The Barlow Knife
Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. XII no. 2, June 1959
by Laurence A. Johnson
The success and well-being of the colonist when he came to the new land of America depended a great deal on the tools he brought with him. An often unthought-of, but an important tool, was his folding pocketknife or jackknife with which he could whittle out many useful and helpful implements. Such things as the spile whittled from the sumac, with which he tapped the maple tree, and the Indian broom which he whittled from birch, ash, or hickory are examples.
To many of us a knife is a knife but to the person who knows how to use one and depends upon it, the knife is a great deal more. Man chooses with great care the type of knife that he feels will suit him best. The pocketknife has held this unique position since it was first invented. “Of all the forms of knives,” Mr. Harold Peterson writes in his book, American Knives, “the pocketknife has perhaps been man’s most universal companion. Excavated specimens from Roman sites indicate that the folding pocketknife was popular at least as early as the first century A. D. In its infinite variations it is in the possession of almost every man today. For centuries it has been both a household neighbor and the comrade of soldiers and sailors, the small boy’s dream and the comfort of the aged whittler.” Mr. Peterson states that the commonest name and the oldest for a pocketknife is “jackknife.” The name is found in European documents as early as 1672, and is probably much older. In our own Colonial records the name can be found quite frequently and during the Revolution at least two states, New York and New Hampshire required their militia to carry one. British and French soldiers also carried jackknives during this period and many have been recovered from forts and camp sites. Mr. Peterson continues: “The exact origin and the original meaning of the name jackknife are unknown. Early versions and variants include Jackeleg knife, Jock the leg knife, Jactaleg knife, and Jackleg knife, and dozens of others. As early as 1776 the famed etymologist Lord Haile was speculating about its derivation, and he thought he had solved the problem. He wrote ‘ …. the etymology of this word remained unknown till not many years ago an old knife was found having the inscription Jacques de Liege, the name of the cutler.’ From this beginning he reasoned that the name evolved to Jack de Leg to Jackleg and was finally shortened to just plain jack. Other students of word origins followed Lord Haile’s lead, and this story of its origin has been repeated ever since, though modern research has failed thus far to find evidence of any such cutler at Liege.”
” …. Another pocketknife well known to history and legend is the Barlow. Actually the Barlow is a kind of jackknife. Supposedly a cutler named Barlow designed the knife in an attempt to produce a rugged knife at the cheapest possible price. To cut costs the blade was forged from high carbon steel and the handle was usually made of bone with little effort spent in polishing or other finishing. To add strength, the bolster was increased in length and weight since that is the point of greatest strain on all folding knives. Generally speaking, the bolster of a Barlow should be about one-third of the length of the closed knife. Today Barlows have lost their original rough finish and their cheap price. Also, there are often two blades, but the distinctive long bolster is still always present. Whether a man named Barlow actually designed the knife is impossible to determine. But it has had a long and fascinating history. The name seems to have been adopted as early as 1779 and seems to have been in general usage at that time. Because of its low price it was very popular among the working classes and it was a gr eat favorite with boys for many generations. John Russell is often credited with having been the first American cutler to manufacture Barlow knives, but that is by no means cer tain. Beyond doubt, how ever , is the fact that the Russell Barlow gained immortality through Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, who treasured that knife as one of their prized possessions. Many a man today who acquired his first knife before 1920 can well understand their enthusiasm for that sturdy blade.”
The John Russell Company, Mr. Peterson speaks of is now the Russell Harrington Cutlery Company, Southbridge, Massachusetts, and a letter received from J. D. Gallery the present manager, states that these famous knives were first made in 1785: “They were designed by an Englishman named Barlow with the idea from the beginning to make a knife with the best possible piece of steel for the blade with the other par ts of minimum materials so that the pr ice could be kept reasonable. From 1775 up until World War II, the blade was made from English steel … Actually, John Russell, the man for whom these knives were named, or half-named, died a year before they were put on the market. It was the cutlery company he founded, however, on the banks of Green River in Massachusetts that made and introduced the knives to eager whittlers and carvers in the East and South. Before that time, the John Russell Company had been engaged in the manufacture of the “Green River” knife which both Indian and settler alike used to lift the hides of animals and each other’s hair during the great days of western Settlement.”
