When I was a little boy,
I wanted a Barlow knife.
Now I want little Shady Grove,
To say she'll be my wife.
- Shady Grove, an American traditional, as sung by Doc Watson
Being given a Barlow knife, which is to say being considered old enough to take care of one, used to be a rite of passage for young American boys. The Barlow was perfect for whittling away a summer day, for idly carving designs in a school desk, and for playing mumbledypeg1 after school. In Tom Sawyer's hand, it was a pirate's knife used to dig for treasure. It is a knife that has made its mark on the American landscape and you can still find the names of Barlow owners, sometimes with their sweethearts names too, carved into the bark of old trees.
Barlow is a brand name in the US that denotes a pocket knife with a distinctive chromed bolster (that part between the blade and the handle where a knife is prone to break - on the Barlow it is given extra length and thickness). The standard issue is sturdy but inexpensive and has two folding blades, though early models had one blade. Early models also had a rough finish, as did the target demographic. The knife is still made today, but up until the 1920s it was ubiquitous. In the days of barter, Barlows would have been common coin.
A Prize for Homeliness
In the days when I used to be on the circuit, I was accosted on the road by a stranger. He said: 'Excuse me, sir, but I have an article in my possession which belongs to you.' 'How is that?' I asked, considerably astonished.Interestingly, we can infer from this that Lincoln actually carried a Barlow himself. Such tales have certain standard elements and so we may quite reasonably expect that he would have then reached into his pocket saying something like, 'And this is the very knife the stranger gave me, which proves it.'
The stranger took a 'Barlow'3 from his pocket.
'This knife,' said he, 'was placed in my hands some years ago with the injunction of the community, through its bearer, that I was to keep it until I struck a man homelier than I. I have carried it from that time till this. Allow me to say, sir, that you are fairly entitled to the testimonial.'
Like so many other things that are quintessentially American (the people, the language, the ballads, and so on) the Barlow originates in England. At least that is considered to be the most probable place. It is reputed that the very first was made around 1670 by Obadiah Barlow of Sheffield, which was once the locale for quality cutlery. It was Obadiah's grandson, John Barlow who subsequently developed the knife as a low-cost export to America and it is one of life's little ironies that the cheap mass-produced Barlow almost symbolises Sheffield's decline.
Where are They Now?
Barlows can still be found at hardware stores and general stores just like always. Only now they are more polished and command more money, just like their target demographic. Also, incredibly, there remain some original 18th-Century Barlows still in the possession of their original owners - like the one we have in our pocket right now, which proves it.