Monday, 24 October 2005

Antique penknives - collectables at the cutting edge

by Christopher Proudlove©
Español | Deutsche | Français | Italiano | Português

catalogue page

As penknives go, it was an ingenious little tool. Instead of the blade simply hinging open from one end of the knife, its action was controlled by a tiny, elongated button.

When depressed, the button allowed the blade to slide forward and then swing open and lock safely in place.

It was also phenomenally sharp, no doubt because it was made from incredibly tough turbine-blade carbon steel. It was clearly its owner's favourite.

We were attempting to fly a kite on the beach near our new home (without much success) and needed to make running repairs.

It was one of those moments when I wished I carried a pocket knife, but Mr JD from Ellesmere Port was quick to the rescue. He was out walking his dog and the chance conversation that ensued revealed him to be an inveterate collector of the pocket knives.

He confessed he owned "about two dozen" vintage, veteran and modern pocket knives, although with his wife present, I suspect that figure might have been conservative.

His enthusiasm was infective. This was a man who appreciated quality engineering, quirky design and the kind of ingenuity that is possible only by producing objects by hand.

His knife was no way mass-produced. The joy of it was its ease of use. Aside from being entirely safe, since it could be opened only by depressing the button, it can also be opened with just one hand -- an attribute that is highly regarded among aficionados.

In its own quiet way, it was also very simple but very beautiful.

A reader of this column, he said I ought to write about collecting penknives and he was right -- it's a fascinating subject - although I do so trusting that safety and proper use goes without saying.

The folding knife has been around since Roman times. Excavations have uncovered charming examples with elaborately carved handles but which lack the spring to keep the blade in place.

The pocket knife, with the blade folding into the handle, was invented in the 16th century and was originally used for putting the points on the business end of quill pens.

Sheffield has been the home of cutlery for almost a thousand years. Edward III (1312-1377) listed a Sheffield knife in his will when entombed in the Tower of London and in the 1380s, Chaucer wrote about a Sheffield knife in the Reeves Tale.

By the 1580s, Sheffield penknives were being recommended as the first choice for schoolmasters in 'The Writing Schoolmaster'

A breakthrough came in 1740 when a new technique was developed to produce high quality steel.

Sheffield clockmaker Benjamin Huntsman wanted better clock springs and after years of experimenting in secret, he perfected a process to produce crucible steel.

The invention turned the city into a world leader in the production of high quality cutlery.

Huntsman's crucible steel was also ideal for both the blades and the springs of pocket knives and other highly specialised instruments such as surgical knives and cutthroat razors.

Very quickly an industry within an industry began to boom and Sheffield pocket knives -- as well as much larger sheathed hunting knives (the subject of a column to itself) -- were being exported across the globe.

From perfecting the simple folding knife with a spring and one blade, cutlers realised that more springs could be added, together with more blades and various tools fitted at each end of the springs.

The ingenuity of skilled cutlers meant there was tremendous scope for variation and as a demonstration of the cutlers´ skills, penknives grew ever more complex, including such things as button hooks, leather punches, nail files, scissors, magnifying glasses, toothpicks, cigar cutters and so on.

Delicate penknives, meanwhile, were also produced in a vast range of styles and varieties catering for almost every user and occasion.

Some of the most dainty were intended for use in a lady's boudoir, or her portmanteau, while others, often smaller still, and often in silver, had a hook so they could be hung from a chatelaine -- the collection of everyday necessities a woman wore hanging from a belt.

Their purpose was manifold but most often the blade would be needed, for example, to open a new bottle of perfume, while a tiny corkscrew was there to pull the corks from medicine or eau de toilette.

There were pocket knives for anglers, sportsman, gardeners, smokers, Boy Scouts, motorists, handymen and even one specifically for the champagne drinker. In the 1920s, this latter nickel silver device contained two blades, a champagne hook, buttonhook and corkscrew and retailed at eight shillings and sixpence (42½ pence).

Social standing of their owners

Another popular collecting area is fruit knives. French cutlers were first to produce folding knives with silver blades which, unlike their steel counterparts, were not stained by fruit acid.

