Today’s most important accessory.
Since the beginning of time man has hunted beast. For sustenance, status, and recreation, as rite, and as tradition. Throughout much of history peopled hunted by necessity. Before the wide spread availability of the awesome variety of meat products we enjoy access to today people either had to raised their own small herds or hunt to get any substantial amount of protein in their diet. Our development of a vast network of food production which makes nutrition available to, theoretically, everyone (even though thats not exactly how it works in reality) is one of the prime factors in the expansion of life expectancy and growth in world wide average height over the last few thousand years.
Archeologists have found many artistic examples from antiquity proving exactly how highly hunting was regarded to ancient civilizations. There are endless images of kings and deities hunting big game animals and mythological creatures to show their power and strength as leaders or warriors. Many ancient taboos are also related to various prey and the mythos associated with them. Some form of semi hunter-gatherer lifestyle endured all the way up until the Age of Discovery when urban growth in Europe really started to take off in a much more pronounced way.
Ancient greek fresco from Tunis of a hunt with lions
As hunting moved from a subsistence activity to a social one, two trends emerged. One was that of the specialist hunter with special training and equipment. The other was the emergence of hunting as a ‘sport’ for those of an upper social class. As game became more of a luxury than a necessity, the stylized pursuit of it also became a luxury. The evolution of the word ‘game’ to include an animal that is hunted was a direct result of the development of hunting as sport. Dangerous hunting, such as for lions or wild boars, often done on horseback or from a chariot, had a function similar to tournaments and manly sports. It was considered to be an honourable, somewhat competitive pastime to help the aristocracy practice skills of war in times of peace. In most parts of medieval Europe this trend was enforced as law, making large tracks of land private hunting reserves for the nobles. Poaching could be punishable by death. These laws are where the original stories of Robin Hood began.
As the wealth of Europe grew and their colonial empires grew the aristocracy became increasingly mobil and a wealthy merchant class began to grow. By the 19th century many of the laws regarding hunting in Europe had fallen by the wayside and so was born one of the most iconic British traditions. The fox hunt.
Everyone has seen images of groups of many riding their horses in top hats and red coats, bugler in the midst, chasing their dogs who are hot on the tail of fox. The fox hunt has become a largely symbolic activity but, starting as far back as the 17th century farmers were chasing foxes and killing them as pests. As the industrial revolution came into full swing more people moved away from the country into urban environments and hunting slowly started becoming a leisure activity. With better more accurate guns and few laws or people to enforce them out in the country, hunt clubs began to develop throughout the 19th century. Originally the foxes were hunted because they kept killing the prized pheasants, which the hunt clubs enjoyed, but with the development of new hound breeds trained to handle the new industrialized landscape the fox hunt became a staple activity for the quality in Victorian Europe.
As travel became more luxurious and more reliable people of means with a more adventurous spirit started using their leisure time a bit differently. Foreign tourism began in force and apart from the cultural aspects of the various colonies safaris and big game hunts began to be organized for the enjoyment of the nobles and other wealthy visitors. These safaris were always complete with a team of trackers and local experts, usually of a local tribe, to aid in insuring the comfort and success of the tourists. Although many tribal people were treated as less then human they were still revered for their ‘primitive skills’ such as, hunting, tracking and understand nature and the land. This concept of the “noble savage” was developed throughout the colonial era as a way to acknowledge the skills they had but, in a subservient manner.
Roosevelt standing with native hunters over a dead lion while on safari in 1910
Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt were some of the most famous big game hunters of the modern era shooting all manner of beast from atop horses, elephants, jeeps and camels. This type of ‘trophy’ hunting, where specific animals are sought out for their beauty, rarity or ferocity to prove the prowess of the hunter gave rise to the concept of a trophy room where mementos of each kill such as mounted heads, taxidermied beasts, pelts, and furniture made from bone could be kept as a monument to their owners skill.
(L) Ernest Hemmingway with his double barrel (R) Teddy Roosevelt sitting on his felled African Buffalo
The trophy room at the Wilbur D. May Museum in Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in Reno Nevada
Modern day hunting as evolved to include a bit of everything from the past. There has been a concerted effort by some to try and move “off the grid” including growing or killing their own food. That is an extreme example but, hunting to this day is one of the most popular sports in America. With sustainability and animal rights on the fore front hunting ethics laid down as far back as Teddy Roosevelt have been another hot topic. Roosevelt wrote of a concept of “fair chase.” Simply defined, fair chase is the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit of free-ranging wild game animals in a manner which does not give the hunter an improper or unfair advantage over the animal. The rules of fair chase are simple and seemingly intuitive, treat all things with the respect they deserve. The Boone and Crockett Hunt Club put these rules in writing all the way back in the 19th century.
