of the Pocket Knife

There are some things that once you start doing, it’s hard to go back to the way things were before. Carrying a pocket knife, for instance, is one thing that’s hard to give up once you start doing it. Carrying a pocket knife for work purposes is incredibly handy. Most useful for opening packages, breaking down boxes, cutting plastic wrap, cutting string and so much more. Once you start using it at work, every problem you encounter outside of work looks like it could be solved with your pocket knife. That’s how wonderful they are, it’s one of the best and most versatile tools ever made. Not surprisingly, this means that the pocket knife is just one more tool we take for granted and it’s another tool that we don’t know who the inventor is, but it’s a tool with enough documentation that you can at least put together a timeline.

The first pocket knifeSo far, the oldest “pocket knife” that has been unearthed was a blade from Hallstatt, Austria dated to around 500 – 600 BC – nearly 2,000 years before the invention of pockets! Of course calling it a pocket knife would be inaccurate, it’s named such most likely because it was the first folding knife similar to the modern pocket knife. This first pocket knife featured a handle made of bone and was likely used by salt miners and other support jobs in the village. Similar folding knives have been found with Roman military and even Viking artifacts, though those would likely have been meant for last ditch weapons and tools for tradesmen/farmers respectively. The design was obviously a good one as the general concept has survived up to today with little change.

Though the folding “pocket knife” has been around a couple thousand years with little change, there were some important innovations along the way. The biggest game changer was of course improvement in metallurgy. Metalworking greatly improved as blacksmiths and metallurgists developed better iron and finally steel. Sheffield, England is notable in that they had iron of excellent quality and were the first to make the first slip joint knife with a spring action. Besides these two game changing things, Sheffield also was the first to make knives in a large volume and at a relatively low cost, and of these knives, many were designed and made to tackle specific tasks. Sheffield pocket knives helped lay the groundwork for establishing the standard for pocket knives.

Coast knife and Klein KnifeWhile this standard pocket knife stuck around for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1890’s when two knife makers independently made some revolutionary changes to what a pocket knife could do in the modern age. On one hand, the Swiss government had contracted with Victorinox to develop a knife that their soldiers could also use to open canned food with. The designer, Karl Elsener went way above and beyond by creating pivot point mechanisms in the knife which made it possible to add many other handy tools. The Swiss Army Knife is still the benchmark for pocket knives today, but their popularity really picked up after World War II when American soldiers who loved the knife brought them home to the States in large quantities. The Opinel brand, originating in France, was started by Joseph Opinel who had come up with 12 different knives designed for various tasks. Other brands soon followed these two trailblazers with brands like Buck knives and Gerber establishing themselves in the early 1900s.

Once the Swiss Army Knife demonstrated the possibilities of what a pocket knife could do, many variations popped up. The slip joint knife locked the blade into place to keep the blade under control when being used or during non-use. Others like the Barlow knife featured a second blade, the Camper which was basically styled after the Swiss army knife, the Canoe knife which has a blade on either end and is shaped somewhat like a canoe, the Congress knife is a slip joint with 4 blades – two on each side, and boasting ¾ more blades than are needed (was that a political statement by the maker?), the Peanut knife which is just small, the Pen knife which was originally used for sharpening writing quills, the Sodbuster, aka modern day Peasant Knife, and really many, many more.

There really is a pocket knife for any and all situations and it’s a tool that has been with humanity for a long time. Here at Haus of Tools we’ll be selling a number of high quality pocket and work knives including those made by Coast, Klein and many more. We’d love to hear about your favorite knife and what you use it for on Facebook or other social media.


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