There are a lot of modern things that aren’t really modern; Queen Elizabeth had a wrist-watch that was given to her as a gift. Other ‘modern’ items are older than you might think as well…
Pocket knives are older than pockets. Folding knives have been around nearly as long as metal blades. There are examples of folding knives from Europe dating back to at least half a millenium B.C. There is also a lot of misinformation about them on the internet; one source actually said that they were first invented for self-defense which is an absolutely stupid idea. The blades of the first folding knives had nothing but friction between the base of the blade and the handle to keep them open. This would have been virtually useless for self-defense.
This friction folder has a one-piece hardwood handle with thin copper plates on either side to reinforce the hinge area. In terms of form and construction it could have been made at any time since the Greek Classical Period.
I have heard of folding knives dating back to the early bronze age but haven’t actually seen them myself or been able to verify their existence. But from the perspective of an early knife-maker a folding knife makes sense. It takes less metal because there is virtually no tang. It provides it’s own sheath and is shorter so it’s easy to carry. It’s a great solution to a lot of the problems of making and carrying a knife. It’s such a good idea that it was used from China to Europe.
Some examples of Roman folders; The knife on the lower right is a modern reproduction
The first folding knives were a type called ‘friction folders’ because friction was the only thing that kept them open or closed. They looked a lot like modern pocket-knives except that they did not have a back-spring to help hold the blade open. When they loosened up a few judicious taps with a hammer on the hinge pin and it would tighten right back up. The knife can be gripped by the back of the blade to work with the point or by the handle for straight cutting operations. As long as it’s used carefully it works great. It works so great that most folding knives made before WWII were if this type and they are still commonly used around the world.
Beautifully decorated Viking-period folder; interestingly it has a bronze blade
Friction folders were in use in Celtic western Europe as early as the fifth century BC. They also seem to have been common in urban areas during the Roman Era. Many of these had handles cast of copper alloys or tin alloys which have survived more or less intact but many had handles of a variety of biological materials like bone, horn or wood. Some of these had metal bolsters or bands of metal around the handle under the hinge pin to reinforce the joint. Blades were most often wrought iron with a thin strip of steel forge-welded to the cutting edge but occasionally blades of other metals like bronze were used. I have heard that some knives of this type had sliding metal sleeves or rings that could lock the blade open but I have not personally seen this feature on surviving examples. In the early industrial age knives of this type and very similar form became extremely common and were known as ‘penny knives.’
Even the idea of the ‘multi-tool’ is nothing new as this Roman-era traveler’s tool shows
The first significant variation of the friction folder was the clasp knife. Today the term ‘clasp knife’ means any large folding knife but originally it came from a type of friction folder with an extension of the tang that protruded when the knife was closed and would bear against a pin or the back of the handle when the blade was opened. This allowed the user to clasp the tang against the handle with their thumb to hold the blade open; thus the name. No one is certain exactly when this variation came along but it dates back to at least the Middle Ages and likely much earlier. Friction folders and clasp knives waxed and waned in popularity in Europe but were well-known in the Middle Ages and production of these knives continues to this day.
Reproduction of a medieval-style Clasp Knife
At some point- again we don’t know when exactly- it occurred to some one to place a spring along the back of the knife that would bear against the tang of the blade and help to hold it open. It wasn’t a lock by any means but it was better than friction. These are now referred to as slip-joint folders which is a term that frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense to me; the term spring-back is more accurate and descriptive. The oldest folder of this type that I am aware of dates to the eighth century AD and is from western Europe. This knife may also have been the first blade with a mechanical lock. Spring-back folders were not unusual by the sixteenth century but did not really become common until the eighteenth century, by which point many of them also had locking blades. ‘Modern’ folding knives also emerged during this period.
Modern examples of medieval-style folders with carved antler handles
Along the way there were endless variations; Clasp knives made as table cutlery with a small fork fitted into a pocket in the elaborately carved handle. Highly decorated knives, plain knives, metal, wood, bone and even gemstone handles. Folding or sliding blades concealed in crosses or other objects. Even spring-powered switchblades had appeared by the beginning of the middle ages. Human ingenuity is not a modern phenomenon and is seldom applied as extensively and as often as it is to our personal items.