KNIFE WORLD * WHUT IZZIT NUMBER 386 FEBRUARY 2010 page
by Bernard Levine
Mr. Ross Allen of Missouri sent in a little knife, along with a note asking for information about it. The knife is oval in outline. It is slim and lightweight, without bolsters or liners. It has a blade pivoted at each end; one blade folds into the top, the other into the bottom -- although which edge is top and which bottom is impossible to say. Length closed is 3-3/4 inches.
The handles are tortoiseshell. The blades are steel. The rivets are nickel silver. In addition to a pivot rivet, each half of the knife has two additional rivets. These hold a little springy latch for the blade at that end. A T-extension at the end of the latch spring is the release: lift it to unlock and close the blade. The long slender tang of each blade is stamped M. WOCHER.
This knife is a surgeon’s pocket instrument. The shell handles, which cannot be heat sterilized, date it before circa 1870.
Such instruments were sold individually, as well as in sets with pocket-sized folding or roll-up cases. They were made single ended and double ended; some even had four blades. Most did not latch open, but various types of locks were offered as extra cost options -- spring catches like this, slide catches, external sliding metal bands, etc. Nearby is a catalog picture of a slide catch pocket scalpel made by the largest 19th century American surgical instrument manufacturer, George Tiemann & Co. of New York City.
Pocket instruments were made for use in emergency operations in the field. They were made with a variety of different blades. The two blades in the M. WOCHER example are a tenaculum (a needle-sharp hook, used for lifting and holding parts, such as blood vessels, during surgery), and a tenotome (a diminutive scalpel used for tenotomy, the surgical cutting or division of a tendon).
Until the early 20th century, most surgical operating instruments were made by specialist cutlers called surgical instrument makers. Nearly every city of any size in 19th century Europe and America had Cutlers & Surgical Instrument Makers who both made standard instruments, like this one, and also custom made instruments and other cutlery (such as bowie knives) to order. Big cities, notably London and New York, had dozens of such craftsmen, some of whom operated large factories with dozens of employees, but mainly they owned small storefront workshops of one or two cutlers with their assistants.
I searched my lists of cutlers, and found this entry under Surgical Instruments in the 1915 Kelly’s Directory of industry of all nations:
Max Wocher Son Co. (mfg.), Cincinnati OH USA.
I listed Louis & Max Wocher on page 331 of Levine’s Guide 4, based on their listing in an 1859 Cincinnati city directory. Nearby is a circa 1850 M. WOCHER amputation set, shown online.
Turning to James Edmonson’s encyclopedic American Surgical Instruments: The History of Their Manufacture and a Directory of Instrument Makers to 1990, I learned that Maximilian Wocher, surgical instrument maker, was first listed in 1840, on the east side of Walnut Street, between 4th and 5th, in Cincinnati. After 1842 his premises were located inside the building of the Ohio Medical College at 105 West 6th between Vine and Race.
In 1870 the business was first listed as Max Wocher & Son. It included his son, Louis, as well as Samuel and Henry Hoeller and Max Schmidt. Edmonson’s listings stop at 1900, but Wocher kept going. Nearby is a half page ad for heat lamps the firm ran in a 1925 college yearbook.
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Don’t you just hate it when you find a good looking hand-made knife with no markings at all, or marked only with initials, or with some mysterious logo? I do.
So does Mr. Chris Scheel, and he sent in photos of several such knives, to see if I could identify them. Fortunately I have a crystal ball on my desk... and a searchable knifemaker database on my computer, which you can find in printed form in Levine’s Guide 4.
First is this small lockback folder. It has brown hardwood handles and nickel silver mounts. Blade and rocker bar are decorated with a continuous band of filework. The blade has a distinctive circular choil (cutout in front of the tang). The tang is marked KAS, evidently a hand drawn etching, or possibly electric pencil engraved.
KAS is Kenneth A. Steigerwalt of Pennsylvania. He used this style marking between 1980 and 1990, when he worked in Levittown, Pa.
Second is a group of three all metal locking liner folders. Each is etched out on the blade with JM in a rectangle.
These knives were made by James R. Matthes of Santee, California. He first made knives in 1993.
Third is a lockback folder with front and back bolsters. The mounts look to be stainless steel, while the handle is dark brown -- either wood or Micarta. One cap bolster is electric pencil engraved with the name of a previous owner, FRANK MILLER.
The tang is stamped with three letters. At first glance they look to be WOW. On closer examination they are clearly WCW; the second W was double stamped.
W. C. W. Was W. C. Williams of Atlanta, Texas. The 1977 edition of the Knifemakers Guild Directory includes a brief profile of him. He was born in Texas in 1936, grew up there and in Florida, Mississippi, and Oregon. His day job was industrial power plant work. He began doing custom knife and gun work in the late 1950s. He began selling knives in 1968, specializing in folders made of the latest stainless steel alloys.
