While pocket knives were manufactured in the United States as early as the mid-1800s, the idea of pocket knives as a collectible began in the post-World War II era of the 1950s. It was probable that the increase in personal wealth and leisure time in the more industrialized years after the war led to a rise in nostalgia for items associated with the Depression years and earlier.
Pocket knives are in many ways a “natural” collectible. The knife is said to be man’s earliest and most basic tool. The pocket knife, particularly in the years prior to WWII, was a universal item treasured by men, women, and children. In those days, virtually everyone either carried a pocket knife or had one or more readily available in a tool box or desk drawer. Pocket knives knew no social boundaries. Farmers, laborers, clerks, office workers, dock workers, fishermen, and outdoorsmen all carried and prized pocket knives as the most basic of working tools.
For a young person, the acquisition of the first pocket knife was an important rite of passage. A young boy’s or girl’s first knife might be an inexpensive new one or a hand me down. Pocket knives in those days were often kept and used until the blades were sharpened down to thin narrow spikes and the handles were worn smooth.
These well used but still serviceable pocket knives were often handed down to the next generation to be used again, and then often retired and put away as valued keepsakes—remembrances of a father or grandfather who may have carried and used the knife for 40 years or more. Cigar boxes or drawers filled with the well used and cared for pocket knives of previous generations were in essence the first knife collections.
The 1890s through the early 1940s can be viewed as the first “golden age” of pocket knife manufacturing in the United States. During that era, literally hundreds of cutlery companies produced pocket knives. Many of these companies were in existence for short periods before either failing or being purchased by new owners or absorbed by other cutlery manufacturers. Other cutlery firms prospered and produced millions of pocket knives that were distributed to every state of the union. The American cutlery industry battled imports, lived through good times and through periods of economic distress, and ultimately retooled toprovide millions more knives of all types for the United States government during WW II.
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During these years, the American cutlery industry produced some of the finest pocket knives that have ever been manufactured. All cutlery factories of that time relied a great deal on highly skilled cutlers to perform many operations by hand in the manufacture of fine pocket knives, a tradition that continues today in the best knife factories.
As pocket knife collecting took root in the South, Midwest, and other parts of the country, the pocket knives that garnered the most interest were made by one particular company—W.R. Case and Sons Cutlery Company of Bradford, Pennsylvania. From the inception of pocket knife collecting in the post-WWII years through the present day, Case has been by far the most collected brand. They are, and always have been, quality working tools.
Over its long history, W.R. Case and Sons has produced a dizzying array of pocket knife patterns in all conceivable shapes and sizes and blade configurations. Many of the patterns made in the early days of Case and up into the Case Tested era were discontinued and never seen again after WWII. Other early patterns have endured to the present day; indeed, a number of Case pocket knife patterns currently in the line have been in continuous production since the early 1900s.
Here is a brief overview of some Case patterns that are popular with collectors:
The 11 pattern goes back to the early years of Case and is an example of what some collectors refer to as an “English Jack” frame style. Closed length is 4-3/8 inches. During the Case Tested era, it was made in several variations including a two-blade jack and a single-blade jack, and a single-blade lockback version, the 6111 1/2 L. The 6111 1/2 L incorporates a folding hand guard and is the only variation of the 11 pattern that was kept in the Case line after the Case Tested era.
The 6111 1/2 L is sometimes referred to by collectors as a “swing-guard lockback” or as a “floating guard knife.” Another collector name for the pattern is the “Cheetah.” This name was originated by Case when a special run of the pattern was made with stag handles and a cheetah blade etching in 1971 for inclusion in the 1973 stag collector’s sets. While the standard 6111 1/2 L always had a saber-ground blade made of chrome vanadium steel, the Cheetah was made with a hollow ground stainless steel blade. The original Cheetah pattern number is 5111 1/2 L SSP.
For many years, the 6111 1/2 L was the only single-blade locking blade knife in the Case product line, quite a contrast to today when lockback knives are heavily represented in the product lines of Case and other knife manufacturers.
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