My knife’s mystery handles and the history of the Polymer Industry

I’ve got to come up for air. I’ve been deep in the bowels of the web on a quest for knife handle material history.

That’s right. I spent my entire Sunday afternoon trying to determine the handle material on my new C. Platts’ Sons Jumbo Swellcenter. Yeah, I know they are over 100 years ago and the likelihood of “discovering” exactly what these handles are, well let’s just say- remote. But you know it is driving me crazy.

In addition to exploring the web, I also posted for help. Then I got my other two black handled C. Platts Jumbos to contrast and compare- and yes, one is the same material, but the other I’m almost positive is ebony. I even got out my super duper magnifying glass to look at this mystery material close-up.

The knife dates between 1900 and 1905. So grabbing a Platts catalog from a book shelf won’t get it. Nope- I can find little info about their particular handle materials going that route- very little info remains about the Platts operations to help me. Instead, I ran every rabbit I could think of relating to handle materials, foreign substances and the history of plastic.

Here is where I am-

  1. They ain’t glass (there’s a pin crack). That was a joke….
  2. Not celluloid either (no shrinkage or chemical smell when tested).
  3. They look like a rubber substance (like Gutta Percha). They are hard and yet, sound like bone or wood when tapped.
  4. Don’t think they are Bakelite cause the knife was made before that patent was granted, but who knows.

What I’ve learned though is-

1899 Gutta Percha & Rubber Co

1) Gutta Percha dates back to at least the 1600s. It was used in a crude form by the natives of Malaysian Archipelago for making knife handles, walking sticks and for various other purposes. A John Tradescant noticed the natives putting it on the handles of their machetes and took it back home in 1656. He called it “mazer wood.” Its Malay name is gutta percha and as a resin, it is plastic and mouldable, yet hard, making it suitable for the manufacture of knife handles.

2) Bakelite (a plastic-like substance) was patented in 1907. Just about anything made of it is a sought after collectible today, like radios and jewelry. “Bakelite” molding compounds incorporate other filler materials, like wood, powdered glass or asbestos.

3) Celluloid and its predecessor Parkesine have been around for a long time. As early as the mid-1800s Celluloid served as a replacement for tortoise shell.

4) In 1851, N. Goodyear was granted patent on Ebonite, a hard thermosetting material. Ebonite was a man-made substitute for ebony wood.

5) And all this stuff is called the history of the Polymer Industry, particularly as it relates to synthetic polymers, but in the end, I’m still no closer to knowing what my knife’s handles are than when I started.

And after all of this- I’m not sure they aren’t simply jigged wood or bone dyed black either.

Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 7:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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