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Old 27th February 2024, 04:02 AM   #1
M ELEY
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Default Revolutionary War era clasp knife

Here we have a truly massive specimen! This clasp knife (or penny knife, jack knife, folder, etc) was the kind carried in the 18th c. and earlier by both sailors, soldiers, frontiersmen, explorers, etc for centuries. They were primarily a tool, but could easily be used as a weapon in a pinch (Spanish Albecete clasp knives in particular, which ranged in size up to truly lethal lengths and were often associated with deadly knife dueling!).

This specimen measures 4" closed, with the blade measuring just under 3". For similar examples, please see Neumann's 'Swords and Blades of the American Revolution', Gilkerson's 'Boarders Away', and Wilbur's 'Pirates & Patriots of the American Revolution'. Gilkerson, in particular, brings up that these tiny knives were sometimes used in violent mutinies and killings aboard ships. For the most part, they were tools used to splice rope, whittle scrimshaw or other similar functions. One will note this one has a 'spike' tool as well, which could also have many uses (perhaps cleaning out congealed powder or dirt from a flintlock pan.)

The construction on these early pieces were very simple, with a pin contruction holding the two pieces of fluted horn grip together. Note the fancy 6-sided finial, which I suppose is just decorative? In comparison, I've included a British naval fighting dirk with, ahem, 'bone grips', also in a fluted pattern.
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Old 27th February 2024, 01:41 PM   #2
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Default Of course, there are different opinions on these...

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that others don't always agree that these knives were ever allowed on ships. I personally think that the smaller types might have been allowed, if NOT on treasure ships or (strict) naval vessel, at least merchantmen and undoubtedly Privateers/pirate vessels. Gikkerson in particular lists numerous accounts of actual events involving clasps used for the wrong reasons. Hopefully, for the mot part, these knives led ordinary existences as a sailor's best tool. Many of them were flat at the end (no point), so they mot certainly could have doubled as shaving razors. Likewise, landlubbers such as soldiers, craftsmen, explorers, etc, would have found them most useful. It can also be said that Native Americans also sometimes traded in them and examples have been found/dug up at tribal sites. See 'Indian Trade Relics' by Lar Hothem for examples.


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Old 27th February 2024, 03:49 PM   #3
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This is a remarkable and esoteric topic Capn! and thank you for adding the alternate views on the viability and restrictions that were at hand in these times toward them.

I would agree on your take on allowance (or simply overlooking) the use of these small knives on vessels as important personal utilitarian tools. As with virtually any object that can be classified as a 'weapon of opportunity', it is impossible to ban or restrict everything.

I have always thought that these folding blade knives were distinctly associated with sailors, hence the term 'jack knife'. But I guess its more complicated than that. The term jack, which I thought referred to sailors (cf. 'jack tar) but apparently the term 'jack' is much older and broader, from middle English to mean a common fellow. There was the old term 'jakke' also for 'a mechanical device', and folding blade knives appear to have far older origins.

The descriptions of the character of these knives, as in this excellent example
with the augmenting tool features such as the spike. Tools/weapons on ships were multi featured as utility use was the primary function in real time, while as required, they were weapons. The 'cutlass' was probably used about 90% of the time as a tool for clearing deck debris, as well as ashore to clear brush. The serrations on the backs of blades as well as the teeth in the axes are good examples.

While collecting 'jack knives' is a genre of its own and of course these are seldom deemed weapons (despite the classification in the security protocols of today)...however these would have certainly had the ability for such use in close quarters as on ships.

Wonderful context alongside that perfect example dirk also!!!
VERY nice Capn!
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Old 27th February 2024, 09:24 PM   #4
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Thank you, Jim, for responding on this one. I was also under the assumption that the word 'jack knife' came from the nautical term 'Jack Tar'. Of coure, it makes sense that the original meaning to the name is much older, as these simple knife-types could span back many generations before Age of Fighting Sail. I'm just wondering when the first 'folder' came about versus a traditional fixed blade. Middle Ages? I'll have to do some research there.

