A Snapshot of American Knife History in New England and San Francisco

July 02 2024 – Josh Donald

A Snapshot of American Knife History in New England and San Francisco
A Snapshot of American Knife History in New England and San Francisco

Most of the Russell and San Francisco knives that I am the current chaperone of were from the estate of Don Rich, who took a special interest in focusing his many decades of knife collecting on J. Russell Green River Works, A.J. Jordan and the San Francisco makers Will & Finck and Michael Price. 

I suspect Don decided I wasn’t a putz when I told him about my time as a foundryman casting bronze. We discovered he was from the same town as my grandmother, Norman, Oklahoma.

I didn’t completely understand his collecting focus at the time 15 years ago when I traded knives with him; his old Sabatier, Solingen-made knives, and others for the J. Russell or A.J. Jordan knives that I found. I kept the few SF-made things I found, but they were just a few scattered knives at the time compared to Don’s collection of San Francisco carving sets. 

When I bumped into Don at the Flea Market or went out to his West Oakland foundry to trade knives, he was a friendly, smart guy with an equally bad poker face as me when making trades, and I also learned that he also took no shit. He told me about how, after his daughter was born, he chased out the crack dealers from a playground near his West Oakland workshop with his old M1 Garand rifle. 

Don was Native American and a proud veteran. I don’t think we always agreed on politics, but we shared an enthusiasm and enjoyed sharing what we had been learning. I wished I could have asked him more about his personal perspective on the history of many of his knives related to the westward expansion of the 19th century. Maybe today, I have a possible window into what he might have been compelled to learn more of, given the histories of these makers. I know that they made exceptional knives that were both unique and distilled to something essential to the time and place they occupied. 

Given that Don’s collection is with me now, it's up to me to interpret their significance and the story they are telling together. I never placed a premium on old knives strictly on where they were made, but maybe the more far-off origins held more romance. In the last few years, I have found myself hanging onto the old and historically emblematic pieces of American cutlery, waiting for their stories to reveal themselves. It is as if they have quiet and well-mannered ghosts who are waiting for a quorum amongst themselves.

Maybe this old American cutlery is more significant right now as it also can bring seemingly different groups of people together. In this way, trying to tell their stories brings me a sense of connection with people I might not otherwise mix with. It always makes me feel a little irrationally hopeful, looking for the better qualities we Americans share. 

Writing about American culinary knives offers a big challenge; even with a relatively short history, American knives reflect a wide range of food traditions and economic realities. While everything but what is truly Indigenous is imported here in the USA, hardly anybody and anything stays in its imported state once acclimated. People, food, and knives all evolve to their new homes, and all become American in their own way. Foodways and their requisite knives come into use and production with new people or new ideas. Cross-pollination in foodways and knife style adaptations sometimes happen quickly, and at others, old patterns persist seemingly past their expiration.

There's a much larger story here than what I have sketched out. This is intended to give a bit of context and not to be an exhaustive account. Learning about these American knife origins points to much larger stories, implying that this is the complete story would short-change us all. That said, I would like to share a bit about two places I have spent a little time in Massachusetts and lived for 30 years in San Francisco. This covers a good amount of ground, literally and figuratively, and I hope these stories show how culinary knives are important historical markers far outside the kitchen or dining room and, ultimately, that you can’t keep the kids (or knives) on the farm. 

 

Independence / Dependance

While the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, independence wasn’t actualized until after the war in 1789. Similarly, material independence from Britain wasn’t complete initially; the fledgling United States of America still relied on Great Britain for finished goods, especially cutlery. While there were abundant blacksmiths in the early United States, iron production was an important part of colonial exports to Great Britain, especially with the abundant forests of North America providing the charcoal that fueled the pre-and early Industrial Revolution. American iron production was seen as a possible threat during the colonial period, and the 1750 Iron Act prohibited the new establishment of American iron production and the manufacture of steel in the colonies. 

However, nothing in America came close to providing what Sheffield, England, did for cutlery in the newly ex-colonies. The combination of generations of skilled specialized craftsmen and the growing Industrial Revolution in Britain, which brought even greater muscle to Sheffield’s output, meant that the ex-colonists in the US were still largely laboring along pre-industrial modes when it came to cutlery. American cutlery manufacture outside the individual multipurpose blacksmith shop is generally recognized to have begun in 1818 with Henry Harrington in Worcester, Massachusetts. Ames Manufacturing also produced knives and numerous other items in Chicopee Falls, Mass.

