Guide to Knives

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by Bernard Levine

PICTURE 1 (2 or 3 columns wide)

In every edition of Levine’s Guide to Knives (LG4 page page 338) I included this picture of a PRUSSIAN CROWN butcher knife in the “Indian Trade Knives” chapter. The picture came from a 1914 Hardware wholesale catalog, published by Greer & Laing of Wheeling, West Virginia.

I put it with the Indian trade knives, mainly because of a conversation I had with an old man I met at a knife show in the 1970s. I had one of these knives on my table that day, and he stopped to pick it up and examine it. He said he remembered that kind of knife from when he was a little boy, growing up on an Indian Reservation in eastern Washington. He remembered the shape, and especially he remembered the fancy crown on the handle.

Unlike scalpers and dags, which were exclusively Indian trade knives, these inexpensive butcher knives were sold and traded wherever people did not have a lot of money to spend. The clip-point butcher style was mainly exported to North America. Knives of similar construction but different profile were traded in southern Africa, indeed are still made there now.

While these knives look solid and fancy, that look is deceptive -- intentionally so. They appear to have a big bolster, but that bolster is not part of the blade, which was blanked (die-cut) out of high carbon strip steel. The bolsters are usually cast iron, sometimes just pressed mild sheet steel. The Prussian crown is sometimes sheet brass, sometimes pewter. The rivets have fancy burrs on the front, but are plain on the back.

I knew quite a bit about the variations of these knives, especially their construction. I had seen a variety of markings on them, including some American importer markings -- such as the XLNT (pronounced ‘excellent’) trademark acquired in Sheffield, from the heirs of Joseph Lingard, by Adolph Kastor & Bros. of New York City. The Kastors registered XLNT in the United States in 1901. I once even saw a well made American version of the pattern, made by Landers Frary & Clark of New Britain, Connecticut.

What I did not know was who made the original Prussian Crown butcher knives. The logo I had seen most often on them was the picture of a man holding holding a tree that looked like a bunch of balloons, as on the knife shown above. Here is a passage which I wrote about two knives with that logo in the May 2000 column.

Mr. Kenneth W. Miller... asked about two of these knives... The first one is marked GESETZLICH [GESCHUTZT]/ PRUSSIA flanked on both sides by a logo of the letters X L N T in the four quadrants of a large X... Gesetzlicht Geschutzt is German for “legally registered.” A. Kastor & Bros. used this XLNT mark on a wide variety of cutlery imported to the U.S. from Germany, England, and Bohemia.

Mr. Miller transcribed the marking of the second knife as MC. INT. N CZ/ PRUSSIA/ SPECIAL TEMPER. I do not know what to make of the first line -- most likely part of it is missing.

Both knives have two wide brass rivet burrs on the front handles. These burrs are embossed with a logo of man standing beside a small tree (which looks like a bunch of balloons). This same logo is stamped on the blade of the c1914 Prussian Crown butcher knife knife shown in my book.

“I have never identified this ‘man and tree’ logo, and I now suspect that it never was a real trademark. Instead, it was probably just a decoration that was designed in imitation of the two best known German cutlery brands at that time -- the twins of J. A. Henckels, and the tree of H. Boker. To a naive customer, the combination of foreign writing and a familiar looking logo would seem to imply a quality knife, even though the knife itself obviously belies this.”


My interest in this logo was recently reawakened by a picture I saw (but alas did not save) of a Nazi airman’s dagger marked with it. The knife had a sculpted Art Deco style guard, with blue leather on the grip; it was missing its scabbard. It was either an NSFK (National Socialist Flying Corps) dagger (the NSFK was the Nazi equivalent of the Civil Air Patrol), or else the virtually identical German Air Sports flyer's dagger. Nearby is a picture of a similar style dagger by a different maker.


First of all, this dagger proved that the logo was a real German trademark, not just a deceptive fantasy marking (deceptive yes, fantasy no). Second it gave me another avenue to explore its origin, since Nazi dagger markings are well documented. Eventually I found the logo recorded and identified in Anthony Carter’s book, German Sword and Knife Makers, 1850-2000 A-L. He showed that the logo indeed depicts a “balloon seller.”

The owner of that mark was Gebrüder Heller GmbH (Heller Brothers, Inc.) of Marienthal bei Schweina in Thüringen (the township of Marienthal near the city of Schweina in the state of Thuringia -- in the Thuringian forest). Heller Bros. registered the brand name ABECE in 1902. It registered the trademark of a balloon seller in 1899. It registered the trademark of an elephant balancing on one ball while balancing a smaller ball on its trunk in 1922 (I have never seen that logo on a knife).




Mr. Carter added that the company made both daggers and bayonets during the Third Reich. He found no record of what became of the firm afterwards, but concluded, “Trading probably ceased when the Russians overran Thuringia” in 1945.

Now Mr. Greg Montgomery has sent in pictures of a Prussian Crown butcher knife that clearly shows the logo to be a balloon seller. This knife has a pewter-looking gray crown escutcheon, and brass balloon-man rivet heads. The text between the logos is unusual. In four lines it reads NOTHING MY/ EQUAL/ 1796/ PRUSSIA.





What, if anything, this marking signifies I do not know. “Nothing My Equal” could mean it is really good, really bad, or merely really strange.

Is “1796” a date, a pattern number, a logo, or just a four-digit number? In 1796, three French Revolutionary armies were invading Germany, Austria, and Italy. The first was turned back, the second was fought to a standstill, and the third, under Napoleon, then still a general, was successful. In 1796 Heller Bros. was still a century in the future, as far as I can tell.

Even “Prussia” was not strictly accurate. The mark PRUSSIA on a German-made knife dates it to between 1891 and 1915. By no means all German export knives of this period were marked PRUSSIA -- most were marked GERMANY -- but any knife that does have this marking was made in that time period.

Prussia (Preussen), formally established in 1701 with its capital in Berlin, was the largest and most powerful of the North German kingdoms, principalities, and duchies. In 1871, under the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Prussia united Germany into a German Empire (Deutsches Reich), eventually destined to conquer nearly all of Europe -- even more brutally, and ultimately even less successfully, than France’s conquest of Europe under Emperor Napoleon.

When the United States began to require that imported goods be marked with the country of origin in English, beginning January 1, 1891, either PRUSSIA or GERMANY was acceptable on German made goods. Solingen and its suburbs are in Prussia, so I long assumed that all knives marked PRUSSIA must have been made there.

It is never safe to assume. Heller Bros. was in the state of Thuringia, far to the East of Solingen. Thuringia had owed allegiance to the King of Saxony, who in turn had owed allegiance to the King of Prussia, but Thuringia was not actually part of Prussia. So not only was Heller’s use of a logo resembling twins or a tree deceptive, so was its use of PRUSSIA instead of GERMANY -- not actually false, perhaps, but certainly misleading.

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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.

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