I'm in full 'stubborn' agreement that these little examples were used by 'tars' are ships. The thought of banning such a versatile and tiny tool seems moot for the most part. First off, in the event of a mutiny, a good belay pin, grappling hook, oakum calker, sharpened fid or marlin pike/gaff would do just as well in a pinch. Secondly, a 3" bladed folding knife would never stand up to Royal Marines armed with muskets or midshipmen armed with fighting dirks. There'd be no contest there. Interestingly, most of the mutinies I've read of usually either involve the higher ranks, who already have access to weapons or the locker (Spencer Christian, anyone?) or the lower ranks seeking to 'lure' the officers/captain into a corner in ambush, in which case, even a bucket or piece of rope will do the trick. In any case, I'm happy with this little clasp and think it is a good representative piece for the collection.
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Old 29th February 2024, 01:05 PM   #5
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Capn,
On the topic of small knives such as 'jack knives', navaja and such, it was not about use in combat situations, but more at a baser level with personal disputes.
Such weapons were personal, typically concealed or considered utility items however likely to be used in the kinds of situations arising between men in confined circumstances. Case in point, the 'shiv' or 'shank' in prisons.

These personal small knives might be obtained in almost any number of situations by sailors, and as such might have come from virtually many forms circulating in the many cultural spheres these men experienced.
Like most maritime tools and weapons, there were not certain regulations or standards with these, but certain conventions and requirements existed obviously for functionality and durability.

The folding knife indeed has been around long into earlier history, but that needs of course far more research in a more specific discussion.

These are just my thoughts on this, and again, what I consider a most intriguing little knife, and its possible manner of use if found in a maritime context.
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Old 29th February 2024, 08:42 PM   #6
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What a great historical object M Eley, not many of these utility knives survive this long, given their hard working life. To top it, the ocean environment is especially rough on gear.

I agree that this was almost certainly a sailors' knife, the marlin spike being equally as useful to a sailor as the blade (for un-doing knots and other tasks where a bit of leverage helps).

Given the extra decorative features on the knife it's possible that it belonged to a more seniour member of the (civilian?) crew and hence why it managed to survive this long.
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Old 1st March 2024, 03:24 AM   #7
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Default Ceylon

I think you guys are going down the wrong road with this one.

http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/showpo...4&postcount=19
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Old 1st March 2024, 03:52 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rick View Post
I think you guys are going down the wrong road with this one.

http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/showpo...4&postcount=19
Perfect match, well spotted Rick.
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Old 1st March 2024, 04:48 AM   #9
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I'm a bit surprised as we have seen many examples of this utensil over the years in the Ethno Forum.

I think it is interesting that the Sheeps Foot pattern is seen on almost all modern folding rigging knives. Pretty hard to stab someone (or oneself) with that blade profile.

Gilkerson also shows (p.130) in Boarders Away a sheath knife with the point cut off to a 90 degree angle.
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Old 1st March 2024, 12:13 PM   #10
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Most interesting in seeing this curious example revealed as a scribes knife from these Indian regions!
My question would be, is it not feasible that sailors in ports of call in the East might have encountered such items in their trade experiences, and seen potential use in their on board circumstances?

Obviously the blade alone would be useful for many of the things done by sailors (including whittling etc.) in other than required tasks involving the rigging and elements of same. While not something ascribed (no pun intended) to the normal items of maritime use, something I personally have noticed in the pawn shops of ports of call, is the affinity of sailors for exotica and novelties from their many visits to unusual places.

On that basis, this knife, and perhaps others like it, might fall into the category of maritime novelty, if only tenuously. Whatever the case, it is a most interesting example of an item not commonly seen, but certainly well known as per described by Rick.

Just how late did the use of palm leaves as a medium for record keeping continue in these areas from India into other SE Asian regions? If it ceased in say, first part of 19th c. with printing, paper etc. could this form of these knives (with the fixture at top and fluting) be deemed 18th c.?

