The thing about rabbit holes is they don’t stop the minute you find an answer to your initial question. This morning, I explored what I learned when I investigated the question of WPA glassblowers and what company might have been their previous employer. But that question quite naturally (naturally to me, at least) led to another question: what other companies have we lost due to industrialization or to offshoring or to big box, mass merchandised products? It’s not the first time I’ve considered this question. As someone who loves all things vintage, I’m keenly aware of the number of items that are now considered collectibles just because they’re no longer made. As someone who is practical, my home is filled with these items that are “vintage,” not because they’re vintage, but because the old stuff just lasts longer. So to answer my question about other companies, I merely had to look up from my laptop on the kitchen table and glance around. The result for tonight’s post is the story of steak knives and Carvel Hall.
One would think there’s not much to say about knives. While one may decide after reading this post that too much has been said about knives, there’s more to knives than meets the eye. For example, as cutlery goes, the knife was the indispensable and one-and-only piece of flatware in Western/European culture for centuries. The movie images of vast banquet tables with carousing soldiers using their weapons to skewer and “fork” meat to their mouths is not all that inaccurate. All one needed to enjoy a meal was hands and personal knife.
Four hundred or so years ago, table etiquette took a new turn. According to legend, Cardinal Richelieu was distressed by the table manners of those who not only used their knives to skewer their food but to pick their teeth. To discourage the habit, he provided knives for his guests to use…but had the ends rounded. After his death, Richelieu’s innovation caught on, and in 1669, King Louis XIV made pointed knives illegal, both at home and in public. The table knife was born (and not so coincidentally, the use of the fork rose too).
Sharp knives didn’t disappear, of course. They were still a staple in kitchens, but the practice of having a sharp and pointed knife at the dinner table disappeared for centuries. It wasn’t until 1946, when a Maryland machinist decided to give a gift of a letter opener to a Maryland businessman that the idea of the steak knife in the home was born, The machinist was Paul Culver and the businessman was Charles Briddell Jr.
The gift to Briddell wasn’t a random act of thoughtfulness from a friend. Culver was an employee at the Chas. D. Briddell manufacturing plant, established in 1920 by Charles Briddell Sr. The company, originally a blacksmith shop, evolved to the manufacture of ice and seafood tools, and during WWII, production was converted to bazooka shells. In the post-war era, consumer goods were again the focus, and Culver presented the letter opener as a Christmas gift but also possible new product line. It was Tom Briddell, the younger brother of Charles Jr., who saw the potential beyond the manufacturing of letter openers to the creation of steak knives.
According to a 1953 article from the The Salisbury Times, Tom Briddell asked Culver for both a set of six steak knives and a case to put them in, then did a nationwide survey of the potential market. The findings were clear: People wanted an elegant, sharp knife to cook [sic] their meat, and they wanted it at home, rather than a restaurant. The resulting knife, the Carvel Hall, soon went on sale nationally—and became the first common kind of steak knife you could buy. (The Secret History of Steak Knives)
Over the years, the Chas. D. Briddell Company changed its name to Carvel Hall and diversified its product line to include everything from crab knives to U.S. mail scooters, but steak knives were their main product. As the Briddell family moved out of the business, the company struggled, and in 1961, it was purchased by Towle Manufacturing of Boston. The quality of the steak knives was maintained, but in the long run, even that could not save Carvel from the economic pressures of cheap overseas labor and bargain-hunting American consumers. Towle declared bankruptcy in 1986, and sold off some assets but kept Carvel. It was a shortlived victory; Towle reentered bankruptcy in 1989 and shut down Carvel. Local investors reopened the company in 1990, and a Washington Post article from the time describes an almost euphoric response by the 25 employees rehired to start the company again and the cautious optimism of the new management.
Hart said Carvel Hall’s annual sales exceeded $3 million before the company closed. “We’re cautiously optimistic that we can get up to speed,” he said.
Last week, in its first step back to the market, Carvel Hall reopened its outlet store, which sells the company’s knives and other houseware items.
“We had a really nice response,” Hart said. “There were a hundred people there without any advertising at all.” (CUTLERY PLANT ON EASTERN SHORE GETS A NEW LEASE ON LIFE)
The euphoria ended relatively quickly when the plant closed for the final time in 2000. But Carvel Hall had established its place in history as the company that brought the steak knife out of the chop house and into the home.
Bonus links. Carvel Hall knives are still sold used on sites like Ebay. The quality is so good, that over the years I have succeeded in buying multiple sets of new old stock to give as wedding and housewarming gifts. Some styles are shown below:
FWIW, the eBay links appear broken here.. (not clickable).
Thank you for a wonderful two part series, and I look forward to more journeys down the rabbit hole with you!
So that’s why steak knives are no longer a “thing” for wedding presents etc. Figures. American (euro/white/colonizer) culture’s love for what they want when they want it – and make it cheap – is short-sighted, self-defeating, and why artists, artisans, and small vendors everywhere are suffering to this minute. Given a choice between lots of cheap crap that may but probably won’t last a year and one, single, will-last-forever good quality something or other… sigh. But I love the histories. Was done means can be done – therefore will be done in the future at need.
That “we don’t make things in America any more” is why W didn’t become a beloved war president. When he took us to war there wasn’t an economic resurgence, opening/reopening factories and the good jobs that go with that to supply the war materials. All of its been outsourced and the only thing W could recommend was for people to buy stuff because he doesn’t know the difference between state/local sales tax revenue and federal income tax revenue. sigh. But even if we bring the manufacturing home again some day it won’t mean jobs unless we get a tax structure that encourages hiring rather than firing as we’ve got now. Currently tax breaks for the capital expense of putting in automation but tax liability for hiring people. Short-sighted & self-defeating…