Compound Utensils and Refined Dining: A Material Analysis of an Eighteenth-Century Pocketknife

As part of a project for Dr. Whitney Martinko’s Material Culture class, we had to choose one object to serve as a starting point for what would eventually be a detailed object biography. Since I am interested in eighteenth-century food and culinary history, I decided to check out the collections at Valley Forge National Park, hoping to find some sort of dining implement. However, what I ended up finding was much, much more than that.

As one of thirty-three pocketknives being stored at Valley Forge National Park, the eighteenth-century Dutch sailor’s jackknife, with a needle, two-tine fork, (yes, a fork!) and a mysterious engraving on the blade, is undoubtedly one of the coolest compact knives I have ever seen! While I immediately knew that I would be using this for my project, I ran into some problems right from the get-go. An obstacle to creating an object biography for the pocketknife is the ambiguous language used by curator George Neumann in his item description. It is clear that the item was not an archaeological find, and that it is of “possible” Dutch origin. However, it is unclear why it is suspected to be of that origin, or what the meaning of “Dutch” actually is or implies in this case. It is also undetermined if the owner was a sailor; if the knife was intended to be used by sailor; or if this was a standard label for this type of knife. At first, the pocketknife’s unknown origins seemed to be a complication, but after studying the object, particularly the fork, in person for the third time I realized that Neumann’s description has not helped me understand the object; instead, it obscures what the material evidence itself tells me, and his vagueness has only led me to a more complex, historical and material inquiry of the jackknife.

The lack of cataloged information forced me to search for knives of the same material and structural nature to provide context for the object. I turned to other museums that housed pocketknives with similar characteristics and came across a collection at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, and an item at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum. From these findings emerged two cultural contexts in which I could analyze the eighteenth-century compound utensil. The collection at the State Museum of Pennsylvania holds the same type of pistol-grip, bone-paneled knives as the sailor’s jackknife, only these knives were without forks and excavated from Native American settlements in Lancaster County—a county in which half of the population was composed of German-speaking Dutch settlers during a majority of the eighteenth century. On the other hand, the Roman folding knife housed at the Fitzwilliam Museum does contain a fork, along with a spoon, spike, spatula, and a small pick, and is said to be manufactured any time between 200 AD and 300 AD. Placing the eighteenth-century jackknife in these two, very different cultural contexts has helped me begin to understand what these multi-tool pocketknives meant to these different groups of people, and most importantly what meanings they imposed on these types of objects. After researching the jackknife’s possible uses and meanings in different historical and cultural contexts, I concluded that this primary source object can be used to provide insight to understanding the use of portable dining utensils as another means to exude refinement outside of the domestic sphere.

I referenced Richard Bushman’s The Refinement of America to help me think of less obvious reasons for wanting to carry a fork-knife combo in one’s pocket.  What connotations did this object have as an eating utensil, and what about the owner(s) circumstance made it a desirable object to carry in their pocket? It is possible that the owner was using these dining implements around a hearth to demonstrate their knowledge of dining etiquette usually displayed in the home. My inquiry becomes even more intriguing as I continue to try to understand the social and cultural environments in which these tools were being used, and whether they were used by certain people to exude refinement among others who displayed gentility, or whether they were used to separate themselves from the unrefined–or possibly both. I realized that the questions I have asked inform the conversation about “artifacts as symbolic representations” just as much as the answers I have found. Knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, etc., were not only used to separate one’s self from their food, but also to separate the refined from who they perceived to be unrefined.

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent post! Your object analysis is fascinating. I thought your observation of how Neumann’s description actually obscured the object’s true meaning was particularly interesting. It is an excellent example of the value and necessity of using objects as primary sources separate from, and combined with, textual sources!

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