This is a story about history.
Shaped like a ring, the little knife was stamped “6,” which was its size. It had a tiny curved blade projecting from it and bore the words “Logan Smyth.” According to the lady at the flea market, the curious tool was a “paperboy knife,” worn by those who worked with bales of papers. The owner of such a ring could always have his blade safely at hand to sever twine.
There is an almost identical knife made by the Handy Twine Knife Company of Sandusky, Ohio, which has been in business for more than a hundred years. They have manufactured nothing but ring knives during all that time. According to the company’s history page, the knife was invented by a postal worker named James R. Caldwell in the late 1800s. Frustrated at his inability to “keep track of” his pocket knife while sorting mail for transportation by rail, he attached the blade of his knife to a copper band bent around his finger. (The Handy Twine Knife Company says this original knife is now on display at the Smithsonian Postal Museum.)
Caldwell is said to have founded Handy Twine shortly thereafter, to have recorded his first sale in 1904, and to have filed for a patent in 1910 (which was approved in 1912). But this begged the question: Where did “Logan Smyth” fit? The company was known to have manufactured, under contract to the U.S. government, some quantity of automatic MC-1 aircrew survival knives. Was Logan Smyth a competitor to the Handy Twine Knife Company?
Some online research eventually turned up Michael Furey, once president of Logan/Smyth Manufacturing. Mr. Furey explained that his grandfather and a business partner owned the Bates File Manufacturing Company, one of the largest makers of manicure implements in the world. At one time, Bates File made over 175 different nail-care products. The company also manufactured, for the United States government, ring knives with curved blades.
Mr. Furey’s father was with Bates File until 1981 and was responsible for the tooling for the ring knives. It was in 1981 that he, with his son Michael, started Logan/Smyth Manufacturing. “We took the ring knife contract away from Bates,” Michael Furey told me, “and kept it away from Bates because they couldn’t deliver the product in a timely fashion. We bid the contract to the General Services Administration in 1982 and held it until we closed in 2005.” While the Handy Twine Knife Company was making similar knives during this period, according to Mr. Furey, “the primary customer and the largest purchase of ring knives on the planet was the U.S. government.”
Of the Handy Twine Knife Company, Michael Furey said, “Handy Twine is a good company that makes a multitude of different knives. … I believe they primarily sold their ring knives to the newspaper industry for binding newspaper bundles.”
At the height of its production, Furey said, Logan/Smyth Manufacturing “shipped 125,000 to 150,000 knives a month in five different sizes to the government. Size 6 was the smallest, while sizes 8, 9, 10 and 12 were the largest. The 10s went to the military for the military postal service.” Logan/Smyth also made insulated drinkware, a myriad of nail-care implements and specialty items.
Changing times and changing budgets, however, ultimately saw the end of Logan/Smyth’s production of the ring knife. “The age of the Internet killed the need for the ring knife,” Furey explained. “We saw a down-tick in 2000 and 2001. The orders just dried up. The postal service is still getting creamed by the Internet. There’s less mail going out. This started back in 2000. They simply didn’t need the knives the way they used to. It wasn’t worth us even chasing the dies on the presses. We just stopped bidding.”
Logan/Smyth Manufacturing eventually closed in 2005 after the death of Michael Furey’s father and his mother’s subsequent illness. “I was president of Logan/Smyth from 1985 until it closed,” Furey stated. “It was a great living for a lot of people. Now … now I’m the last living member.”
This is a story about history – but the ring knife, and the company that once manufactured thousands upon thousands of these knives for the United States government, is not its point.
The point is, instead, that changing times doom many an industry … and many an enterprise. When times changed, a little tool like the ring knife became forgotten. It was unnecessary. Its time had passed.
This week, the United States Postal Service announced more than $5 billion in losses for the fiscal year. It projects staggering future losses unless something drastic is done to “save” the agency. The volume of mail it delivers continues to drop, all while the service it provides continues to slow and degrade. The truth is what too few wish to acknowledge: Like so many obsolete technologies, this once great service is now living on borrowed time.
Milkmen no longer deliver milk, in most cases – but we continue on, and we still drink the stuff. You can’t buy a computer with a floppy disk drive anymore (at least not easily), but most of us don’t notice. The CD and DVD are likewise vanishing, but few will mourn them.
The U.S. Postal Service is just another dying entity. Like the tools once manufactured to serve its needs, it has become obsolete. We can continue to shovel taxpayer dollars into its maw, hoping to stave off the inevitable … or we can heed the increasingly shrill cries of distress from its muted post horn.
The post office has become unnecessary. Its time, too, has passed. This is often a hard reality to accept, but everyone from individuals to employees to the presidents of once successful companies have come to terms with the idea. It’s time we acknowledged that this reality applies to the post office, too … and it’s time we moved on.