Since fruit was a luxury in the 19th century, so the knives used to cut it reflected the social standing of their owners.

In their simplest form, most had a single hallmarked folding blade and a handle made from mother of pearl, usually engraved with motifs reflecting the purpose of the knife.

At the other end of the price spectrum, the very finest examples had either silver or gold blades decorated with bright-cut engraving, often with trailing vines.

Beautifully executed handles were decorated with inlays of gold and semi-precious stones and many can be found engraved with their owner's initials.

Prices start from a few pounds for a simple example to several hundred for the best.

Fruit knives with little added extras are particularly sought after. Look for those in their original cases with long, thin pointed blades intended to remove pips from fruit, while examples with a Chester hallmark are more valuable because of their relative rarity (Chester's assay office closed in 1962).

Some of the most charming and desirable penknives are those primitive examples which look to be home-made. Chances are they were not. Rather they are the products of small private firms or blacksmiths.

Among the most amusing are novelties such as one shaped as a woman's leg, while a miniature folding sewing knife has the handle carved in the shape of a geisha.

Others are big and workmanlike and have handles made from various woods, horn or bone, sometimes carved to resemble staghorn. They are the kind of penknives to be found lying in the bottom of tool boxes in auctions or at car boot sales.

The 20th century saw an increase in the use of penknives for commemorative occasions, particularly coronations, and as souvenirs from seaside resorts. Most use "new" plastics such as ivorine which can imitate ivory or dark wood and fool the uninitiated.

In the last 20 years or so there has been a huge upsurge in interest among collectors and many of the companies founded in Sheffield to produce traditional penknives continue to thrive today making limited edition examples intended solely for the collectors' market.

Such examples in their plush cases are intended as cabinet pieces, not as working tools.

The collector of old penknives should buy only those examples whose folding mechanisms are still in good crisp working order and whose blades are complete and free of damage.

A blade that does not reach the end of its slot means it has been broken and ground back to its original shape sometime in the past.

The more decorative knives with a greater number of blades and tools are more valuable than plain, simple examples, but prices remain affordable.

Rusty blades can be cleaned with some fine wire wool and penetrating oil and then polished with soft paper.

The mechanism should be kept free with a careful application of refined oil (not WD 40), while handles in natural material should be treated with a little almond oil.

With a little care, grandfather's prized penknife -- the one you saw him use to cut his plug tobacco -- will give you a lifetime of service before you hand it on to your grandchild.

Pictures show, top:
Plenty of choice: A page from the 1926-27 Army and Navy Co-operative Society catalogue showing just a fraction of their range of pocket knives - these specifically for "Yachting and Boys". The nickel-silver champagne knife is bottom right.

Below, left to right:

This ivory novelty penknife is modelled as a classical lady wearing a cloak and holding a bird, perhaps indicating that it was intended as a quill pen cutter. It's worth £80-120

Fruity fun: Left a late 19th century silver and mother of pearl fruit knife with its original soft suede case and pipping blade. It's worth £80-120. Right a plainer version, the handle engraved with male and female portraits. However, the crack just above them reduces its value to £30-40

An ivory novelty penknife in the form of a shapely female leg. It was made in about 1870 and is worth £60-100

lady knifefruit knivesleg knife



Anonymous Brian said...

You have written an excellent overview of the pen and pocket knife. I have collected several hundred examples of Sheffield-made knives, the smallest of which is the size of a grain of rice, it has two blades and mother of pearl scales. Finding knives to add to the collection has become much more difficult in recent years. Needless to say prices for good examples have risen appreciably.

18 April 2008 at 05:12  
Anonymous greate site! said...

Do you know of any collectors of prinative pocketknives or jacknives....was told knife was home made in the 1800 ,

25 April 2008 at 08:59  
Anonymous Jack Daly said...

I have a crucible found in Navada. I have been told by a mining person that it was used to melt down silver to deteme the purtey of the silver. The crucible is in mint condtion, I was trying to get a price on it form my insurance company.