While Harrington and Ames were making knives in an organized manufacturing type fashion, they were supplying a relatively small amount to their local areas; John Russell arguably was the one who gave the British a run for their knife money in the American market with knives made in the Western Massachusetts town of Greenfield under his Green River Brand. In 1834, the J Russell company made chisels with British-made steel and then expanded to axes. Woodworking and tree felling were important elements of early 19th-century American life, and his tools found a good audience. 

J Russell Green River Works 8" Bullnose Stag 1880s-1920s

The new American cutlery-making enterprises did not have Sheffield's multi-generational workers or the network of associated craftsmen and suppliers. Initially, all machinery was made by American workshop operators. Cutlery was made with locally produced iron and steel or with imported British steel. Sheffield-made shear steel still had a reputation as the best, and for good reason. 

In his new chisel and axe-making factory, John Russell utilized trip hammers inspired by Robert Orr’s scythe workshop in Bridgewater, CT. similar to those used in Europe. While initially home-spun, the use of machinery in cutlery production was an important focus. While not unique to cutlery manufacture in Europe, American manufacturers' early and eager acceptance of machinery was an important element in the rapid development of the American cutlery industry and persisted into the 20th century. This allowed for greater productivity, especially as American cutlery workers tended not to be independent contractors as they were in many European sectors, and setting up a large workshop was more possible.

It is important to emphasize that skilled labor was a key element here. Of course, there was no such thing as automation at this time, so machinery did not do the work per se but enabled greater output and the ability to make the same thing over and over at a lower cost. Russell expanded to knife production a few years after the chisel and axe production as he expanded the grinding capability of his shop.


Trade War

Before long, Sheffield noticed Russell’s growing footprint in the American market, and a trade war ensued. The British lowered export prices to squeeze Russell and the other American cutlery firms out of business. Through innovations in production and the poaching of Sheffield workers with higher wages than those available at home, Russell succeeded in not just holding off the British but securing a large section of the American market. 

Sheffield was by no means beaten regarding the American cutlery market. Their large, diversified skilled workforce occupying both small independent shops and larger steelmaking operations gave them a huge market in America up until the Civil War in the 1860s, after which the British share of the American market was squeezed into a much smaller portion with new American trade tariffs and a much more robust American manufacturing sector. 

The short,, sanitized version of the Russell story is this: Russell expanded shortly after the Civil War and became, for a short period, the largest cutlery factory in the world at Turner’s Falls in Massachusetts. The financial success of the mid-19th century would not continue as consistently for the J Russell Green River works. Eventually, Russell joined with rival Harrington Cutlery Co in the 1930s to form the now ubiquitous American cutlery manufacturer Dexter-Russell. 

When looked at in a fuller context, the J Russell history is a great illustration of how knife history is always more than just how people make and use knives. The J Russell story is the story of 19th-century American expansion, both economic and physical, bringing us directly into contact, warts and all, with the better and lesser angels of this history. 

The drive for independence, inventiveness, and dedication of New England’s Industrial origins must be reconciled with some of the less savory economics of the day. The J Russell Green River Works was only possible with money John Russell made speculating on cotton in the early 1830s in the new territory of Georgia. This connection in industrial New England was not unique, directly or indirectly. It should be mentioned that slave labor, through cotton, substantially benefited the economics of New England's textile mills. 

One armed man’s knife J Russell 1860s-1880

Russell successfully produced knives for the westward expansion. By establishing the process to manufacture thousands of these affordable, reliable knives daily, the company's financial backbone was established by the 1850s. For settlers, Russell’s simple butcher knives doubled as kitchen knives, utility knives, and weapons. ‘Up to Green River’ was a saying for something done to good measure, supposedly referencing the quality of Russell Green River knives or stabbing someone up to the Green River mark.

Russell enjoyed runaway success until the financial crisis following the panic of 1873, which brought harsh lessons to the country at large about, among other things, the limits of companies' ability to value and issue their own stock. Russell's ability to maintain expansion after this time was limited, and near financial disasters were averted and encountered repeatedly.

Despite the precarious financial nature of Russell’s later 19th-century years, they produced some exceedingly beautiful knives. In the 1880s to 1920s, some downright bizarre carved handles graced Russell’s catalogs, alligators carved from stag antlers, geese, horses, flowers, and Beaux-Arts geometric designs. The quality of the grinding and finishing of knives from this period is stunning; it was a true golden age of American knifemaking in the factories of the East, with a density of skilled labor that rivaled that of Sheffield, Solingen, or Thiers. 