Also, with this type of pointed blade, rather than the blunted or rebated blades of the rigging tools described, would this kind of knife either with use of the blade or even the 'spike' not become a 'weapon of opportunity?
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Old 2nd March 2024, 04:16 AM   #11
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Default Foiled again!

Actually, I had a heads-up from another well respected Forum member of my error just prior to Rick pointing out my monumental mistake. The strange thing is I do frequent the Ethno side, but I guess I just never saw one of these East Indian types before. Jeez! Well, it won't be my first or last error in judgement (I remember getting a lesson on a piece I thought was colonial American, but ended up being 19th c. African.) Sigh, but I am glad that this Forum exists to point out such misjudgments and I do appreciate everyone who came in on this one.

I sill stick to the fact, though, that this isn't an obvious mistake! Many of the early clasps/jack knives highly resemble this style. In at least one book I have of 'American Revolution' sketches of weapons, this type above is erroneously shown. Several of those in Neumann's are likewise possibly questionable.

Thank you Jim and Radboud for your comments and also good questions. Could a piece like this still have seen maritime use? So very similar to the penny knives of Europeans and certainly of a use on merchant ships (cargo lists and journal entries requiring quill pens and such), it seems very plausible. Not to mention the long maritime history of India, the associations with the British and Dutch EIC, piracy off the coast of Malabar, etc, etc. Still not what I had hoped for, but an interesting piece that has generated some great conversation! Thanks!
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Old 2nd March 2024, 05:31 AM   #12
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The first folding knives date to the Iron Age 500 or 600 BCE approximately.
The spike on these knives would probably only be useful for breaking knots in twine or the blade for cutting a plug of tobacco.
Certainly, more than one was brought back from the Far East by sailors and used in a different way than originally intended. Many of these had the body that held the stylus and knife made from Ivory, thus making them even more desirable to own.

Wikipedia has a large section on the use of these tools.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm-leaf_manuscript
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Old 2nd March 2024, 11:05 PM   #13
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Thank you, Rick, for this excellent info and I also forgot to thank you for the positive ID on this one. I'm not feeling as bad about it now. Lesson learned and I think this is at least an old one.
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Old 3rd March 2024, 05:16 PM   #14
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In ongoing research on this intriguing old knife/stylus, there are certain inherent qualities that render it having maritime possibility, despite not being an item specifically for such context. The mere fact that these were clearly diffused through SE Asia, Malaysia and East Indies of course suggests they were indeed aboard trade vessels through these networks.

Aboard ships, especially pirate and privateer vessels with their own autonomy rather than stenrict regulation, the clever eye of the sailor, regardless of what flag he sailed under, was keen and innovative. These would likely have been seen as a 'novelty', and primarily as a folding knife alone......however the stylus, in essence a spike, while having utilitarian measure......would be deadly if used as a close quarters weapon. Not as much in combat, as in stealth, a stab in key location would be mortal. Naturally, these kinds of matters would escape any sort of record as the typical chroniclers of this history would not usually have such information.

Carl Sagan once observed, it is not so much the study of written history that needs attention, but that of 'unwritten' history, where many answers and secrets are to be found. This is perhaps badly paraphrased, but it is the idea I took from it.
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Old 4th March 2024, 05:49 PM   #15
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Hello Jim and thank you for your valuable perspective. I'm feeling a lot less 'bummed out' about it now. Many of the items in my collection range from odd ethnographic pieces to New World colonial, bearing in mind that such items indeed were a part of the maritime world of trading, piracy and exotic 'goods'. I'll definitely do more research, though, the next time I decide to step out of my comfort zone (big edgy things) to buy something different (little folding edgy things)
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Old 29th April 2024, 08:00 PM   #16
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It seems funny that in the 'maritime' world these knives, remarkably of the exact same configuration with blade and awl are indeed called sailors knives.
The awl is apparently referred to as a 'marlin' spike (clearly for the big game fish) and similar have appeared as pre-Civil War from notable collections with blacksmith forged iron parts.