That 1977 book shows six of his knives including three styles of lockback, a slip-joint trapper, a three-blade pen knife with a folding scissors, and a fixed blade hunting knife. W. C. Willliams died circa 1982.
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Fourth is a stout lockback with a finger-grip frame, a saber-ground blade with sharp false edge, and hardwood burl handles. The tang is stamped with three widely spaced letters: K C B.
This knife was made by Kirby C. Bailey of Texas. He has been making knives in Lytle, Texas since 1964. In the 1950s he worked in Corpus Christi.
Fifth and last (for the moment) is an elegant fixed blade boot knife with exotic hardwood handle scales. The only marking is on the reverse side of the blade. Superficially the mark looks like a number 10 or the name IO (a moon of Jupiter). In fact it is a logo, based (I think) on a Japanese monogram.
Mr. Dave Harvey of Nordic Knives in Solvang, California, identified this marking for me -- it is in my database, but I could not find it. The knife was made by Melvin Nishiuchi, who began making knives in Kaneohe, Hawaii, in 1985, later moving to Las Vegas, Nevada. Mr. Harvey also identified the handle material: Hawaiian koa wood.
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Both Mr. Matt Fritz and Mr. Bill Miller asked me about the same knife. It turned out that Mr. Fritz was selling it and Mr. Miller was buying it, but neither of them knew what it is -- except that it is a fairly plain jack knife with steel front bolsters and smooth bone (or pale cow horn?) handles. The bolsters and handles are chamfered along the edges. Length closed is about 5-1/2 inches. The tang is stamped in big bold letters VITOLONE.
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I recognized the knife right away. I have a similar unmarked knife in my desk right now (somewhere). It is an early 20th century jack knife from central Italy.
I got busy on Google, and quickly found that Vitolone is a very uncommon name... except in the ancient cutlery making town of Frosolone. According to Wikipedia, “Frosolone is a comune (municipality) in the Province of Isernia in the Italian region Molise, located about 20 km west of Campobasso and about 20 km east of Isernia.” Frosolone is about 213 km (132 miles) east of Rome.
The first and best reference I found to Vitolone was in a detailed online history of Frosolone, in Italian.
Near the end of that web page is this paragraph: “During the early twentieth century in Frosolone are counted over a hundred [cutlery making] shops. Among the names of the artisans recorded are: Amoruso, Bautto, Berardis, Brunetti, Cardegna, Carrino, Colarusso, Colavecchio, Colozza, Covatta, D’Abate, D’Alessandro, De Luca, De Simone, Di Iorio, Di Saia (later emigrated to Australia), Farina, Fazioli, Fiani, Fracasso, Fraraccio, Garzia, Giordano, Giusti (emigrated to Australia), Lanza (emigrated to Campobasso), La Posta, Liberatore, Mainella, Mangione, Manuppella, Marinaro, Martella, Meale (part of the family emigrated to Australia), Mezzanotte, Miranda, Morsella, Nucciarone, Palangio, Paolucci, Pasquarelli, Permanente, Perpetua, Petrunti, Piscitelli, Pizzi, Pollutro, Prioletta (originally from Civitanova del Sannio), Ruberto, Russo, Sciarra, Scricco, Sirtori, Valente, Venditti, Verrillo, Vitolone, Zampini. In 1920 there were at Frosolone eighty-six [cutlery] craftsmen’s workshops: seventy-three knife making and thirteen making scissors & shears.”
In the 1910s and 1920s emigrant cutlers from Frosolone turned Providence, Rhode Island, into a cutlery making center. The Mirando and Fazzano family members who founded Imperial Knife Company came from Frosolone. The Paolantonio brothers who founded Providence Cutlery Company and later Colonial Knife Company came from Frosolone. So did most of those companies’ employees. I do not know if any Vitolones emigrated to the USA then, but no one of that name is listed in Rhode Island now.
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As always I am happy to be corrected when I am wrong. Otherwise I would never learn anything. If you catch me in an error, please do me the favor of letting me know. Just be sure of your facts before you do.
Please send me an email, or mail paper correspondence to Whut Izzit, c/o Knife World, Box 3395, Knoxville TN 37927. Be sure to enclose either an email address, or a long self-addressed stamped envelope with your letter, and also a flatbed scan, photocopy, or photograph (on plain LIGHT GRAY or WHITE background please) of your knife. Do not write directly on the picture. Indicate the knife’s handle material and its length (length CLOSED if it is a folder). Make enlarged images of all markings and indicate where they appear. Because of the large backlog, it usually takes me at least six months to answer a letter to the column.
My newest book, the updated 2nd Edition of Knifemakers of Old San Francisco (softcover, complete with price guide) is available direct from Knife World for $29.95 plus $5.00 postage and handling. The book is now out of print, so if you want a copy, don’t wait.
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KIM: I CAN EMAIL YOU SOME SHORT 1-PICTURE FILLERS WITH TEXT IF YOU NEED THEM. LET ME KNOW.