(Top) 12" Lambsplitter Carbon Steel 1930s-60s Russell? 
(Middle) Dasco 12.5" Lambsplitter Carbon Steel 1922-62
(Bottom) Village Blacksmith 10" Meat Chopper Hollow Ground Carbon Steel 1920s-40

The history of 20th-century cutlery manufacture in New England is more complicated than can be summarized in a few quick lines, but by the end of the 20th century, it was mostly gone, especially at the intersection of skilled handwork and industrial technique that formed the backbone of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

For me, rather than being an easy source of moral superiority (it's easy to feel smug when looking at others past or present) or simply a picturesque graveyard, the first act of American knifemaking in New England offers me a lot of inspiration. Working to tease out how hand work and machine processes were done is essential for really understanding a huge chunk of the last two hundred years of culinary knife making and for teasing out how the golden ages of cutlery in the USA, Sheffield, Solingen Thiers, etc worked and despite the illusion of the solitary master blacksmith Japan today. 

When Elias Sideras and I designed and started the initial production of the Greenfield Gyuto, we looked at how the knifemakers of New England solved problems of production knife-making, especially in the handle, and how work knives were ground and finished. This was squished through the playdough mold of our imaginations, imagining if New England knifemaking had been done to supply late 19th century Japan with their Kanto gyuto, Japan’s first chef knife, a recent Western import. 

The industrial process we have to assist us in our fledgling endeavor differs from what was available in 19th—and early 20th-century New England. There have been many improvements in worker safety, and I am personally relieved not to have to choose between grinding knives and not getting ‘grinder’s consumption’—silicosis from the old natural stone wheels. I hope it is possible to bridge the gulf between handmade and manufactured American knives again; despite the foibles of their time, the New England knifemakers were on to something and did a great job of bringing the pleasure of fine cutlery to a wide swath of Americans. 

I love when the admittedly great Joseph Rodgers company of Sheffield proudly boasted “Cutlers to her /his majesty,” and several of New England’s makers (Harrington Cutlery and LF&C) retorted, “Cutlers to the American people.” Count me in. 


San Francisco as a Knife-making Center

A few years after the Mexican Secession of the West in 1848 and with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1849, San Francisco was thrust into center stage among the new American West Coast cities. Aside from straddling the entrance to San Francisco Bay, it was an unlikely candidate as an important city, which gave it potential military significance. But being in the middle of nowhere, it was essentially guarding nothing in 1848. 

 San Francisco’s meteoric and slapdash growth after the discovery of gold inland in 1849 left it ill-prepared to supply the new arrivals headed inland as well as for its new occupants. Manufactured goods (knives included) had to make the long trip around Cape Horn. If shipments arrived at all,, there was no knowing what condition they might arrive in, and even if everything worked out with delivery, the items would be exorbitantly priced. Being physically isolated from the Eastern center of American manufacturing and ports of import from Europe, the need for homegrown industry was great.

 In 1852, the most easily plucked gold started to dry up in the placer deposits of the Sierra Nevada’s foothills. San Francisco’s first knife maker, Hugh McConnell,, set up shop making bowie knives, surgical instruments, and some culinary knives for the newly established retailers who found a brisk trade with new arrivals and those returning with gold from the interior. Records are sparse, but several skilled cutlers arrived in San Francisco to work in the 1850s. McConnell hired cutler Herman Schintz from Switzerland and Frederick Will from New York to help him in his shop, and a distinctive San Francisco cutlery style emerged. McConnell passed away in 1863, but the industry he helped set in motion will continue to gather steam. 

The first S.F.-made cutlery was not cheap, nor was it cheaply made. The knives made by San Francisco makers were arguably the best in the country then. San Francisco knives were made to express the discernment and wealth amassed by the gold-seekers, successful business people in S.F., and the pride of the local craftsmen referred to in the day as mechanics. The good times, drinking, and grand feasts,, along with the city’s essentially unpoliced,, violent, seedy side,, are all reflected in the culinary and bowie knives that evolved.

The 1860s saw great prosperity in San Francisco from the wealth generated by the discovery of silver in Nevada’s Comstock Load. While San Francisco is associated with the gold rush of 1849, the Comstock Load was a much larger source of spending and growth for San Francisco, and local-made knives were not neglected in the shopping sprees of those who struck it rich.

