A City on the Blade of a Knife
By Jena Gilbert-Merrill, ’22
A panorama on the blade of a knife is not something we are likely to encounter on our cutlery today. This set of forks and knives in Winterthur’s collection, featuring cityscapes of Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and London, stands out for its unusual use of ornamentation. The cities, identified in Gothic lettering on the reverse of the blades, are accompanied by classical embellishment with decorative scrolls and sprigs of flowers, plants, and fruit.
This set was likely made in Germany sometime between 1830 and 1860, and was probably intended to be used for a fruit or dessert course. The metal composition is somewhat atypical for dessert flatware. The handles of both the forks and knives are made from stamped silver, while the knife blades are composed of steel. Steel was frequently used for the blades of knives because it is harder and more durable than silver, and because it reduced the cost of an object that would be significantly more expensive had it been made entirely of the precious metal. However, due to its iron content, steel can tarnish when exposed to acidic substances such as certain fruits, resulting in an unpleasant metallic taste. As a result, it is more common to see fruit knives with silver blades.1
The ornate decoration on these knives is even more unusual given the composition of the blades. The panoramic city views are portrayed using a combination of techniques including gilding, etching, engraving, and “blueing,” which refers to a blue paint that was used to embellish the lettering. These techniques were most commonly used at the time in the decoration of swords, and in fact there had long been a prominent sword making industry in Germany (such as in Solingen, the “city of blades”). According to Donald Fennimore, the artisan who created these knives, “if not a swordsmith himself, undoubtedly had in mind ornamental sword blades when he decorated these knife blades.”2
It is possible that these objects were created for display at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. The panorama was a popular visual format in the nineteenth century, often representing travel, worldliness, or imperial power, and would have been a medium well-suited to the 1851 Exhibition.3 Indeed, thirty-five percent of all cutlery manufacturers that exhibited at the Crystal Palace Exhibition were from the German Zollverein, a large area in southern Germany. Thus it is likely that the manufacturers of this set either exhibited at the Crystal Palace Exhibition or drew inspiration from it. Many cutlery manufacturers in the Zollverein region exported their work to the United States, which may help explain the depiction of major American cities on some of the blades.
This set is something of an enigma, its refined materials and decoration somewhat at odds with its function. Even after exploring the material and contextual evidence surrounding these objects, I am left wondering whether this set was ever actually used, or was even intended to be used. What it might have been like to use these knives for a dessert or fruit course? With their ornate decoration and steel blades, would it have been pleasant or enjoyable to use this set? At the same time, the novelty of a dessert knife that references sword-making traditions and the power of empire seems like just the kind of thing that might attract a wealthy, worldly late-nineteenth century conspicuous consumer. We do not know much about who would have owned this set, whether they would have used it regularly or at all, what it would have meant to them, or the position it may have occupied in relation to the rest of their possessions. Regardless of these unknowns, the idea of putting a panorama on a dessert knife, a metropolis on your dinner table, is strange and clever, and an ingenious use of the space available on the blade of a knife.