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History of the Robeson Cutlery Company
The history of the Robeson Cutlery Company has been described by Dewey and Lavona Ferguson in The Romance of Collecting Cattaraugus, Robeson, Russell and Queen Knives, and that history was essentially repeated in Bruce Voyles' The American Blade Collector's Association Price Guide to Antique Knives. I wrote an anecdotal history for Jim Sargent's American Premium Guide to Knives and Razors, 5th edition. However, Tom Kalcevic's Knives Can Talk; The Story of The Robeson Cutlery Co. as Told From Their Knives, Cutlery Products and Local History, 2nd edition is the most exhaustive. There exists a small publication by Clark T. Rice and Elizabeth Hiddemen-Rice titled Historical Wyoming; History of The Perry Robeson Cutlery Company; Days of The Cutting Edge, written in 1993, but it was only available locally in Wyoming County, New York and surrounding areas.
All those contain pertinent and interesting information, and would be helpful to anyone interested in pursuing Robeson cutlery as a collecting hobby. I recommend them. Both the Ferguson's and the Voyles' books have numerous illustrations of pocket knives. The Ferguson's utilized old catalog illustrations. Bruce Voyles utilized photographs of a collection of Robeson knives that numbered over four hundred pieces.
Knives Can Talk has many interesting knives illustrated, in color, and described in great detail by Mr. Kalcevic, relating them nicely to the historical timeline of the company.
I will attempt to pull most of that together here, but in as concise and uncomplicated a manner as possible. I think I know some things that I've gleaned from looking at thousands of Robeson cutlery products since 1988. Some of my thoughts are in contradiction to the previously mentioned published histories. Some are unique to me as far as I know. I'll try not to confuse the issue by arguing those points in this forum.
Millard Fillmore Robeson
Millard Fillmore Robeson was born April 8, 1847, in Farmersville, Cattaraugus County, New York, to Robert and Louisa M. Stacy Robeson. He married Malvina Emma Holmes. Mr. and Mrs M.F. Robeson had five children; George W. Robeson, Irving S. Robeson, Grace Carolyn Robeson, Blanche Robeson, and Robert Robeson. The reason I've detailed the children's names is that when one looks at old shipping notices from the earliest days of the cutlery business, one finds those individuals' initials, stating the knives were packed by or shipped by one or the other family members. Indeed, George and Irving were listed as officers in the company on a shipping notice letterhead in 1902.
Robeson apparently established his first cutlery business in Elmira, New York in 1879. This concern was most likely operated out of the family home, and would explain the children's early involvement. I've seen later Robeson material stating, "Since 1879". However, a full page Christmas advertisement in the December 3rd, 1910, issue of The Saturday Evening Post touts, "In our twenty-five years' experience...", which dates to 1885, not 1879. Prior to 1885, the cutlery items were marked simply "MILLARD F. ROBESON" or "M.F. ROBESON". Beginning in 1885, items were marked with "ROBESON CUTLERY Co." That incorporation date might explain the difference in the two disparate claims as to date of establishment. The Elmira City Directory, however, did not list The Robeson Cutlery Company until 1893.
Much has been written concerning how Millard Robeson began to sell pocket cutlery. Most have written that he was a traveling salesman; that he began to carry a selection of knives while traveling his sales route and that he offered these knives to his customers.
I have a first edition of History of the Town of Perry, New York, written Frank D. Roberts, in collaboration with Carl G. Clarke, and published by C.G. Clarke & Son in 1915. It relates a brief history of The Robeson Cutlery Company and its move to Perry in 1898.
I have for some time thought his sales representation to have been on behalf of The Rochester Stamping Works of Rochester, New York. They made pressed metal goods such as chafing dishes, silent butlers, tea kettles, cuspidors, and trays. Indeed, Tom Kalcevic ties Millard Robeson to Rochester Stamping Works as early as about 1875.
As an aside, that portion of the Robeson story lived on for a bit in the form of Royal-Rochester ceramic and tin ware. It is quite collectible and has a large following. There is a Royal-Rochester website dedicated to collecting items made by that company. The URL for that site is http://www.showcase-collectibles.com/royalrochester/. If you have any interest in that side of the Robeson-Rochester Corporation, that is the best source for information.
