With its characteristically long bolster, the Barlow folding pocket knife enjoys an unique position in the history of America. No less than Mark Twain referred to a "real Barlow" in his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in 1876 and the Barlow was common long before that.
As popular as the Barlow knife has been, its own history is quite muddled. Depending on which source you accept, at least four different American Barlows have been reported to be its inventor. However, a careful study of the various references seems to indicate an origin in the Sheffield region of England, long famous for its cutlery.
One purported inventor of the Barlow knife was John Barlow of Ridgefield, Fairfield County Connecticut. According to S.A. Bedini in his book Ridgefield in Review, "John Barlow established a blacksmith shop on Barlow Mountain on the highway between Bennetts Farm Road and the Ledges Road. He did a thriving business shoeing horses, for this was then one of the stage coach routes. He also produced many wrought iron appliances for the home as well as tools for the farm and for the trades. His hand wrought andirons were famous in Ridgefield. According to local tradition in Scotland District, John Barlow was also a gunsmith during the years of the Revolution. His name does not appear in the rolls of the Committee of Safety of Connecticut, however, nor have any weapons been found which bear his name. It seems much more likely that he repaired guns, but did not make them.
Another tradition of the district is that John Barlow was the inventor of the Barlow knife, which was very popular in rural communities in the past century and a half." While John Barlow was apparently a very good blacksmith and may even have made some cutlery for household use, it seems unlikely that he had anything to do with folding pocket knives.
In an article Little Knife or Big Cannon-All Barlows, which was reprinted in Barlow of Barlow in May 1989, page 18, Odessa Teagarden said that the "Best known of the Barlow inventions, however, was the Barlow knife, a must in the pocket of every schoolboy of the Nineteenth Century. While the invention has been credited to both Milton and Thomas Barlow, it has also been called the work of Leason Barlow. Records in the United States Patent Office indicate that the latter designed it. It was superior to the cutlery which at that time came mainly from England, and remained a leading seller over a long period." I have been unable to find the patent records that Ms. Teagarden cites and I don't know what kind of a knife that Thomas, Milton or Leason Barlow were involved with in Nicholas County, Kentucky, in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
William Howard Barlow was born on November 27, 1795, at Sheffield, England, and was a son of William and Hannah Barlow of Sheffield. According to George E. Williams, who compiled a genealogy of William Howard Barlow around 1940-50, William Barlow of Sheffield was the manufacturer of the Barlow pocket knife. It was planned that his son William Howard Barlow "would enter the factory and learn the trade of pocket knife making. However, son William had no such plans as the pocket knife business held no appeal for him at the time. William ran away from home and at the age of 14 was aboard an English merchant ship bound for the West Indies. He was next heard from as a marine in the British Navy where he was on a warship bound for America to take part in the War of 1812. As the British ship attempted to land at New Orleans, they found General Andrew Jackson there also. The General soon convinced the British that New Orleans would be an unhealthy place for them to stay, so they sailed back to England, and young William with them. He was next heard of with the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo. Apparently this experience changed his mind about making pocket knives. He returned home, learned his trade and settled down to a quiet life. Along the way he took on a partner named Mills, but when they quarreled about the name to put on the knife he sold out and came to America to start his own cutlery business." He settled at Naugatuck, Connecticut, around 1850 and died there on August 07, 1880.
A fourth contender is Thomas Barlow, who was born in 1813 in England and came to America when he was 14 years old, according to the History of Tama County, Iowa. He settled first at Philadelphia but in 1854 he sold his business of making Barlow knives to Disston, the saw manufacturer, and moved to Iowa where he established a farm in Tama County. Little else is known about him or about his involvement in making a Barlow knife.
The Barlows of Kentucky, Connecticut and Pennsylvania may very well have been manufacturers of the Barlow pocket knife, but they were probably not the originators. According to Laurence A. Johnson in his article, "The Barlow Knife", that was published in The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc. in June 1959, the Barlow knife was probably first manufactured by one Obadiah Barlow at Sheffield, England, around 1670. Obadiah's grandson, John Barlow, joined the business around 1745 and it was he who was chiefly responsible for developing the exportation of the Barlow knives to America.
The Barlow knife was designed to be a rugged knife and to be produced at the lowest possible price. To keep costs low, the blade was forged from high carbon steel and the handle was usually bone with little effort spent in polishing or other finishing. To add strength, the bolster was increased in length and weight since that is the point of greatest strain in all folding knives. Today Barlows have lost their original rough finish and their cheap price. There are often two blades (the original Barlows had only one), but the distinctive long bolster is always present, usually with the name BARLOW stamped on it.
John Russell is usually credited with being the first American to manufacture Barlow knives, although this is not certain. The John Russell Company, now the Russell Harrington Cutlery Company of Southbridge, Massachusetts, first made Barlow knives at their Greenfield Massachusetts, factory in 1785. They were called the Russell Barlow knife and instead of the word BARLOW on the bolster, they were stamped with Russell's mark, an R with an arrow through it. Today these Russell Barlows are valuable antiques.
[Note: In an e-mail dated September 2011, I am told the following: The fact is that the John Russell factory did not start production until 1833 and it began as a chisel factory. The first knives produced there were the Green River wilderness type knives. The Barlow knife they made was first displayed as a prototype at the Philadelphia Exhibition in 1876 and grew from there.]
Up until 1920 the Barlow was the standard pocket knife in the south and middle west, and it became so famous that a columnist with the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal started a club called the "Barlow Bearcats." There were no dues, duties or obligations; the only requirement of membership was the ownership of a genuine Russell Barlow.
by Edson Barlow
Bibliography and References:
Harold L. Peterson, American Knives, The First History & Collector's Guide, Charles Scribner's Sons
J.B. Himsworth, The Story of Cutlery, Ernest Benn Ltd
Laurence A. Johnson, The Barlow Knife, The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Assn, Inc.
June 1959, pages 17-21.
Robert L. Merriam, et al, The History of the John Russell Cutlery Company, 1976, Bete Press
The History of Tama County, Iowa, Union Publishing Company, 1883
Silvio A. Bedini, Ridgefield in Review, 1958
Odessa Teagarden, Little Knife or Big Cannon-All Barlows
Reprinted in Barlow of Barlow in May 1989, page 18
George E. Williams, A Genealogy of William Howard Barlow, 1940-50
PLEASE DO NOT EMAIL THIS WEBSITE ABOUT THE VALUE, AGE, OR REPLACEMENT OF YOUR BARLOW KNIFE, this is a genealogy site, and we do not know anything other than the history written above.