Jack Daly

1 May 2008 at 20:40  
Anonymous glenn said...

i found an old beatles pocket knife for sale for 120. is this a fair price? many thanks. glenn

6 April 2009 at 18:25  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Sounds expensive to me Glenn.

7 April 2009 at 01:43  
Anonymous mike peckett said...

i just found an old two bladed bone handled penknife by c johnson sheffield in an old shed, it was pretty rusted but in cleaned up a treat with just a few pits on the blades. As i do a lot of gardening its a really handy little knife. Anyone know anything about these??

28 May 2009 at 08:46  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Tip for cleaning the blades, specially if you're a gardener: try repeatedly plunging the blades into the earth in one of your flower beads. The action is great for removing rust and the dirt of the ages.
As for more information, I could find a Christopher Johnson who was a silversmith in Sheffield in 1903 and a Johnson & Co who made razor blades. Either one could be your man. Problem is, there were many many cutlers and knife makers in Sheffield, identifying an invividual is always going to be difficult.

28 May 2009 at 09:05  
Anonymous Joe Tandey said...

I have recently acquired a souvenir pen knife from the Moscow Olympics, I was wondering if you had any idea as to value?

28 May 2009 at 11:47  
Anonymous JAMIE said...


1 July 2009 at 08:19  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Yes, your penknife is worth something, but probasbly not a huge amount. Sounds like a silver-bladed fruit penknife, worth around £20-30.
PS Please turn off your caps lock when posting on-line.

1 July 2009 at 08:28  
Anonymous Neil Skerry said...

I have a red handled penknife with the logo Wembley Exhibition 1924 made by Foreman Cutlery. Any ideas on rarety/value. Cannot trace on internet. Email please

6 October 2009 at 05:06  
Anonymous les chattell said...

Thanks for the opportunity. I have inherited an old brass handled knife with many blades similar to some on your pic and probably allied to a particular trade. 4" overall , serated hook, corkscrew, blade, and lace hook. The handle is inscribed H. CARR and looks original maker mark, All is very good with no pitting only discolouration.
Could you date and identify for me?
Thanks for the site,

13 January 2010 at 03:21  
Anonymous Chris Bailey said...

I have a combined fruit knife and fork "pocket set". It is about about 3" long and splits into two pieces to provide a delicate two0pronged fork and a knife. Mother of Pearl handles with .925 sterling silver blade and fork. The hallmarks suggest a Duty Mark for George the Third, and the maker (I T ) as being either Joseph Taconet (1799) or Joseph Thredder (18o5). Would you be able to give me an approximate value please? Thank you very much. Chris Bailey

19 March 2010 at 03:23  
Anonymous Elaine said...

I have an old pocket knife by G.Felix of Solginen, I can send pictures if it would help.

30 March 2010 at 11:31  
Anonymous Stan said...

I was just in S Dakota and Stopped in at an Antique shop and bought a bone handle knife with a corkscrew and maybe a can opener looking thing! In the Blade at the bottom it looks like an H or similar to two stick figures of people holding hands. Its very old but I cant get any info on it. can you help me with this?

10 July 2010 at 07:53  
Anonymous Brian Shine said...

I presume that pen knives were originally designed to sharpen the nib of a quill pen. As a point of interest, about what date were quill pens superceded by steel nibs/pens and "pen"-knives evolved into "pocket"-knives.

31 July 2010 at 03:50  
Anonymous Rob Austwick said...

I think I have a french Navaja pen knife stamped on the blade is Riberon. It is of the folding type and has a scrimshaw type pattern on the closed sides. can you give me any more advice as to who could validate this.

16 August 2010 at 06:37  
Anonymous Nicholas Walton said...

Please can you give me an idea of origin of my Knife, Folk and Spoon set. It has initialS on it and comes apart in three parts so as to be used individually. The three seperate items fold away like a penknife and then slot together to form one item. It has a leather pouch also. I think it could be Military but not sure. It needs a bit of a clean but looks like it has something on it like Edinburgh on the Knife.
Would be nice to have idea of what it is and any value.
Regards, nic

19 October 2010 at 12:13  
Anonymous Cullen said...

hello, i was given a few penkinves by my granddad and they are fairly old. i have ur email address so i can send you some pictures. i havnt got any other idea how to find if they have some value.