Millard, as a salesman for Rochester Stamping Works, did quite well for himself, as he and George W. Robeson were listed as officers in the company on a shipping notice letterhead dated 1896. Historical Wyoming states that Robeson had purchased an interest in the stamping works in 1894, which concurs with the stated date in History of the Town of Perry, New York.
Knives Can Talk states he had purchased an interest in the company in 1889, and that his son George began running it in 1895.
It is known that he established a cutlery company office at 141 Jones Street in Rochester, the same address as one location of The Rochester Stamping Works.
There exists a photograph of another of the Rochester Stamping Works buildings, located at 12 Saratoga Avenue, Rochester, New York, with their sales representatives standing or sitting in front. Unfortunately, Millard F. Robeson is not included.
It is of a wood framed building. It is from about the turn of the century, but is not dated. Interestingly, there is a sign on the front porch that clearly reads:
"ROBESON CUTLERY CO. SECOND FLOOR"
Early photograph of The Rochester Stamping Works with the salesmen.
Close-up showing the ROBESON CUTLERY CO. SECOND FLOOR sign.
Each man and his geographic area of responsibility is identified by name on the back of the photograph. One of them is C.W. Silcox. He is listed on early Robeson Cutlery Company letterheads as an officer in the company. Another is a Mr. Gillette. I have a letter from the Robeson Cutlery Company to one of their retailers concerning a shipment of Continental pocketknives sold to them by Mr. Gillette.
Correlating the address with the information in Knives Can Talk suggests a date of about 1896 to 1898.
This framed photograph sold on Ebay in August, 2007, to a collector of Rochester Stamping and Royal Rochester wear. It sold for three hundred twenty six dollars. Remember, I wrote earlier that that portion of the Robeson story has a large following.
The Robeson Cutlery Company
Robeson imported his earliest cutlery items from both England and Germany, as they were less costly than buying American made goods. However, strict tariffs on foreign made cutlery were passed in 1890, and again in 1897, prompting him to seek an American source. He settled on a small firm in Camillus, New York, owned by Charles E. Sherwood and Denton E. Bingham. They were brothers-in-law and both were immigrant English cutlers with experience. They made knives, on contract, for Robeson for several years, beginning about 1895. Some have reported that Millard Robeson eventually took over the factory, retaining Sherwood, Bingham, and the laborers. Both Historical Wyoming and Knives Can Talk state that he had the blade blanks formed at the Rochester Stamping Works, and the blades finished and the knives assembled in Camillus by the Sherwood and Bingham workers.
As noted above, Robeson was lured away from the manufacturers at Camillus to Perry, New York, which was closer to Rochester and the Rochester Stamping Works. There had been a harvester manufacturing business in Perry. They had vacated their factory and relocated to Jamestown, New York. The empty factory was made available to Robeson on terms, described above, that were quite attractive. He accepted, and established The Robeson Cutlery Company manufacturing facilities there in 1898.
While living in Rochester, Millard Robeson resided at 13 Arnold Park, a prominent neighborhood that included Mr. George Eastman, the founder of Eastman-Kodak, among its residents. Millard Robeson died, at the age of fifty-six, on December 30, 1903, and was returned to Elmira, New York, for burial.
His sons, George W. Robeson and Irving S. Robeson assumed operation of the businesses. George was presitent of Rochester Stamping Works and treasurer of Robeson Cutlery Co. Irving was president of Robeson Cutlery Co. and treasurer of Rochester Stamping Works.
Both Robert and Irving and their families attended The First Baptist Church of Rochester.
Irving S. Robeson was an avid amateur golfer, winning the prestigious tournament at The Pinehurst Country Club in North Carolina in 1918. He was a member of The Rochester Club and the Oak Hills Country Club where he played golf often with the club pro, Walter Hagen. He also was a noted horseman. A fire brigade in Perry, New York, was named for him.
Fillmore K. Robeson, Irving's teenaged son, had won The Pinehurst Tournament in 1915. He also won the Oak Hills championship in 1917.
A larger facility for storage and shipping was acquired in Rochester at 175-176 Anderson Avenue. Railway connections were accessible at that location, and knives made in Perry were shipped from that address.