Mark Twain wrote Tom Sawyer in 1876 and refers to a jackknife as a “real Barlow.” No doubt, M. Twain was writing from boyhood experience and referred to the knife as a “real Barlow” to differentiate between the English Barlow and the newly-made American Barlow.
Mary Morse Earle in Home Life in Colonial Days, 1898, speaks of the Barlow: “The boy’s jack-knife was a possession so highly desired, so closely treasured in those days when boys had so few belongings, that it is pathetic to read of many a farm lad ‘s struggles and long hours of weary work to obtain a good knife. Barlow knives were the most highly prized for sixty years, and had, I am told , a vast popularity for over a century. May they forever rest in glorious memory, as they lived the happiest of lots to be the best beloved of a century of Yankee boys is indeed an enviable destiny. A few battered old Soldiers of this vast army of Barlow jack-knives still linger to show us the homely features borne by the century’s well beloved; the Smithsonian lnstitution cherishes some of colonial days…” The author directs attention to an illustration in her book of three Barlow Jack-knives in Deerfield Memorial Hall, Deerfield, Massachusetts. ” … whose picture should appear to every American something more than to the presentment of dull bits of wood and rusted metal.” She quotes Daniel Webster as calling these English jackknives, Yankee jack-knives; “These Yankee jack-knives were, said Daniel Webster, the direct fore-runners of the cotton-gin and thousands of noble American inventions; the new England boy’s whittling was his alphabet of mechanics.”
The John Russell Cutlery Company advertised their knife as the Russell Barlow and until they discontinued its manufacture the leading Barlow knife was known as the Russell Barlow. This made it confusing to those seeking the first name of Barlow and the knife’s origin. This confusion is what probably caused one of our best reference dictionaries to include the following under Barlow:” …. Russell Barlow, whose knives we used for whittling, had he lived in earlier times, would have been made the patron Saint of the Whittlers.”
Information received from Dr. H. Raymond Singleton , Director of the Sheffield City Museum, Sheffield, England, throws a much needed light on the question of the origin of the Barlow jackknife ; ” … The family business which produced these knives was founded in 1667 by Obadiah Barlow, who lived in Stannington, three miles from Sheffield and established a cutlery workshop in Campo Lane, near the center of Sheffield. He soon gained a reputation for the excellence of his pocket knives, which he and his successors maintained for 130 years. Obadiah was joined by his grandson, John, in 1710; his son, whose name was also Obadiah, not being a cutler. John continued the business and eventually was joined by his own son, John, in 1745. This John, who was the last of the family, was the one chiefly responsible for developing the exports of Barlow knives to America. He died in 1798. The mark used by the family on these knives was the simple arrangement BAR. To complicate matters, this mark was later granted to other cutlers during the 19th century. Also, so-called Barlow knives (meaning knives of the Barlow pattern ) continued to be made for a hundred years after John Barlow’s death. In addition, there were other families of the same making knives in Sheffield, for instance a John Barlow who made table knives in the 1870’s and these were not related to the Barlows of Stannington.”
I wrote Dr. Singleton for photographs of the Barlow knives that I assumed would be part of his museums collections. He wrote back : “I would willingly have sent you a photograph … Unfortunately, however, although our collection of cutlery is the largest in the world, it does not include any examples of the Barlows’ knives. I think that they must all be on your side of the Atlantic; certainly I have never even seen one”!
The Smithsonian Institution in formed me that they have sixteen old Barlows with single and double blades, the bequest of Mr. Charles F. Wiebusch in 1930. Pictured in figure one are four of these knives from the Smithsonian Institution with their descriptions.