With new technology come new challenges so the Pope and Young Hunt Club have added some more guidelines to fair chase.
Oilskin (oilies) and waxed cotton clothing owe their origins to the great age of the sailing ship and the age of navigation. Its hard to pin point exactly when oilskin techniques began but, its probably a safe bet that, in some form or another, that some rudimentary version has existed as long as sea travel. With the invention of the compass and increasingly better maps in the late middle ages, the beginning of long distance exploration all around the world was begun.
Italianate Harbour Scene with the Monument of Ferdinand I de’ Medici at Leghorn
Sailing ships were traditionally rigged with linen sails and so, with the fabric in such abundance fishermen and sailors used it for everything. From clothes to wadding. At some point these professional sea folk found that by applying boiling linseed oil (from flax seed) to the linen and letting it set the linen was rendered waterproof and was excellent material for making waterproof capes. However, the linen was heavy and the linseed oil turned yellow and stiffened over time. Oilskin proved to be a great way to keep yourself, as well as anything else, dry in very wet environments such as the deck of a ship but, it was also difficult proved to be dangerous to make and restrictive to wear. All the same, cloaks, chests, and document folds were all made from this versitle (and compared to leather or fur, light weight) material to protect their contents from the elements.
High-Tech Modern Oilskins in the midst of a squall
Cotton sails eventually replaced linen. Cotton was lighter and could be woven into a tighter and stronger fabric. It also led to lighter and stronger clothing such as oiled cotton jackets, coats and trousers. The jackets became especially popular among fishermen who would paint them bright colors with ordinary house paint to make themselves more visible if and when they went over board. The next major evolution came in the mid-19th century when linseed oil was replaced by parafin wax. Parafin wax treated garments maintained their flexibility and were also breathable so condensation wouldn’t build up. This led to more sophisticated garments providing the wearer with significantly more movement and utility. Although the cut, style, and technology in waterproofing changed over the centuries the need for men of the sea to be easily seen in a squall stayed consistent throughout.
(L) Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post with a fisherman in a slicker
(R) the Gorton’s Fisherman in his Sou-Wester
When plastics and synthetic fabrics were invented in the mid-20th century traditional oilskins became obsolete. ”Space age” technology made slickers better, lighter, easier to make, more comfortable, and infinitely customizable. Everyone in American has the classic image of the Gordon’s fisherman from the fish sticks box or the Norman Rockwell-esk idea of the stalwart seaman battling the ocean in his bright yellow slicker. Another advantage of modern technology is that man “professional” slickers these days include floatation devices, GPS location, built in harness, and in some cases a small tool kit.
If he can rock it so, can you
Now, of course these professional level outfits are extreme for the average person but, in the cold wet grey months ahead having a good coat to keep you dry is a must. Having some color to brighten up your day is also never a bad thing plus, the sunshine yellow acts the same for you in the city as it does for the fishermen in the sea. It will get you noticed. Don’t wait to long, get out there and enjoy in the rain in style.
A lot of boys first pocket knives came as gifts from grandpas or dads, sometimes uncles or brothers many times against the best wishes of mothers. In any case, the pocket knife is an indispensable tool for the growing young man and is an emblem of his burgeoning manhood, an invitation to the fraternity of man. I remember getting my first Swiss Army knife from my uncle when I was young and all the adventures it helped me through as well as all the trouble it helped me stir up. I have it still to this day, worn but, still ready for action.
Folding knives of many different designs have been around for thousands of years. The oldest found to date is nearly 2600 years old. Although it was simple, a bone handle and a single iron blade, it was the beginning of long history of innovation. The origins of the modern Swiss Army knife lay with the Romans. The old empire was renowned for its metal workers and many different versions of multi-facetted tools have been found throughout the Mediterranean including everything from knives, spikes, forks, and spoons in a handheld package. You can imagine how, for a legion on the move, a pocket knife could come in handy all the time. Sadly, the skills to develope a working multi-function pocket knife were lost in Europe during the dark ages so, although many people carried swords, daggers or other sharp edged implements very few if any pocket knifes were available.
Roman army knife from 200 AD. Made of silver with an iron blade it has a fork, knife, spoon, spatula, and a spike.