The Robeson Cutlery Co. soon outgrew the old cobblestone building in Perry and added a three story brick building with a two level basement, in 1906. This building had steam heat and an automatic fire prevention sprinkler system.
There exist many postcards depicting the Perry facilities:
The Robeson Cutlery Company buildings in Perry, New York. The circa 1830 cobblestone building is in the center, and the 1906 three story brick addition in the background.
A Tinted Photo of the Robeson Buildings in the early 1900's. Note the wooden addition to the cobblestone building, that was already in existence when the cutlery business moved to Perry in 1899. (What a bleak looking day)
Workmen at the grinding or polishing stations. Early 1900's.
Workmen outside the old cobblestone building
A color tinted postcard. Note the construction materials and the dirt street.
A color tinted postcard from about the 1910's to 1930
Robeson knives were manufactured in those buildings until 1965. During the 1910's, 1920's, and 1930's, Robeson was considered one of the two best manufacturers of pocket cutlery in America, and one of the best in the world. The other noted American manufacturer was New York Knife Company, of Walden, New York.
Robeson produced a vast array of patterns, some made by no one else. Mostly, they manufactured utilitarian knives for working men. They did, of course, produce many pearl or abalone handled "Gentlemen's" knives. Interestingly, the gentlemen's knives appear to have survived in far better condition than the working knives. Of course, the working knives were used, sharpened, used some more, and so on, until they were used up, so to speak.
Robeson added a factory in Mount Morris, New York, during World War I, and continued to operate it for several years thereafter, until 1922..
The administration and distribution offices remained in Rochester, New York. Eventually, the Robeson Cutlery Company was merged with the Rochester Stamping Company, and the new corporation was called Robeson-Rochester Corporation. That merger took place in 1922.
Robeson continued to make excellent pocketknives throughout the 1920's and 1930's, but stiff competition from German cutlers after WWI took a toll on sales. By the beginning of World War II, Robeson was in serious trouble. The company was offered for sale and was purchased by Mr. Saul Frankel. He hired Mr. Emerson Case of the famous Case Cutlery family in 1940, and pretty much gave him a free hand, as General Manager, in revitalizing the company. Emerson Case did not disappoint him. Mr. Case spent long hours at the factory and in the offices, and made frequent trips extolling the virtues of the company and its products. Today, he would be referred to as a "workaholic". His work ethic both costly to him and paid dividends. He had married his first wife, Helen, while working at Kinfolks Cutlery. After his move to Robeson, he was busily advancing The Robeson Cutlery Company, while she was very active in church and social work. They grew apart and subsequently divorced in 1941. Emerson Case continued to work long and hard hours at Robeson, often working late. He frequented a local diner for his meals, and grew very familiar with a certain waitress there. When an opening for a billing secretary at the offices became available, he hired her for that position. Familiarity progressed to love, and he and Bessie Sheppard were married, and raised their family in Perry, New York. They were remained married until Emerson Case died suddenly in 1975.
Emerson Case at various stages of his life.
The time during and after WWII saw Robeson once again among the top tier of cutlery manufacturers, thanks mostly to the tireless efforts of Emerson Case. They had several contracts during WWII to produce the M-3 Commando or Trench knives for the United States Army. They produced machetes, and Mark II "Ka-Bar" type knives for the United States Navy and The Marine Corps, as well as the Mark I knives, and so called "Shark" knives for the Navy. They produced both a three and four blade verson of their 214 pattern scout/utility knives with bone handles for the Army and also a two blade easy open bone handled jack knife. They made wood handled TL-29 electrician's knives for the Army Signal Corps. Stevenson branded metal handled, four blade scout/utility knives were manufactured with the proprietary Robeson screw-driver and cap-lifter/tin-opener blades, leaving one to conclude they were manufactured by Robeson. These knives do not have tang marks, but the bails are marked, "STEVENSON - 1943". Stevenson bail marked knives with the later standardized MIL-K required blades do exist, as well. Whether or not they were made by Robeson is anyone's guess, I suppose. The majority of military collectors/writers conclude that they were. The Robeson Cutlery Company consistently earned the highest ratings for their defense contract work during World War II.