Figure two is a genuine Russell Barlow, a gift from Mr . Lewis D. Bement to Deerfield Memorial Hall, Deerfield ,Massachusetts. Observe the distinctive trademark – an arrow- pierced R on the metal haft. Mr. Bement describes the knife : “The R with the arrow through it, that is in dented on the bolster was the characteristic trademark of the Russell Barlow … although the master blade is 2-1/4 inches, the knife is known in the trade as a 3-1/4 inch jack, which is the overall length of the closed blade. The two outstanding virtues of the Russell Barlow were its price and the quality of its blades. The one bladed knife retailed at 15 cents and the two bladed at two bits or 25 cents. During World War I, Russell had to discontinue their manufacture. When I took over the Company in 1920 I found unfilled orders, accepted at the original low price, for over 50 thousand dozen. As at that time, the raw material was costing three to five cents a piece more than the sale price and since the demand for pocketknives had changed to showier knives, we discontinued their manufacture. Up until 1920 the Russell Barlow was the standard pocketknife in the south and middle west and became so famous that – as late as 1950 – one of the columnists connected with the Courier-Journal at Louisville, Kentucky, started a club called the “Barlow Bearcats” and collected hundreds of letters from owners of Russell Barlow’s telling how they came by them and experiences they had with them.”
I wrote to Mr. Allan M. Trout, columnist on the Louisville Courier-Journal inquiring about his “Barlow Bearcats” and he informed me about his mythical club and how you too, dear reader, can become a member.
“In real salaried life I am a political writer and public affairs reporter in the field of state government. As a hobbyist, I have done a daily column called “Greetings,” for twenty years. This column is a mixture of folklore, buffoonery, barnyard science, voodooism, etc. lt is underlaid with gentle satire and philosophy. I will give you a few bare facts … There have been hundreds of brandname Barlows, such as KeenKutter Barlow, Remington Barlow, Russell Barlow, etc. Only owners of Russell Barlows are eligible to join the Barlow Bearcats. This knife is now a genuine antique . it is easily identified by the distinctive trade-mark of an arrow-pierced R on each of the metal hafts.”
“Some ten years ago, I guess it was, I organized the mythical club in Greetings, calling it the Barlow Bearcats the only club in Christendom without dues and duties, or aims and aspirations. I restricted membership to owners of old Russell Barlow knives. An assertation is all I require. I initiate members in one or two paragraphs, and no two initiations have ever been alike. This club is by far the most popular gimmick of Greetings. It is running now as strong as ever. Members include, literally, men from every walk of life. I have the Barlow Auxiliary for women owners, and my description of it is; the only Auxiliary in Christendom which is not required, upon stated occasions, to serve a pot luck supper to the men of the main branch.”
“People are so anxious to get hold of Russell Barlows that the going price ranges from $5 to $20 in the circulation area of the C.-J. The result is practically every old Russell Barlow in the country is now to be found in this area. Kentucky knife traders have advertised for them in gun, fish, sporting magazines, etc. offering say $1 for old Russell Barlows. This looks good to somebody away off who never heard of the Barlow Bearcats. I use other gimmicks in Greetings, also to people who write for them, I send five genuine shoe pegs, cut from maple, to tighten the hands on old Seth Thomas clocks; I mail out buckeyes to ward off rheumatism; I mail rabbit tobacco, an aromatic herb, to dispel the vicissitudes of life; I mail out from time to time, seed from the ginko tree, balsam apple, dipper gourds, bushel gourds, etc. Whatever you write about the Barlow Bearcats, if anything, I hope you will make it plain that it applies to the Russell Barlow, only one of the many brand names of the Barlow.”
How Mr. Lewis D. Bement became a member of the Barlow Bearcats is told in Mr. Trout’s column “Greetings” in the October 17, 1950 issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
“I hereby apply for membership in the Barlow Bearcats,” writes Lewis D. Bement, Deerfield, Mass. “I am the proud owner of three ( 3) genuine Russell Barlows!”
