The Swiss Army knife

For many years, a knife (or sword) was certainly considered an indispensable gentleman’s accessory. Admittedly, it tended to be used less for peeling apples and more for skewering people. Happily, society has moved on and the introduction of a reasonably efficient police force has made carrying a knife for defensive purposes not only unnecessary in most countries but a criminal act in itself.

However, a pocket knife, particularly one that includes a few useful tools, is a different matter entirely. To start with, it is totally useless as a weapon of defence, let alone offence, unless you are considering reducing the size of your opponent with the nailfile, pinching them with the tweezers or pricking them savagely with the toothpick. The blade will never lock in place, which means you are more likely to injure yourself than anyone else. But you can file your nails, pick your teeth or remove stones from horses’ hooves.

Everyone knows what a Swiss Army knife is – it has even entered the English language to describe anything that is versatile, whether it’s a knife or not - but few realise that it’s not a brand. It was originally called an Offiziersmesser, which apparently proved to be a bit of a mouthful for some people. It was designed for the Swiss Army in 1890 and produced by two rival companies - Victorinox and Wenger - which eventually merged.

However, there was nothing new about the design. In fact, an English company by the name of Harrison Brothers & Howson of Sheffield were producing a multi-purpose knife in the 1850s. As well as the obvious knife blade, this item included a spoon and fork, a “nipple wrench” for percussion guns, several other very obscure tools that no one has been able to identify, and a curved hook for removing stones from horses’ hooves. At this point, I should clarify that the well-known spike, supposedly intended for removing said stones, is actually a marlin spike for undoing particularly troublesome knots.

Harrison Brothers & Howson of Sheffield multi-purpose knife from the 1980's

Whether made by Harrison Brothers & Howson or not, similar knives were pretty common in the nineteenth century, even meriting a mention in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick (1851): "Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior – though a little swelled – of a common pocket knife; but containing, not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers and countersinkers." So, the nailfile was already there, and Melville was already noting their swollen appearance.

In fact, the Swiss Army knife was eventually to take on truly gargantuan proportions, at times, gleefully abandoning the realm of practicality. In extreme cases, you might have needed a suitcase to carry it, as in the case of Wenger’s 16999 Giant which boasts 87 tools – originally including a laser. Enough to thoroughly spoil the shape of the best-made suit.

Yet the original knife, as designed in 1890 for Swiss Army officers, was a surprisingly modest affair. The grip was made of wood and there were only four tools, plus a knife blade. Naturally, this included the all-purpose awl/marlin spike/horse’s hoof stone remover. Since then, the Victorinox/Wenger knives have been through such a dizzying number of iterations that it is easy to forget what the classic knife looks like. There have been luxury versions made for Tiffany and Hermès, not to mention a myriad of imitations ranging from straightforward counterfeits to “inspired by” fashion items. Not that there is anything remotely dodgy about bringing out your own version of the knife – it is only the Victorinox/Wenger logos that are copyright, not the knife itself.

McGyver using the classic Swiss Army Knife

So, what does the classic Swiss Army knife look like, and why is it so important? It is red with a silver cross in a shield-shaped lozenge. Forget about the laser and the scissors; stick to two knives (one big, one small), a corkscrew (essential), a toothpick, tweezers, and maybe with a nailfile and scissors if you must. Anything else is for a display cabinet.

Why is it important? It probably isn’t. Not until you want to open a package, peel a grape, pick your teeth when there are no toothpicks, or remove a recalcitrant hair from your left nostril. And, as with every iconic accessory, the Swiss Army knife is a classic design that gives pleasure to its owner. The good ones are built to last, and they will.