After WWII, Emerson Case was made company president, and continued to be very innovative. He developed, in 1950, a heat treating process for stainless steel blades that is still used world wide today and virtually unsurpassed in its effectiveness. He called the process, "Frozen Heat", and it was used on both pocket and kitchen cutlery. A fifty year old Robeson Frozen Heat kitchen knife is as good today as anything manufactured by anyone anywhere in the world. Frozen Heat sets sell routinely on Ebay for not very much money, and would be the best knives in almost anyone's kitchen. I suggest buying a set, and putting them to good use.
About 1955, Emerson Case also developed a line of knives with tungsten carbide applied to one side of the blade edge. This was a complicated process, and the knives' virtues were not readily understood by many people. The problem was the knife was designed to be sharpened only on the side that did not have the tungsten carbide layer. Honing the knife in that manner left a fine microscopic serrated edge of tungsten as the cutting edge of the knife. The knives were called, "Flame Edge", and were made in jack knife, stockman, and hunting knife patterns, as well as kitchen knives.
Jean Case of Kinfolk's Cutlery Company, of Little Valley, New York voluntarily closed that business in November, 1957. Union organizers had convinced the employees to unionize. Jean Case told them that if they did so, he would close the factory. Apparently, the workers thought they had the upper hand, and voted to unionize the shop. When they showed up at work the next day, the factory was closed. There was a sign which simply read, "Plant closed. Gone horse racing". Emerson Case, Jean's cousin, had spent several years there, and was instrumental in having Robeson Cutlery acquire the rights to the Kinfolk's name. During the late 1950's and early 1960's, Robeson produced several pocketknives carrying the "Kinfolk's" tang mark. Most of these knives had Strawberry Bone handles. Some had PakkaWood. Several were of the "Flame Edge" variety. They also produced hunting knives under the Kinfolk's name, with some having the "Flame Edge", as well.
After 1948, and until about 1959, Robeson utilized the prettiest bone handle material ever, the now famous, and above mentioned "Strawberry Bone". The bone had the colors of fresh strawberries, and no one has ever successfully duplicated it. In about 1959 or 1960, they replaced the strawberry bone with a strawberry colored Delrin imitation bone. It wasn't nearly as pretty as the bone, it tended to fade more rapidly, but it was more durable.
Cutler Federal Corporation purchased The Robeson Cutlery Company in 1964, with the stipulation that Mr. Case remain to assist with the transition for one year. He then retired in 1965. The manufacturing facilities in Perry, New York were closed. Cutler Federal Corporation continued to market knives with the Robeson name on them, but they were manufactured by Camillus Cutlery Company in Camillus, New York. Cutler Federal eventually sold the Robeson name to Ontario Knife Company. They continued to market knives with the Robeson name on them until 1977.
Ontario Knife still retains the name and have, for several years, been producing what they call a "reproduction" series of knives, as they have done with the Schatt & Morgan brand. The knives are made by Queen Cutlery. They are of great quality and have a devoted following by collectors of Queen knives. They have, however, produced patterns carrying the Robeson name that I do not believe Robeson ever made, such as a canoe pattern, a stout three blade surveyors pattern, and an elegant whittler, similar to those made by Joseph Rodgers and Remington cutlery companies, and referred to as "Norfork Whittlers". They have recently produced a Robeson Mountain Man knife, similar to some Remington bullet knives, or old New York Knife Company knives. I do not think Robeson ever produced that pattern. They produce, "PocketEze" knives that do not have the blades sunk even with the frames, and "MasterCraft" knives that do not have a bronze bearing between the tang and the backspring, but carry the shields bearing those old Robeson trademarks.
I, personally, do not consider any knife made after the closing of the Perry plant to be a Robeson knife. That event occurred in 1965, at the time of Emerson Case's retirement, as far as I know.