“Friends, Mr. Bement used to be president of the old John Russell Cutlery Company, manufacturers of the Russell Barlow knife. But Mr. Bement heretofore was not eligible to join the Barlow Bearcats because he had no Barlow! Our valued new member now continues his narrative:
“I started to hunt for some old Russell Barlows September 9. I put a short ad in our local paper, feeling I might be deluged with answers. I got three. Two of the knives came from two of the old workmen – now retired. One is 82 and the other is 83. One ran a double-header polishing machine for 3 I years, and the other was on the assembly bench 28 years. Both these knives were new, and were kept as souvenirs. The third knife came from a woman whose grandfather, a Swiss, came to work in the cutlery as a boy in 1855. He worked there until his death in 1902. He had made the Barlow and given it to his son who, in turn, gave it to his daughter. When she married, she passed it on to her husband, a carpenter. He dug it out of his tool kit for me; wouldn’t sell, but agreed to swap it for a two-bladed jackknife with sabre blade. The knife is still as sharp as a razor. There was never a better jackknife made than the old Russell Barlow. Interestingly enough, however, the sale and popularity was confined almost entirely to the Southern States. Why, I could never understand or find out. The Russell company was not a pocketknife factory outside of the Barlow. They specialized in knives for stock yards, and the professional butcher and restaurant trade. Pocketknife specialists copied our knife. They did a face lifting and spit-and-polish job. They killed the Russell Barlow because laymen didn’t know the difference, and the spit-and-polish attracted them. Too bad.”
“I’ve just completed an historical story about cutlery from the Stone Age to the Steel Age, “The Cutlery Story.” I’ll send you a copy when it comes off the press.”
In his January 1, 1931, Mr. Trout wrote in his column:
“On this, the first day of the second half of the Twentieth Century, 1 have a valued announcement of interest to Barlow Bearcats, and to eldest sons who expect to inherit. Read this column carefully, then clip it for future reference.”
“I had the feeling that we acquired an auspicious asset when Lewis D. Bement, Deerfield, Mass., applied for membership and was admitted with a flourish. Mr. Bement, you will remember, used to be president of the old John Russell Cutlery Co., manufacturers of the Russell Barlow pocketknife.”
“I now reveal to you that Mr. Bement presently is secretary of the Associated Cutlery lndustries of America. He became highly interested in our mythical little club of men and women who still own the old-time Russell Barlow knife.”
“Mr. Bement, in turn, transmitted his interest to J. D. Gallery, general manager of the Russell-Harrington Cutlery Co., Southbridge, iVIass. This company is successor to the old John Russell Co.”
“After three-way correspondence between Mr. Bement, Mr. Gallery and myself, I am happy to announce:
1. The Russell-Harrington Cutlery Co. will undertake to repair and restore, so far as they can, the old Russell Barlow knives that belong to my Barlow Bearcats.
2. The cost of this service will be a token fee of $1 per knife.
Mr. Gallery’s company no longer makes pocket knives. It long since has disposed of most of the spare parts remaining from the days when Russell Barlows were made. But Mr. Gallery informs me there are still a few old craftsmen around the plant who used to make Russell Barlows. He intends to assign some of them to the job of tinkering on such knives as are sent up there.”
“Now here is the most important point of all: l\1r. Gallery does not, and cannot, promise anything beyond a tinkering job. He cannot promise restoration to newknife standards. Do not send your knife, then, if you know beyond a doubt it is beyond repair. Only send it if you think what is wrong can be corrected by the expert tinkering of craftsmen whose hearts will be in the job.”
“This project will be a labor of love for Mr. Gallery and his company. Basically, it is a tribute of generous good will to the warm story of the old Russell Barlow knife, as developed in this column. The $1 fee was my suggestion, not Mr. Gallery’s. It will nowise cover the cost of this service, but I thought some fee was needed to show good faith at this end of the line.”
“If you want the knowing hands of these old Russell Barlow craftsmen to restore your knife to the best possible condition, send it, along with your name and address and $ to: J. G. Gallery, General Manager Russell-Harrington Cutlery Co. Southbridge, Mass.”
“But do not send a knife beyond repair and, of course, do not send one now in good condition. Expect no miracle of restoration. This service is open only to Barlow Bearcats and to women members of the Barlow Auxiliary. The honor system will be used as to membership.”
