The Five Shilling Knife

Unlike the makers of what the patent oyster opener, as described elsewhere, the manufacturers of this implement wanted its users to remain in no doubt concerning its function; its manufacturer; what it was made of; and even its price. On the blade it proudly proclaims not only LEMON, CUCUMBER, TOMATO, ORANGE but also FIRTH BREARLEY STAINLESS and the princely sum of 5/-.

It's really good for figs, too, but the reason it specifically mentions lemons is that the strongly acid juice will quickly stain an ordinary carbon steel blade. The tomatoes are almost certainly mentioned because of the serrated edge. Although serrations of various types date back to remote antiquity, as far as I have been able to discover they were not common in the kitchen until the late 19th century, and even then, the only common type was the bread knife. A serrated kitchen knife for cutting fruit was probably something of a novelty when this one was introduced.

Serrated knives are ideal for cutting things with soft interiors and relatively hard or tough exteriors. Examples include bread and tomatoes respectively. All right, the skin of a tomato isn't all that tough, except perhaps on some home-grown tomatoes, but even a hot-house tomato has quite a tough skin when you compare it with the inside – and as soon as you have made the first cut, the next cut is likely to make the interior squirt out of the open side. A razor-sharp knife will be fine, but a serrated edge will work just as well; will hold its edge better (I've had this one for decades and never sharpened it); and is probably less dangerous in most people's hands.

The maker's name and the “Stainless” mark are particularly interesting because Harry Brearley invented stainless steel in Sheffield just over 100 years ago, in 1913-1914: he's the Brearley in Firth Brearley. And the price? You probably need to be quite old nowadays to recognize the convention of the oblique stroke and dash to indicate a round price in shillings, though it's still used in India for rupees. What is even stranger to modern eyes is the idea of marking the price indelibly on the item. How could they tell? Well, they had Retail Price Maintenance, so that manufacturers and distributors could refuse to re-supply shops who sold at less than the official retail price, and it was an era of low inflation when one might reasonably expect an unchanging design to sell for quite a few years at an unchanging price.

The handle is made of wood, which probably dates it to the early 1960s at the latest – after that, you would expect plastic – but the price probably dates it to the late 20s or early 1930s. Very roughly, things are around 40x as expensive today as they were in 1930, so a knife that cost 5/- then would cost around £10 in today's money. Of course people had less money and expected things to last, and there were very few cheap imports, even if people had wanted to buy them, so a £10 kitchen knife (especially in stainless steel) wouldn't have been as big a surprise then as it might be now. Even so, if you'd bought it new as late as 1960, it would still have cost you well under an (old) penny a year by now. And it's still going strong.

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