The history of the folding knife has been traced back to Roman times, when the device was used both by the military and civilian population. These knives had a multiplicity of uses and their popularity is reflected in the variety of handles cast in bronze or fashioned from bone or ivory. The mechanism was simple - a blade hinged on to a handle that was slotted to accommodate the blade when the knife was not in use.
Though some pocket knives can be found from medieval and Tudor times they are rare, perhaps because many people would in any case have carried a knife in a sheath, eliminating the need for one designed specifically for eating. In the mid-17th century, however, an innovation occurred that resulted in the revival of the folding knife - a spring was added to hold the blade either open or shut. Folding knives grew once more in popularity, and they began to be modelled in the fashionable shapes of their tableware cousins.
At the end of the 17th century the blades of table knives were were curved at the end like a scimitar, the tip was rounded and could be used for supping sauces, and the handle turned downwards like a pistol butt, so that the whole knife was shaped like an elongated letter '5'. Folding knives soon followed suit.
The convenience of the sprung mechanism was fully exploited during the 18th century. Folding knives ceased merely to emulate cutlery and were made in many different shapes and sizes according to particular requirements. Speciality knives included folding fruit knives, and kuves for shaping the nibs of quill pens (hence the term 'penknife') or for pruning plants. Veterinarians, fishermen and smokers
eventually came to have their own kinds of folding knives, too.
By the 1770s, the spear-shaped, sharp pointed blade we know today began to appear. To prevent the point from causing injury the blade was now more enclosed in the handle, and after the turn of the 18th century the now-familiar nail nick was often cut into the blade to facilitate opening. Multi-bladed knives, some of which attempted to cater for every conceivable need, became popular during the early 19th century.
For over 200 years folding pocket knives have held a place at the table, indoors and out' as convenient, functional and decorative tools.
A recent upsurge of interest from the antiques trade has resulted in folding knives of poor quality reaching the market. Some of these are offered for sale at prices that do not reflect their condition, so it is important to know how to tell these apart from really collectable items. There are many pointers, some of them quite subtle, which can show whether a folding knife has been altered.
The value of a folding knife depends both on the crispness of its mechanism and on its overall appearance. More decorative examples, or those with precious metal blades, are obviously more desirable, and the presence of more blades or tools can increase the value. Look out for knives in their original boxes, particularly ornate ones, since these are highly prized by collectors.
Desirable features include gold blades (which were not hallmarked on
Sheffield made pieces until 1904), finely inlaid scales (or handle grips) and engraved blades. Interesting inscriptions can also add value. On Victorian or later pieces there is often finely carved mother-of-pearl. Look particularly for knives made by Aaron Hadfield between 1820 and 1840 or by J Y Cowleshaw between 1840 and
1880. Their shafts (handles) are often carved with exceptional skill and imagination. After 1880, however, Cowleshaw's workshop began to turn out more mass-produced items.
Check that the blade is original, since it is fairly easy to substitute a newer one: the hinge pin should blend in with the bolster decoration. Tell-tale warning signs are that the mechanism may feel clumsy or the hallmarks (for silver knives) may show a later date than those on the handle.
Check that the blade reaches the end of the blade slot. If it doesn't, the tip has probably been broken off and the broken end filed back to the appropriate shape.
If the blade refuses to close into the handle slot and remains partly sprung out, this indicates that the corners of the tang (the pierced square of metal at the end of the blade that goes into the handle) have worn away. The blade may also flop about from side to side, unless the sides of the bolster have been squeezed in a vice to prevent this. Avoid knives like this as they are difficult to repair. Inspect the shut knife at the point where the blade pivots to assess wear to the tang. This type of fault is common in knives made after 1870, when springs were cut by machine ('blanked') and were consequently thicker and less effective than previously.