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Florence Cole as a child

Knife and scissor grinders:
street vendors of the early 1900s

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Victorian or Edwardian kitchen knife, black and stained with use, and worn down from repeated sharpening.

Victorian or Edwardian kitchen knife. The blade blackened with use as it was not stainless, and the edge needed to be re-sharpened regularly. Knives became thinner and thinner with repeated grinding down during re-sharpening, and eventually they became so thin that they snapped.

The knife and scissor grinder was one of the street merchants who came round the streets. He only came two or three times a year. He was always welcome, because although knife and scissor blades were made of steel, they not the stainless sort that kept their sharp edge. They blunted quite quickly and needed to be sharpened regularly.

Victorian or Edwardian everyday scissors, blackened and blunted with age and use because they were made of steel which was not stainless.

Victorian or Edwardian scissors, blackened and blunted with age and use because they were made of steel which was not stainless.

Women used scissors and knives every day for making meals and most days for mending and dress making. Men used knives for mending boots and for all sorts of odd jobs. Carving knives were used on Sundays with the Sunday roast.

The knife and scissor grinder travelled on foot with a handcart with three wheels, one in front and two at the back. He had a grinder with a large wheel inserted into his cart.

Early 1900s knife grinder

Early 1900s knife grinder. Detail from a photograph in the Willis Museum, Basingstoke.

The knife and scissor grinder would ply his trade around the streets. First he would stand in the road and call out in his sing song voice:

"Any knives or scissors to grind?"

Then, having alerted the women, he would knock at every door in the road with the same question. He worked his stone grinding wheel with his foot using a treadle and he always wore on an apron.

He covered a large area. Goodness only knows where he slept.

Where the street vendors slept and ate

Being the son of one of these travelling street vendors, I can tell you where they slept and ate on their travels. Most of the time they knew where they would be headed, so they planned accordingly.

My father's favourite places to sleep were the town Fire Departments. Since the firemen worked 24 hours per day, they had their own kitchens and make-shift beds. My father would ask to stay the night and for that favour, he sharpened any utensils that they needed sharpened. So he was out of the weather, in case of rain.

Many of his meals were had by offering to sharpen a restaurant owner's knives in exchange for a sandwich or soup.

J.Z. Joseph Zarlenga

Knife grinder, who toured the streets for business in the early 1900s

Knife grinder, who toured the streets for business in the early 1900s. Cutting pinned to my mother's recollections and probably photographed at a heritage fair.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.