These same type knives are still being produced, for some reason nicknamed the '1757'.

Is it not possible that such knives aboard vessels might have been seen by these Chettiars (accountants with palm leaf pages) in trade ports, and adopted the form as convenient. Most scribes seem to have been in static locations, so why would a folding stylus be required, unless they were in transit and keeping records?

Attached is the 'pre Civil war' sailors knife from Walt Hallstein collection that was auctioned some time ago. It was noted as having blacksmith forged iron parts.
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Old 30th April 2024, 06:41 PM   #17
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Default A bit fishy

Hey Jim, I have to tell you about the Marlin Spike:
first the fish was named after the tool and not vice-versa.
Second, Marlin is a contraction of Marling.
Marling is the term for rope work, as rope was made from Marl.
Obviously a mandatory tool shipboard.
On a similar note, I recently sold a WW2 German SAK handled trench knife (see pic) that featured a canvas and leather stitching tool which I found curious as I've not seen examples of soldiers repairing such materials, but then I've led a sheltered life.
The other feature was a cork screw: convivial imbibing round the night fire perhaps.
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Old 30th April 2024, 08:34 PM   #18
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Keith, thank you so much! You're truly a fountain of knowledge...I had no idea on the name of the Marlin fish!Its fascinating how terms and their etymology have so much history.

So far my efforts to connect this knife and its form to 'Jack tars' is tenuous, as it seems the stylus used by the Chettiars (palm leaf accountants) was known as 'narayam'. These apparently were not only in the fixed type stylus but were known in this folding form(the term 'Swiss' Army knife is used) so they must have been in use independently from the maritime use I supposed.

Still, the nautical 'marlin' knives still used today with awl suggest obviously their use. While the spike seems very small for heavy work on canvas, it might serve in other matters with rigging and rope beyond my limited awareness of such things.

Whatever the case, this does stand as a Tamil scribes stylus, and by the metal etc it seems end of 18th into 19th c.....Anandalal, based in Sri Lanka, identified one identical to this as such a number of years ago.

Thank you again for helping with this quandry, an usual item, clearly not often seen, at least as far as Ive seen.

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Jim
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Old 30th April 2024, 10:03 PM   #19
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Jim, the spike is used to untie knots. As you will appreciate, knots are placed under a lot of tension on boats (or swell from water when natural materials are used). So there are times when extra leverage is needed to undo them. Inserting the marlin spike inbetween the strands allows you to wriggle the knot loose enough to untie it.

Another use is when you are splicing ropes to work the individual strands apart. These spikes have a lot of utility on boats where so much was held together by rope and canvas.
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Old 30th April 2024, 10:27 PM   #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Radboud View Post
Jim, the spike is used to untie knots. As you will appreciate, knots are placed under a lot of tension on boats (or swell from water when natural materials are used). So there are times when extra leverage is needed to undo them. Inserting the marlin spike inbetween the strands allows you to wriggle the knot loose enough to untie it.

Another use is when you are splicing ropes to work the individual strands apart. These spikes have a lot of utility on boats where so much was held together by rope and canvas.

That makes sense, kinda like me with my shoelaces!! auughh! the dynamics of tension and water also cause issues. Thank you!
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Old 1st May 2024, 05:21 AM   #21
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Sorry I hadn't commented on this thread for a while. I've been on 'stormy seas' lately- The marlin spike used to untie knots is, of course, a fact and indeed I think these stylus types could have seen sea service. Much as fids were used for very thick rope, I feel the small spikes could have been effective with smaller lines and also would have been a great tool for punching holes in sailcloth or other fabrics, etching scrimshaw, etc.
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Old 1st May 2024, 01:46 PM   #22
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Great to see ya Capn, and indeed there are stormy seas about!