25 November 2010 at 04:41  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Go ahead - I'll do my best.

25 November 2010 at 04:42  
Anonymous Louise said...


A few years ago my Dad lost a fish shaped pen knife. It was a gift to him from his late father. Not expensive but sentimental. I would love to try and find one for him. Can anyone point me in the right direction to find one..... ?Thank You

15 December 2010 at 02:37  
Anonymous Nan said...

I have a brown ULSTER bone pen knife with a round metal emblem with what looks like an eagle with a star at either end of its wings with a patterned backdrop. It has 5 implements. Is this worth anything?

13 March 2011 at 06:03  
Anonymous John said...

I have a 3 piece royal brand sharp cutter w mother of pearl handles has knife fork/w stand and sharpener blades are stainless but not sure about the connector

28 May 2011 at 08:37  
Anonymous kevin said...

I have an antique 14k gold sheffield penknife,i got from my grandfather and he was born in 1890. So i have no idea how old this one is. Aound the outter part of the case has waht looks like finns a thin line and then a round circle all connected. It opens and there are 2 small blades one on each end. The outter case has a *14k on it. On the longer blade is written Sheffiels made in U.S.A. I am trying to find out when it was made,where and if its true 14k gold not plated and its value at todays market.
Thank You

11 August 2011 at 01:19  
Anonymous Lyndall said...

many years ago I found an old pocket knife which has the wording "The Condor" it pictures a globe and factory on each side.
with the inscription Made In Holland does anyone know , who made this and what is it's origin ?

20 August 2011 at 02:54  
Anonymous Jean Wright said...

Hi, I have found an ivory looking tiny penknife 2 inches long with an ivory blade, one side has discoloured but the other side and blade are much lichter. Please can you tell me if this is of any value.
Regards Jean

8 September 2011 at 09:53  
Anonymous jade said...

hi ive got an old pearl knife.. wanted too know whats its worth its got halmarks ect..

18 September 2011 at 13:04  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Dear Jade, If the knife is quite small and has a silver blade, it's probably for fruit. It's value is probably around £15-25 but seeing a picture of it would be an enormous help to be more accurate.

20 September 2011 at 03:14  
Anonymous Keith Hansen said...

I found a tiny little pocket knive with 2 blades, on one there is a tiny little bulging arm, and it has HAM on one side of clinched arm and MER on the other side, and below ot one side it says HAND. Ita total size it when all folded shut about 1- 1/2 ", small blade about 3/4" long, big blade 1-1/2' long. What is this thing, it has what looks to be a shield on the outside

20 September 2011 at 07:42  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Keith, It sounds like your penknife was made by the New York Knife Co. They retailed a "Hammer Brand" range with the image of an arm and hammer as the trademark. Being so small, it was probably intended to be carried in a waistcoat pocket or else a lady's purse. Its uses were myriad - cutting a plug of tobacco in the case of the former, or sharpening an eyebrow pencil for the latter. A silver blade would indicate a small fruit knife. Value is relatively small. I hope this helps.

20 September 2011 at 13:31  
Anonymous Frank said...

Hi I have a pen knife which looks as though it has a bone handle and nickle fittings. The unusual thing is that it has two blades one looks like a very fine wood saw and the other a comb with 3mm teeth. It is too delicate to cut wood so my best guess is it is for trimming hair.
Sorry for my ignorance, has any body any thoughts as to it's use. I know it belonged to my grand father so probably dates from the 1920.sor before. It is stamped Sheffield England. Thanks in anticipation Regards Frank

19 November 2011 at 07:30  
Anonymous Beverley Milburn said...

HELP!!! I have 12 vintage knives that I would like to sell but have no idea where to sell them as most of the on-line sites, like e-bay do not allow the sale of knives. I also do not know what sort of price I should be asking for them.
Can anyone suggest a good on-line site or other outlet I could use??
I do have pictures if anyone is interested.

27 November 2011 at 12:26  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Beverley, I suggest a visit to your local saleroom.

27 November 2011 at 16:19  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home