A Pen Knife was not always a "Pocket-Knife"

The pocket-knife which we know today has its roots in the pen knife, or scribal knife, of the Middle Ages. But not only did those early knives not fold, few of them would safely or conveniently fit in a pocket, even in their protective leather sheaths. For centuries, people of lesser means might only have one knife, which they used for everything, including mending the nibs of their quill pens, while the wealthy, or professional scribes, would have specially-made pen or quill knives to be used for only that purpose.

By the Regency, most people owned a pen knife, and many of those knives did fold. They could therefore be safely carried in pockets or reticules. But there were also other knives which looked very like pen knives, but served different purposes. A bit about pen and other specialty folding knives of the Regency …

From the Middle Ages to the beginning of the eighteenth century, most pen knives had blades which were fixed in the handle, or haft, of the knife. The blades were slightly curved and short, usually two inches or less. All pen knife blades were made of steel, in order to hold the sharp edge necessary to cut quills The haft was typically between three to four inches in length. The very wealthy had the hafts of their pen knives made of precious woods, horn, agate, tortoise shell, ivory, or mother-of-pearl, often encrusted with silver, gold and even semi-precious stones. The average person would have had a knife with a haft of more common hard woods, unadorned, sanded smooth and polished.

In the eighteenth century, cutlers first made pen or quill knives with blades which could slide into the haft when not in use. By the middle of the century, they had also developed a folding version of the pen knife. These folding versions typically had blades of between 1 to 1½ inches in length. The blades of these folding knives were slightly shorter than the blades of the fixed or sliding-blade knives. The handles of these folding knives were made longer, however, which made the knife easier to hold. By the last decades of the eighteenth century, folding pen knives were made in increasingly larger numbers, and could be sold at prices many more people could afford. By the early nineteenth century, as both commerce and literacy steadily grew, the handles of these folding knives were often decorated in different ways to appeal to a wide range of literate customers.

Though folding knives became popular, pen knives with fixed blades were still made and used during the Regency. These fixed blade knives were sometimes made as part of a writing set, and were most commonly kept in a writing desk. As they had for most of the eighteenth century, by the Regency, extremely ornate pen knives, of the folding, sliding and fixed blade varieties, could be purchased from a cutler, or even a jeweler, but the more ordinary models were typically purchased from the better stationery shops. The majority of stationers in London could be found along Fleet Street, or around Cornhill and Charing Cross. This is not surprising, since these locations were also the haunts of many who wrote for a living, including journalists, clerks, bankers and lawyers.

This same pen knife was also just the thing for sharpening the new wood-case pencils which were being mass produced during the Regency. This was an advantage for both the pencil manufacturers and the pencil users. Pencil users most likely already had a pen knife, so they would not need to acquire yet another desk implement to sharpen their new, inexpensive pencils. The pencil manufacturers could advertise that no special tools were needed to maintain their pencils, thus ensuring their true low cost. The various types of pencil sharpeners with which we are familiar today were decades into the future even at the end of the Regency.

A curious practice, for which I can find no explanation, is that a second blade was added to some folding pen knives. This second, longer blade was usually attached at the opposite end of the handle and folded into the handle with its tip next to that of the short pen knife blade. This second blade was straight and wider than the pen knife blade. It was intended for use as a fruit knife. This was the beginning of the folding knife with multiple blades, which evolved beyond a simple, single purpose tool to become the multiplex pocket knife so popular today. But why those living in the Regency thought a fruit knife was an appropriate companion for a pen knife remains their secret.

A fad which had begun at the beginning of the nineteenth century continued into the Regency, that of making very small knives which were designed like pen knives. These miniature knives were originally made by cutlers to demonstrate their skill and creativity, but the public became quite enamored of them. Some of these diminutive knives had a small, fine pointed hook which folded into the handle alongside the blade. The handles of these knives were often made with silver, gold or mother-of-pearl incised with delicate decorative patterns. They might even be set with small precious or semi-precious stones. These ornate and elegant miniature knives were often intended for the work-basket of lady, who would use the tiny hook to unpick stitches in her needlework and the knife blade to cut threads as she plied her needle. Such bijou knives might be given as a gift from a gentleman to his lady, possibly even engraved with words of love.

At the other end of the scale from the miniature folding knives was the "Year Knife" made in 1822, by the Joseph Rodgers cutlery firm of Sheffield. This huge knife had 1,822 separate folding blades, one for each year of the "Christian" era. This knife was made by the Rodgers firm on the dual occasions of opening their first London showroom, and their royal appointment as cutlers to the new king, George IV. This enormous knife was an effective publicity device for the Rodgers firm. They later made an even larger "knife" for the Great Exhibition of 1851, which contained 75 different tools and specialty blades.

The links below will take you to the few images of pen or quill knives I was able to find online:

By the middle of the nineteenth century, as the use of steel pen nibs became more common, the use of the pen knife began to decline. Pocket versions were still carried by many for use in sharpening pencils, but gradually even that purpose became unnecessary as various types of pencil sharpeners were introduced during the second half of the nineteenth century. But the pocket knife did not fall completely out of favor. It had become too handy for too many different purposes. Over the years, it acquired more blades and other tools, and was a common gift to many a teenage boy as a token of his oncoming manhood. But its popularity as a pen knife ensured that nearly any folding knife, particularly those which fit conveniently in the pocket, would be called a "penknife," even two centuries later.

For more information about pen knives:

Nickell, Joe, Pen, Ink & Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective. New Castle: Oak Grove Press, 2003.

Whalley, Joyce Irene, Writing Implements and Accessories: From the Roman Stylus to the Typewriter. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1975.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to A Pen Knife was not always a "Pocket-Knife"

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    so that’s why the common penknife has two blades! my great grandfather had several which are now in my possession including the ivory one which has two ivory blades intended purely as a letter opener but in the style of an ordinary penknife. They all date from around 1890-1900.
    I had my first penknife for my 6th birthday when I showed an interest in whittling and have had a lifelong love of them, though I must sat I could never figure out all the functions on a Swiss Army knife….. when did the tool for taking boyscouts out of girlguides – er, I mean taking stones out of horses’ hooves, first get added, anyone know? I picked up a knife with a small penknife blade, a chunky useful blade and along the back a tool for removing stones, the whole in steel not stainless, with a dimpled bone handle stained black. it came from a country fair and the junk dealer had no provenance on it. It’s a very good knife for whittling and the big blade is way too big for a fruit knife.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I, too, have a couple of penknives which belonged to my grandfather. I was never a whittler, but I found them useful for a number of purposes, often with craft and needle-work projects. But they have always been most precious to me because they belonged to him. Your dual-bladed ivory knife sounds quite lovely. It is rather sad that such elegant desk accessories have passed into history.

      Once you get into the realm of multi-plex knives, I am completely in the dark. Both my father and brother had one, and I was always mystified as to the purpose of most of the implements they contained. I was lucky to recognize the knife blade and the scissors. Though I must admit, I was delighted when I learned about the tiny pair of tweezers hidden in the handle. Rather clever, I thought. Perhaps one day, another passing reader will be able to shed more light on the subject.



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