(More History to be added. This page is still a work-in-progress)
Pattern Numbering System
Robeson's numbering system for their knife patterns was among the best of all American knife manufacturers. The basic pattern number consists of six digits. Think of them as two sets of numbers of three digits each. The first three digits relate to the knife's construction materials. The first digit refers to the handle material. The second digit refers to the number of blades in the knife. The third digit refers to the material composition of the bolsters and liners of the knife. The last three digits are the designated number of a particular handle-die shape, or the individual style of a particular knife. When Robeson began numbering their knives, they started with 001. They continued to number the knives up into the 900's. As older styles of knives were discontinued because that type knife no longer had a market, they reassigned that knife's number to a new style of knife. One example of that is a swell-end, two blade "Harness Jack" with a spear master blade and a leather punch and the handle-die number 382. With the invention of the automobile, and the power tractor, the use of horses and therefore horse harnesses, greatly diminished. They discontinued the Harness Jack. They later reassigned that number to a relatively modern and very attractive two blade Trapper pattern. Those two styles of knives are pictured side by side and discussed in the Two Blade knife section in Knife Gallery III.
One will find Robeson knives with only a five digit pattern number. This occurred for one reason. If the handle-die shape number was between 010 and 099, sometimes the zero was dropped from the pattern number, creating a five digit number. The number was actually still the same, if one continues to treat the numbers as two separate sets of numbers. For instance, if a 622056 regular jack was marked, 62256, the number is the same and should be read as, "622 / 56" and the longer number as, "622 / 056". Most of the examples of five digit numbers occurred on knives with smaller master blades where a six digit number did not fit well.
During the 1950's, Robeson once again imported German made pocketknives. All the examples I've seen had four digit pattern numbers. An example can be seen in the six blade knife section in Knife Gallery V. It is a six blade utility knife, much like some Swiss Army Knife patterns, and has the number, 4864.
Knives will be seen with a suffix added to the pattern number. 1/2 and 1-2 are the same, and mean "One-Half". I've noticed that usually occurs on knives that normally have a clip master blade, but instead have a spear master blade. Tom Kalcevic, in Knives Can Talk, states that knives with an added bail carry the suffix, as well. Other suffixes I've seen are 100, 125, and 250. I do not know what they mean, exactly.
The first digit of the Robeson pattern number denotes handle material. The known numbers are as follows:
0 = Metal (Aluminum or Stainless Steel)
1 = Ebony, Black Cocobola Wood, or Black Composition
2 = Rosewood, or Walnut
3 = Slick Black Composition
4 = Ivory Celluloid
5 = Saw Cut Bone, Genuine Stag, Saw Cut Delrin, or Gold-Filled Metal
6 = Genuine Bone, Jigged Rough Black Plastic, Jigged Delrin Imitation Bone
7 = Genuine Pearl or Abalone
8 = Single Colored or Multi-Colored Patterned Celluloid
9 = Imitation Pearl Celluloid, Christmas Tree Celluloid, ShurWood,
or Gun Metal
C = Older Celluloid Knives
G = Gold
The oldest Robeson knives have green bone handles, followed by brown bone with different qualities of dies and jigging patterns, then the famous strawberry bone of the 1950's.
The second digit of the Robeson Pattern number denotes the number of blades. The known numbers are 1 through 6.
The third digit of the Robeson pattern number denotes the material composition or combination of materials used for the liners and bolsters. The known numbers are as follows:
0 = Combination Handle, Liners, and Bolsters
1 = Steel Liners and Bolsters
2 = Brass Liners and Nickle-Silver Bolsters
3 = Nickle-Silver Liners and Bolsters
4 = Not known, but seen on at least two knives, one a 234322 take apart slot
5 = Special
6 = Again Brass Liners and Nickle-Silver Bolsters
8 = Integral Nickle-Silver Liners and Bolsters
9 = Stainless Steel Liners and Bolsters
Now, let's look at that 622056 pattern knife I mentioned earlier. The knife under discussion is a 3 3/4" regular jack knife. The first digit, 6, denotes bone handles, or possibly jigged rough black plastic or jigged Delrin imitation bone, depending on when the knife was manufactured. The second digit, 2, denotes two blades. In the case of this particular pattern, there is a clip master blade and a large pen secondary blade. The third digit, 2, denotes brass liners and nickle-silver bolsters. The last three digits, 056, is the designated Robeson number for that particular 3 3/4" regular jack.
