Old World Skills for a New Age

The Greatest Generation and the generations before carried knives like we carry keys. Children were expect to have a sharp knife in their pocket at all times, and not just farm kids, all kids did. Yes, farm kids, boys and girls, use a knife countless times through the day, cutting bailing twine, trimming hoofs, castrating pigs, etc.  But all kids, both boys and girls, had to have knife skills; it was a part of their penmanship in writing script, something that was demanded of all kids, even when I was growing up. The Greatest Generation grew up and were well into adult life before the mechanical pencil or ballpoint pen. Those that wrote throughout the day used wooden pencils and sharpened them using a penknife.  My father was a draftsman in the late 1930s, and a machinist through the war; when I was a kid, he sharpened pencils that looked like a mechanical pencil sharpener had put the point on them.  When he did calligraphy, his pencil would have a chisel point, something you can not do with a pencil sharpener. In the woodshop, he used nearly the same precision as he demanded of himself in the machine shop.  One of the reasons he had the precision he did, was he used a knife to mark his cuts, be it measuring from the tape measure, or transferring the length from a template.  His tiny old folding knife would make a thin line no more than 0.003″ thick; all his wood joints looked like they grew that way from the tree.  So why do I keep referring to it as a penknife?  When I grew up, we had ballpoint pens, yet holes were still cut in our school desks for ink wells.  My parents’ generation used those ink wells but with metal nibbed pens.  Their parents and teachers and the generations before had pens with nibs made from turkey, goose, duck, crow or raven feathers.  The classics Jan Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, as were most of the classics, were written with quill pens.  The Declaration of Independence, The US Constitution, and all the Founding and Framing documents were all written with quills cut feathers.  In an earlier post, I showed how to cut quill pens as well as included Jan Austen’s recipe for brewing her ink.  Though my grandmother was born in 1895, and raised on one of the first cattle ranches in Latah County, Idaho, she went to Framingham Normal Teacher College in Massachusetts.  She met my grandfather and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and built a stationary store.  As a side note, my grandfather started the Rotary Club in Phoenix in 1914.  But I digress.  When my grandmother was in her 90s, when she needed to cut tape, twine, an envelope, etc., like magic, her pen knife would appear, do the intended task, and disappear back to its special pocket in her old apron.  It was wickedly sharp and heavily worn from sharpening; her tiny sharpening stone was also worn with use and had a permanent home in her apron.  I never asked her how old that little folding knife was.  The only thing she ever lied about was her age.  She was perpetually 29, even when she was 101; therefore, asking how old any of her belongings were would give her age away.  She did say the knife was a gift in college, so it was approximately 85 years old.  I am saying that both genders of past generations were adept at using and sharpening the everyday-carry folding knife, and skills with a blade are transferable to trades and crafts.  It is my goal that all our students are just as proficient using the knife as the previous generations.  Like my parents and my grandparents, we trust our students to use the knife with respect; with that respect comes maturity, self-reliance, common sense, and dexterity.

Brian D. King

Director of Education/Co-Founder Northwestern Outdoor Leadership Institute

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