“And now, let us give a rousing cheer for M. Gallerv. Let us induct him into the Barlow Bearcats forthwith. While others reflect sourly upon the past and grope for uncertain future with fumbling fingers, let us proclaim him the Banner Bearcat of this, the Second Half of the Twentieth Century!”
To further reveal how popular Barlow knives were we quote from the January 5, 195 1 column of Mr. Trout’s:
“At hand is a leisurely report from Millard Alexandria Josephus Crow Brummette, Albany, upon certain matters within and beyond his household. Mr. Brummette, a barber, goes by the name of Crow.
‘I follow your column more than I do the Birthday Almanac,’ he writes. ‘And in both, I find some things that are mighty bad, and others a durned sight worse. As for Arbuckle Coffee, in my family there is an old razor my father got with Arbuckle signatures when I was a boy. But what I really want to find out is: Am I eligible for the Barlow Bearcats, and is my wife eligible for the Barlow Auxiliary, when we have only one Russell Barlow between us? Here’s the story: When I was a boy, l owned lots of Barlows – single and double-bladed, straight, hawk, razor points, etc. Some 1 bought, some I traded for, some l found, and some I just got. I knew an old Civil War veteran by name of Ike Sheffield. He made whip stocks, ax and hoe handles, buggy spokes, mops, hammer handles, all from hickory. He used a Russell Barlow knife and drank Arbuckle Coffee. At his death, Thomas Sheffield, his son, became owner of the knife. He later sold it to a friend, and this friend gave it to my wife. But I had to repair it by putting in a back spring, a rivet, and one handle. We now use the knife jointly for such things as peeling taters, apples, etc.; cutting ropes and picking out thorns; whittling shavings for the fire; trimming corns, toe nails, etc. If you cannot admit us both into your upstanding organization, just make her a member of the Barlow Auxiliary and send me a terrapin back for consolation!’
Sir, l have examined your valued application up one side and down the other. I find it hog tight, bull stout, and mule high. I now declare you a member of the Barlow Bcarcats, and your fearless wife a member of the Barlow Auxiliary. But each of you shall cast only one half a vote.”
Figure three shows an excerpt from an 1888 Butler Brothers Catalogue advertising a “Genuine heavy Furness Barlow Knife.” Figures four and five are from the Fall and Winter catalogue number 58 of Montgomery-Ward Company, J 895-96 and reveals two boys’ Barlows and two English Barlows.
Modern Barlows can still be bought today. The Barlow shown in figure six is from the catalogue page of the Camillus Cutlery Company, Camillus, New York. Recently I visited this company and saw 25,000 of these Barlow knives ready to be shipped out. Last year about 135,000 of these Barlows were marketed from this factory. The forerunner of the firm was Adolph Castor and Brothers. They began business in 1875 and were first importers and wholesalers. One of their first imported knives and their exclusive brand Barlow is shown in figure one marked XLNT. Later they started manufacturing all sort of knives.
I asked Mr. W. Dean Wallace, President of the Camillus Cutlery Company to write me concerning today’s Barlow: “Evidencing a resurgence on popularity, Barlow sales (as a percentage of total pocketknife sales) are on the increase … probably because this pattern is the sturdiest of jackknives in a given price range. Furthermore, its popularity is no longer confined to the south but has become countrywide.”
I think this is a nice tribute to old Obadiah Barlow, who, way back in the seventeenth century saw the possibilities of a sturdy well-made folding pocketknife that could be sold at a price that was within the means of the masses.
We members of the EAlA ought to “scurry” around a bit and hunt out some old Barlows. If we are lucky and find a Russell Barlow, we too can join Mr. Trout’s Barlow Bearcats. But, better yet, we can donate these old Barlows to restorations and museums, so that the youth of today and of tomorrow may see this important tool that helped start this country on its march of progress. Perhaps we could spare a few to send to Dr. H. Raymond Singleton of the Sheffield City Museum, Sheffield, England, and show the folks over there that some of these old Barlows have come home to “roost”.