The various tang stamps used by The Robeson Cutlery Company apparently fall into fairly well defined time periods. Like the tang stamps used by the Case cutlery companies, Robeson's tang stamps were used for certain periods of time, then replaced by newer, but different designs. Robeson's stamps have long been divided into periods of time that included those from the early 1890's to about 1900, 1900 to about 1945, 1945 to 1965, and 1965 to 1977. These intitial time period estimates were provided by Mr. Dewey Ferguson in Romance of Collecting Cattaraugus, Robeson, Russell and Queen Knives, 1976. These estimates served me well during the earlier years of my collecting.
As I have stated earlier, the best reference on all things Robeson is Knives Can Talk, by Tom Kalcevic. Mr. Kalcevic resides in the Rochester/Perry, New York area. He has had access to former factory workers, factory documents, the spouse of Emerson Case_ Robeson's last president, and City Directories in the local libraries. Tom's breakdown and dating of the various stampings used by Robeson is the most detailed in existence. I have chosen to accept, by faith, what Tom has described. He has graciously permitted me to duplicate his data here.
I do have one or two marks that were not included in Tom's book, and I have dated them in with some of his dates, as they seem to fit there as best as I can determine.
I do not possess a representative example of every tang stamp used by Robeson. I will provide a photo of any tang stamp that I can, however.
The different lines of a tang stamp will be separated by a forward slash /, with a space preceding and following. Different styles of lettering will be described within parentheses. Arched stamps will be designated as such within parentheses. Straight stamps will be as written.
I am going to limit this to the tang marks on the master blades of folding knives. If I depart from that, it will be noted.
M. F. ROBESON (seen only on razors, thus far) 1880 - 1884
ROBESON / CUTLERY Co. / ENGLAND 1885 - 1890
GENESEE 1891 - 1895
FILLMORE / CUTLERY / Co. 1891 - 1895
ROBESON / CUTLERY Co. / GERMANY 1891 - 1895
ROBESON / CUTLERY Co. with PREMIER on back 1895 - 1899
ROBESON / CUTLERY Co. / WARRANTED 1895 - 1899
THE / ROBESON / CUT. CO. / ROCHESTER, N.Y. 1896 - 1899
THE / R.C. CO. / ROCHESTER 1896 - 1899
This mark is on all three secondary blades of a four bladed pearl handled knife. The master is stamped, ROBESON / ShurEdge (script) / ROCHESTER, N.Y.. All four blades have long pulls, indicative of an early knife.
ROBESON / CUTLERY 1896 - 1899
ROBESON / CUT. CO. / U.S.A. 1900 - 1910
ROBESON (arched up) / CO. / CUTLERY (arched down) 1900 - 1910
ROBESON (arched) / CO. / CUTLERY 1900 - 1916
R. C. / CO. (This mark was used on knives with small blades) 1900 - 1939
ROBESON (arched) / ShurEdge (slanted) / ROCHESTER / N.Y. 1907 - 1910
ROBESON / ShurEdge (script) / ROCHESTER, N.Y. 1910 - 1921
TERRIER / CUTLERY / ROCHESTER, N.Y. 1910 - 1916
ROBESON / DEMONSTRATOR 1911 - 1939
ROBESON / ShurEdge (script) / U.S.A. 1916 - 1939
ROBESON (arched) / U.S.A. / CUTLERY 1917 - 1939
ROBESON / CUTLERY / U.S.A. 1917 - 1939
ROBESON / CUTLERY / ROCHESTER 1917 - 1939
ROBESON / ShurEdge (script) / ROCHESTER 1922 - 1939
ROBESON / SHUREDGE (block) / U.S.A. 1940 - 1964
ROBESON / Pattern Number / USA 1965 - 1977
Robeson made knives for several other companies over the years. I have identified a few knives that are obvious Robeson products, but marked otherwise. Some of these marks include, but are not limited to, O.V.B. (Hibbard, Spenser & Bartlett), F. C. CO. (Fulton Cutlery Co.), Globe Cutlery Co., Ka-Bar, Continental Cutlery Co., and Pine Knot, a brand name of Belknap Hardware.
The O.V.B., Globe, and Kabar marks above are all on four blade scout utility knives that are identical to Robeson 642214 pattern knives with the proprietary Robeson can-opener and screw-driver blades.