Sheffield Made Bowie Knives
For over two centuries, Sheffield has been the leading manufacturer of all forms of cutlery. There were large deposits of coal and iron on hand in the countryside and local forests provided charcoal for smelting, with quarries of stone for grindstones. The power the knife makers required to drive the grinding wheels and other machinery came from the fast flowing streams. With these facilities Sheffield became a household name throughout the world, as workmanship was of an extremely high quality, so much so, that during the period 1840 to 1875 many American knife makers marked their products “Made in Sheffield”.
With little or no cutlery being made in America, the era of Sheffield-made “Bowies” began with the fame of James Bowie – knife fighter extraordinary. George Wostenholm was one of the first Sheffield knife makers to visit America, taking six weeks to travel from Liverpool to New York. It was a profitable undertaking for him as he returned to America the following year – 1837. With the demand for his knives increasing, he set up agents and outlets for his Bowie knives throughout the eastern states. It did not take long for other Sheffield knife making companies to see that here was a huge market for their products.
Sheffield-made Bowies exported to America came in all shapes and sizes: from the 3 ½ inch prostitute garter knives with mother-of-pearl handles to 16 inch blade knives. Bowie knives with hilts bearing the crest of the States of America were very popular ie. Kentucky – half horse, half alligator, The Texas star, Virginia etc. Initially, the blade of the early Bowies were plain with just the maker’s name or trade mark, but around 1845, the Sheffield makers began decorating the blades. They were often acid etched with a gold motto eg. “California Knife”, “America Land of The Free”, “Tennessee Knife”, “Arkansas Toothpick”, and when gold was discovered in California in 1848, a popular motto was “I can dig gold from quartz”. Not to be confused with the Sheffield maker’s trade mark were knives marked “Buffalo Knife”, “Bear Knife”, “The Hunter’s Companion”, which were stamped with designs such as horses, dogs, deer, buffalo.
With the advent of the American Civil War in 1861, sayings like “Death to Traitors”, “Death to Abolition”, “Georgia Pike”, “The Union must and shall be free”, appeared on the blades. During this period hilts became fancier, with ivory and mother-of-pearl being used in profusion. Hilts with large silver horse heads now became very popular. John Biggin of Sheffield was one of the finest makers of silver hilts and supplied most of the Sheffield trade. Todays collector of the small bladed Bowie knife – 3 ½ to 5 inches embossed with German silver hilts, refer to them as “Cake Cutters”.The true fighting Bowie knife started to disappear with the end of the Civil War in 1865, although the Buffalo hunters, cowboys, scouts and Indians still carried them. At this stage a lighter weight knife appeared, as well as a breach-loading revolver which became the favoured weapon.
It is still the tradition of the cutlers of Sheffield to produce knives of the finest quality and throughout the world, “Made in Sheffield” is recognised as a guarantee of the highest workmanship.