In closely examining this 'narayam' (stylus) made in the manner of a folding knife, which appears to be of course notably efficient in the case of portability, it seems clear this example is of late 18th century. These were typically associated with the 'Chettiars', which was an occupational caste in India dealing primarily in book keeping which included money changing and lending, and were primarily situated in Tamil Nadu.

Scribes keeping records of course had done so since ancient times using dried palm leaves as 'paper' and in these cases of course Sanskrit was the lingua francia, and often these knives had letters in this script on the blades.
The Chettiars were noted as locating in other areas which seem to correspond to many areas in the Orient including Rangoon, Singapore and many others.

While the use of palm leaves as paper waned in the 19th century with the use of printing presses as colonization brought such modern methods into use, tradition as always was a dominant force, so continued following of this practice likely held true especially in certain regions.

As trade vessels quite literally plied these corners of the 'seven seas', it seems not only likely, but probable, that these folding knife stylus' (or awl in nautical parlance) would have been seen by sailors dealing with them....whether in legitimate trade, or of course, 'visited' by pirates.

Multi-purposing was always very much an element of necessity at sea, as well as in native environments in colonial situations, so a stylus/knife finding alternative use aboard vessels would not be at all surprising.
That this example, which is virtually identical to one shown some years ago here by a former writer here (Anandalal of Sri Lanka) its character is profoundly neo-classic European supporting the late 19th century date suggested. ..but possibly into early 19th.

The fluted grips and neo classical capstan feature recall the hilts of European small swords, which again, would not be surprising in this era in these regions with the strong infusions of European influence.

As with all edged weapons, even small knives such as this, in its capacity more as a tool, there are many intriguing tales they hold.
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Old 8th May 2024, 08:42 PM   #23
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall View Post
Attached is the 'pre Civil war' sailors knife from Walt Hallstein collection that was auctioned some time ago. It was noted as having blacksmith forged iron parts.
Hi Jim,

The knife you showed is also a lontar scribe's knife.
Attached a pic of my small collection of these knives.
Never believe descriptions auction houses provide!
Regards,
Detlef
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Old 8th May 2024, 10:37 PM   #24
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well spoken Detlef!
Thank you for showing these. What exactly is a lontar scribe? I know that scribes using these stylus' were widely spread throughout SE Asia, but am not familiar with the many ethnic groups.

The one shown in the OP, with fluted grip, can you say more on the style. While it reminds me of neoclassic European style, you would be more familiar with the period and perhaps regional classification of this particular style.

Do you think it is feasible that sailors might have obtained these as earlier suggested and used them as awls?

The OP example seems c. 1790s by the pitted blades IMO, and the general feel of it when handled.
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Old 9th May 2024, 12:06 AM   #25
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall View Post
well spoken Detlef!
Thank you for showing these. What exactly is a lontar scribe? I know that scribes using these stylus' were widely spread throughout SE Asia, but am not familiar with the many ethnic groups.

The one shown in the OP, with fluted grip, can you say more on the style. While it reminds me of neoclassic European style, you would be more familiar with the period and perhaps regional classification of this particular style.

Do you think it is feasible that sailors might have obtained these as earlier suggested and used them as awls?

The OP example seems c. 1790s by the pitted blades IMO, and the general feel of it when handled.
Hi Jim,

Lontar is a palm. The lontar palm leaves are used to write on them, the scribes write or better scribe the text with the needle and rub a plant ash inside.The term I used was "lontar scribe's knife". But hit me, I can't tell from my memories of how the knife was used but when my old brain works well to cut the leaves. All the knives here shown (not only mine) come from India, maybe Sri Lanka, so far I know.
When you look close, you will see that my black wood ones are fluted as well. I guess for better grip!?
And yes, I guess that they can be fairly old. I know not too much about them, I assembled them when I saw them and when they were not too expensive.

Regards,
Detlef
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Old 9th May 2024, 12:11 AM   #26
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Look here for better understanding: https://www.alamy.de/fotos-bilder/lo...ortBy=relevant
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