In the 1860s, Schintz opened his own shop, and in 1863, Fred Will took over McConnell’s workshop and formed S.F.’s iconic cutlery firm Will & Finck, having joined forces with Julius Finck, a locksmith and bell hanger. Will & Finck would become the largest of SF cutlery firms with their finger in many pies: locksmithing, bell-hanging, manufacturing agricultural hand tools, gambling equipment (both crooked and straight) and cutlery; surgical equipment, razors, fancy bowies and push daggers, barware, and fine cutlery sets. 

In 1869, the transcontinental railroad connected Alameda across the SF Bay to the East Coast, and not long after, San Francisco knives were noticed by the rest of the country. After the 1871 Mechanics Fair in San Francisco, The ‘California carver’ became famous, and imitations sprung up from the larger Eastern manufacturers, especially copying the hump-backed offset design canonized by the various SF knife makers. The ‘antennae’ style guard found its way into production at this time as well. The California carver style crossed the Atlantic before long, and British and European copies are not too hard to find. These would have all been far less expensive than the genuine article, but these copies, too, found a place in the shops of San Francisco alongside the originals, especially later in the century at the enormous Will & Finck emporiums. Will & Finck even began to re-brand from Eastern makers. 

Michael Price learned the cutler's craft from his father in Limerick, Ireland, and emigrated to San Francisco in the 1850s. He most likely worked with other early knifemakers before opening his shop on Mongomery Street between Bush and Pine. Price offered surgical tools, razors, carving sets, and bowies guaranteed to cut through three silver dollars. 

Michael Price Sr. joined his son in San Francisco in 1865 and began working making cutlery with his son.

By the end of the 1960s, San Francisco knife makers Will & Finck and Michael Price had been aggressively promoting their work throughout California, creating impressive displays at the Mechanics Fairs that showcased local goods.

Like Will & Finck, Michael Price Jr. employed many skilled cutlers to help manufacture custom orders and items in his shop. By the 1880s, the sporting goods stock in his shop began to eclipse the cutlery, and Price Jr. mostly spent time at the boxing ring under his shop. The production of cutlery slowed. Michael Price died in 1889, a few years after his father died. 

A new crime wave at the end of the 1860s and multiple financial crises in the early 1870s saw a decline in the city's prosperity, and the important Mechanics Fairs faced difficulties from lower attendance and growing lawlessness. However, San Francisco makers insisted on making the best knives possible and boasted of using one of the best steels available –Brooklyn Steelwork’s Chrome Steel.

In the mid-1870s, with the rail connection to the rest of the United States, the cat was out of the bag regarding San Francisco-made cutlery. San Francisco-made carving sets became in demand from a whole new world of customers, and the Eastern manufacturers took note of creating their own ‘California carvers.’ These new imitations were made at various price points and different quality levels, lux sets for the well-to-do swells joined cheaply made sets within reach for the masses. As is the case now, knife makers worldwide were promiscuous, and copies of San Francisco’s distinctive style emerged not only from the big Eastern manufacturers but also from across the Atlantic. 

Back home in San Francisco, as the 19th century enters its last act, the rabid hunger for locally made knives fades. The wandering budget-minded eye of the public strays to cheaper Eastern US and European imports (which now did not have to travel around Tierra del Fuego), and of course, the local merchants took advantage of an opportunity. At this point, Will & Finck’s successful emporium stocked many OEM knives and razors made in New England and Europe, and their brand name and Eastern-made knives bore the Will & Finck logo. 

The number of knife-making shops staffed by the local cutlers busy at their trade moving from shop to shop sharing craft secrets had greatly declined when the 1906 earthquake hit. After the earthquake, fires had their way with San Francisco’s wooden buildings, and the city's rebuilding did not include knife-makers. Will & Finck continued as a retail establishment, but San Francisco’s history as a knife-making town had essentially ended. Today, this part of San Francisco’s history is largely unknown despite being an important element of the city’s distinctive evolution. 

I have hoarded a small collection of San Francisco-made carving sets and barware over the years of buying and selling vintage knives. Even at the height of my dawn patrol flea market scouring, when there seemed to be many more old knives to be found than today, they rarely surfaced. At the time, the culinary knives and barware never paid much more than more common New England or English carving sets, in contrast to the bowie knives from old San Francisco, which fetch incredible sums.

More important than the monetary value of San Francisco’s old culinary knives is their connection to the ingenuity and pride involved in the craftsmen who developed and produced them in the weird cauldron that was San Francisco. San Francisco’s ability to bring people from all over the world together is still alive and well, and I am very proud to add to its culinary knife history in a small way with Bernal Cutlery.


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