Thursday, December 3, 2020

This Old Knife (and Fork)

Back in September 2011, a column was titled “This Old Spoon.” It started as a riff on looking as brandmarks on some family keepsake spoons in the kitchen odds and ends drawer, then segued to not particularly valuable collectables, such as Indian clubs or ice tongs. The column has been reposted to

The spark for this week’s column was Thanksgiving, a bird to carve (Cornish game hen for two rather than the traditional turkey for ten), and a close look at a carving knife and fork that have been in the family’s possession since 1961. And not new then, but rather a kitchen drawer find in a purchased Pennsylvania summer cottage. Viewed through a magnifying glass, the knife’s brandmark reads “LAMSON Stainless Steel, Made in USA.” The mark includes an oval with the company’s symbol – a ship’s anchor entwined in rope.   

Silas Lamson, holding scythe handle
The company’s origin dates to 1834, when Silas Lamson (1778-1855) devised a way to mass-produce curved snaths [wooden handles] that greatly improved the ergonomic efficiency of scythes used to harvest hay and wheat. Three years later he partnered with two of his sons, Nathanial and Ebenezer, and his wife’s nephew, Abel Goodnow, to start the manufacturing firm of Lamson and Goodnow, in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. They hired skilled metalworkers from cutlery centers in Sheffield, England and Solingen, Germany, and began manufacturing high quality agricultural implements, general-purpose knives and kitchenware, later adding fine tableware to their offerings. Silas died in 1855. Ebenezer had succeeded him as president of the company years earlier.

By the time of the Civil War the company had become one of the largest cutlery manufacturers in the country, employing more than 500 workers to meet demand for its products. The company’s annual purchases exceeded 200 tons of steel. Its catalogs depicted a vast variety of items with ivory, horn, bone or exotic wood handles. In 1869, a dinner set of 62 pieces was gifted to President Ulysses S. Grant, with half of the pieces set in mother-of-pearl handles and half in ivory.

During the post-war westward expansion, L&G knives went to fur trappers, buffalo hide skinners, sheep farmers, cattle ranchers, cowboys and the U.S. Calvary. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs bought thousands and thousands of blades for treaty reparations to western tribes. If someone were to ask what the most common knife found in the hands of a Plains Indian warrior would have been, odds were very high that it was from Lamson & Goodnow.

Lamson logo, 2020
Good times did not last forever. Historical records suggest that by 1890 the Lamson and Goodnow families were no longer involved in the management of the company. No information could be found as to their continuation of ownership. Toward the middle to end of the twentieth century, manufacturing jobs of all sorts fled New England. Competition for high-end kitchen knife manufacture continued to come from Germany and then also from Japan, tableware competition from Korea and China. Lamson filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2014. A year later, the firm was bought by Longmeadow Capital. The original 18-acre factory complex on the Deerfield River was sold. Production of kitchenware was moved to Westfield, MA. The company ( retains a factory outlet store in Shelburne Falls.

Lamson antler-handle carving set. Click to enlarge
Our carving set remains undated. An email query to Lamson yielded a quick but not-helpful reply. The company could not even identify when the brandmark changed from Lamson & Goodnow to just Lamson. Perhaps, what with the bankruptcy and relocation much in the way of historical archives were lost. Similar – but not identical – antler-handled sets can be found on Ebay for under $60, so our piece of history does not have a high monetary value. However, its nostalgic value insures it will be passed to the next generation.

There is history, and there is history. Researching “Lamson” as a business unearthed the information incorporated into the text above. But researching “Silas Lamson” as a person yielded an entirely different take on the backstory. Silas “became known as an eccentric for his religious beliefs and personal appearance.” That is an understatement. He was an avid abolitionist and anti-Adventist. He cultivated a long white beard, took to wearing only white clothes, at times white robes, and was passionate to communicate his "firmness of purpose to unveil and ridicule all that he deemed ridiculous in law, custom and religion," preaching his beliefs wherever he could. He often brought a scythe with him when he spoke, causing concern amongst those charged with escorting him away from the podium so that others could speak.  

Silas did not approve of government oversight. He was routinely placed in jail for failing to pay his tithes, and finally, due to his constant preaching, was condemned to the Worchester Lunatic Asylum for several years, until a court decision proclaimed his incarceration as a lunatic was illegal. Released (he said “The angels let him out.”), Silas continued sharing his beliefs with others at every opportunity. Meanwhile, his son Ebenezer, who was only 23 years old when the knife company was founded in 1837, charted its course to its phenomenal success. 

1 comment:

  1. I’ve seen An eBay shop selling troves of L&G archival materials/ephemera, prototype moulds, all sorts of things. Seems they discovered the motherload.
    -Stephan (Nov 2023)