Monday, November 18, 2013

The Swiss Army Knife, everywhere, even in the most unexpected places

A small white cross on the red handle of a folding knife, such is the trademark that enables one to identify a Swiss Army Knife at a glance. The incredible story begins with Karl Elsener, who was born in 1860. Having learned the cutler’s craft in Zug, the town of his forefathers, he opened his own workshop in 1884 in Ibach and immediately showed his sharpened sense of marketing, getting himself known through a series of advertisements published in local papers, and by placing some of his knives in various clothing accessory shops, including his father’s hat shop. In 1891, he founded the Swiss Cutlery Guild, whose main objective was to be able, by combined effort, to do something that no one had yet been able to achieve on his or her own, that is to manufacture the pocket knife for the army of the Swiss Confederation. Up until then, the Swiss Military had ordered its knives from Solingen, the center of German knifemaking.

The first delivery of these new knives was made in October 1891, consisting of a model called the “Soldier’s Knife,” weighing 144 grams, with wooden plaques for the handle, a single blade, awl, can opener and screwdriver. But although very robust, it was rather heavy, so an “officers” model was designed and officially registered on June 12, 1897. Despite two additional pieces (a second, smaller blade and a corkscrew), this model was lighter and much more elegant: as for the plaques, they were made from red fiber. Immediately adopted by the army, great interest was also shown in these models by a civilian clientele, inside Switzerland at first, and then far beyond its borders. Over the years these two models have undergone various evolutions. The “soldier”, for example, was made twenty grams lighter in 1908, with the wooden sides, whose main defect was that they fissured too quickly, replaced by others made from fiber. In 1951, using stainless steel again saved 35 grams. In 1961, red alox was used for the sides, and the weight dropped still further to 72 grams! In 1965, it was trimmed with silver alox, and in 1980 the Swiss escutcheon was placed on it. As for the “officer” model, this escutcheon was placed on it in 1909, in 1936 the fiber was replaced by Celluloid, in 1946 the can opener was improved, in 1951 alox was used for the separators, and in 1968 the initial attachment was replaced by a ring.

The reason why a Swiss blazon was placed on it in 1909 was to designate it clearly as an item of Swiss manufacture and thus distinguish it from German models, and then from imitations, since it goes without saying that in any era a good product can only be copied. It was necessary to identify it better though, and thus protect it, using a commercial name. In 1909, Karl Elsener’s mother died and he decided to use her first name, Victoria, for the brand. The firm’s founder worked himself relentlessly, perhaps even to death, departing this world at the age of fifty-eight; he was succeeded by his sons, Carl and Alois. In 1921, stainless steel made its appearance under the name “Inox” and thus was added to the brand, which, when contracted, became “Victorinox”

But orders, both civil and military, had been so huge since the establishment of the company that Karl Elsener had never been able to fully satisfy the demand. That is why another company was created in Switzerland in 1906, under the name Wenger, which also made Swiss Army Knives for soldiers, officers and civilians with the same red sides and the same white cross, but placed at the center of a square with rounded edges. The two companies have worked together ever since, with each one developing an infinite range of models so that the tools in these little knives will respond to all needs.

From the slim four-piece “Soldier’s Knife” to the imposing twenty-one piece “Toolkit”, who would dare to claim that they couldn’t find what they were seeking? A special model for hunters with a switchblade mechanism, another for anglers, yet others for horse riders, golfers, campers, sailors, skippers, and even a “Special Fireman” model.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Marble Arms and Manufacturing Company

Born in 1854, Webster L. Marble grew up learning hunting, fishing and trapping skills. During his early adult life, Marble worked as a timber surveyor and cruiser. These experiences may not have been important except for the effect they would have upon the knives we used and trusted years ago, knives that have become highly regarded collectibles today. Marble recognized certain needs and used his talents to fill them. His earliest contributions were the waterproof matchbox and safety pocket axe. Marble made these items part-time until 1898, when he built a sixty-four square foot building for his growing business.

Operating as W. L. Marble, Gladstone, Michigan, he started full time manufacturing and national advertising in 1899. That year, a partner, Frank H. Van Cleve, joined him in the business. A move was made into a 9,000 square-foot building and in 1902; the company name was changes to “The Marble Safety Axe Company.”

Marble’s first knife was introduced in 1900. Named “The Idea,” this knife became the basic model from which later models were developed. Other sheath knives, such as the “Dall DeWeese” and “Woodcraft” models, furthered a quality image for the company. The Marble’s Safety Hunting Knife, patented in 1902 and introduced in 1903, was deserving of the success it achieved. Combining features of the safety axe with a quality hunting or sporting blade, this knife is one of today’s choice collectibles. For about a five-year period, beginning in 1903, the company marketed a line of contract made pocketknives marked “M.S.A. Co./Gladstone/Mich. USA.” Case Brothers and some advertisement show knives, also of high quality, made these knives, for Marbles with ”XX” on the blade. A few other models were probably of German manufacture. All are extremely rare, and counterfeits far outnumber originals. Beware!!

In 1911, the company name changed again, this time to The Marble Arms and Manufacturing Company, and another move was made into even larger quarters. Marble’s knives were so respected that Teddy Roosevelt, the Perry Arctic Expedition, and the Smithsonian Institute Expeditions used them. It was about this time that the knife tang stamping changed to “MARBLES / GLASDSTONE / MICH. USA.”

Many of Marble’s patents expired during the 1920’s and other manufactures began to capitalize upon his design. Their quality was usually lower, but so were the prices and the competition began to take its toll on the Marble’s company. His company’s business was still quite good when Webster Marble died in 1930. By the end of World War II, however Marble’s sales volume and profits were declining. The axe and folding knife line was dropped during the war and sheath knife patterns were cut to four models. Manufacture of the axe line was revived in 1954 and remained in production for a few years. The company began adding new sheath knife patterns, such as the “Sportsman,” in 1954 and the number of models or variations grew to ten during the mid 1960’s. The year 1979 saw the end of the company’s knife manufacturing.

Marble sheath and folding knives are listed by model, stampings, and handle variations. Several are unique and rare and a good example of a highly prized Marble product is the Coquina Outfit sold during the company’s early days. Named in honor of editor G. O. Shields (Coquina), the outfit’s unique feature is its fancy sheath that holds two knives and sharpening steel. The purchaser could choose the handle variations of an Ideal at a regular price ranging from $2.25 to $3.50, a Skinning model knife at $1.50 and a stag or leather handled steel at $1.00. With these purchases, the sheath was free; it was for sale without knives or steel at $1.00. Today, a Coquina Outfit in near mint condition is valued over $10,000.

The astute collector should beware of fakes and be aware that some commemoratives or reproduction Marble knives have been made. In 1973, 500 pieces of a commemorative “Trailmaker” were made. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, a variety of knives manufactured by other firms were stamped with the Marble trademark. These included folding and fixed blade knives in both modern and reproduction patterns. In 1997, the company, under new ownership, began offering some of the popular old-pattern knives. Today, some of the company’s product line is still made in Michigan, while other items such as pocketknives are produced overseas.