A post-n-groove knife call the Navaja has been a popular choice in Spain since the 15th century. It made a distinct clicking sounds when opened and closed which became its trademark. The only other pocket knife available until the 18th century was a heavy crude tool known as the Jack Knife. it wasn’t until the 18th century when the Sheffield knife-makers designed and built what is widely recognized as the first modern pocket knife. The Sheffield pen knife became de rigueur among the educated set who used it to, of course, cut the nibs of their quills.
the year knife, mid-1970s
In 1822 as a display of their craft, Joseph Rodgers and Sons Ltd. of Sheffield debuted their Year Knife with 1,822 blades to mark the date. It was designed to have another blade added to it every year until the end of the millennium in 2000 when the knife would finally be finished with its 2000th blade, ending, of course, far to large for anyones pocket. The firm went on to create the Norfolk Sportsman’s Knife in 1851 which took two full years in production and ended up with 75 blades. These two examples seem pretty extreme but, they show the level of innovation in the world of folding knives in the mid-19th century. By 1893 an American cutlery catalogue had over 1,500 pocket knives listed for sale showing exactly how popular they had become. but, it wasn’t until 1897 when a man by the name of Karl Elsener decided there was no good reason for the Swiss Army to be buying its knives from Germany that the most popular and recognizable knife in the world today got its start. The red body and silver crossed shield have become the standard for modern pocket knives.
1891 Swiss Army soldier knife
Pocket knives have also been an essential tool for soldiers throughout American history. New York and new Hampshire required their militias to carry pocket knives during the American Revolution. Even George Washington toted one around as he led his troops. The U.S. Navy began issuing them to sailors during the Civil War and they became standard issue for all American GIs during WWII.
Although in the first half of the 20th century pocket knives were popular among young boys and many carried them around in their pockets or ruck sacks always prepared for the occasional whittle or game of mumblypeg (a knife game that involves throwing a knife into the ground as close to your opponents foot as possible without hitting them), public concern quickly arose over children’s safety and knives were deemed unsuitable. As the century continued adolescents who still did carry knives gained a progressively more negative reputation especially with the rise of gang violence in the urban areas.
Boy Scouts playing mumbly peg
Today, it seems that we have hit a fork in the road you could say. One side lead to more and more authoritarian control and heavy security measures such as the Bureau of Homeland Security or any international airport and the other leads to peoples interest to become more self sufficient and seeing things like pocket knives as tools as opposed to weapons. In my humble opinion, if a boy is old enough to be in Cub Scouts, he’s old enough to get his first knife but, with great power comes great responsibility so, with these young’n’s there must be a few ground rules and it has to be approached delicately.
Rule #1: Make it the first gift. Of course a boy is going to be excited when he gets his first knife so, make it the first gift and wrap the snot out of subsequent gifts so that he can demonstrate his instant manliness by allowing him to test out his new prize.
Rule #2: Casually have an old black of wood or a stick conveniently lying in the room. “What’s that stick doing mom?” “Oh, that stick? Oh, i was just rearranging a few things, and… who wants another piece of cake?” Let the whittling commence.
Rule #3: Have a special place. The problem isn’t cutting off a finger, it’s finding the knife. This is an excellent time to start the “it’s your personal belonging-don’t ask me where it is!” rule.
and of course…
Rule #4: Only use it with Mom & Dad around… at least for now. One day, there will be independence with this great gift but, that time is not now.
a boy whittling a boat
All that being said, a nice pocket knife can be a great gift for anyone no matter the age but, how do you decide what to get. Pocket knives can be broken down into three major types. The jack knife is simple and sturdy with just a single hinge where as a pen knife has two hinges one on either end. The term pen knife is also used to describe a very small two hinge knife that could be worn without ruining the line of your suit but, for our purposes two hinges is the important thing and finally the multipurpose knife is more or less the standard today, it boasts many different tools not simply just knives and it’s what made the Swiss Army knife famous. Within each category there are many different varieties some of which I have displayed below.
the Trapper, a type of jack knife generally with two blades. A clip and a spey blade
L-R Whittler, Stockman, and Congress, all types of pen knives. The Whittler is characterized by its three blades. The Stockman is generally distinguished by its sowbelly shape (kind of like an S) and a clip, sheep’s foot, and spey blade. The Congress is marked by its convex front and four blades. *the above knives are all from CRKT classics
Swiss Army Fieldmaster knife
As with most things the more personal the better. Vintage and heirloom knives are fantastic. I am personally a big fan of engravings and hand made things. With a little effort its not all that more expensive to have something made custom as opposed to buying from a store. Finally one of the greatest things about pocket knives is that if you take care of them they will last a lot longer then you and somebody else will see that engraving one day and wonder about the story behind it. You become a part of the legend of that knife.
Sorry for the absence… I’ve had a bit of a rough couple months so, I’m working to get back onto a solid writing schedule. I hope you stick with me and remember I’d love to hear from all of you. New ideas are always welcome…
I declare boot and sweater season officially OPEN!!
More Mens Wear humor. Should be back with new articles in the next couple of weeks. Yay! for fall
From this week’s New Yorker style issue; by John O’Brien. Buy a print here.
Sorry for the absence yall. I have been a bit busy with school and unmotivated to write. So, hopefully Ill get my act together and get it done for next week.
Hope everyones summer is going well. till then…