What is a Shadow-Pattern Penknife?

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Shadow pattern knives
Shadow patterns have no bolsters and are generally under 3 inches closed. Examples with advertising are the hard-to-find King Oscar Sardines penknife with a super-rare sardine fork, and the Self-Locking Egg Carton Co., of Chicago ad knife. (All images by the author)

What is a Shadow-Pattern Penknife?

Shadow-pattern penknives form a distinctive niche in the pocketknife world and own a tradition related to their original purpose, which was, as with other forms of penknives, to sharpen writing quills or feathers.

Before the introduction of mass-produced, steel-pointed pens in the early 1800s, feathered quills were the only utensil available for writing with ink and paper. Since the smaller blade on penknives was almost always used to sharpen quills into “pens,” the blade became known as a “pen blade.”

Even after the development of steel pens, the penknife continued to be a most popular style found in the pockets of most townspeople, who used them for opening mail and trimming candle wicks.

What’s the Difference Between Jackknives and Penknives?

Mother of pearl knives
A pen style of pocketknife, shadow patterns have blades that open from opposite ends of the handle. These three in mother-of-pearl were all made in Solingen, Germany.

Before exploring shadow-pattern penknives, some categorization about pocketknives in general is in order. In basic terms, pocketknives fall into two large categories: jackknives and penknives. By examining a typical pocketknife, you can quickly discern the difference between the two styles.

Jackknives have both blades opening from the same end of the knife, while penknives have blades opposite each other and open from either end of the knife. During production, the cutlery worker must frequently “crimp” or slightly bend one of the blades sideways so the opposing pair of blades can pass each other in the same slot without one blade landing atop the other. This step results in a costlier knife.

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It is interesting that penknives, being more expensive to produce, have not held their value when compared to jackknives. Collectible jackknives consistently have been priced higher than penknives because of their larger size. Hence, the old adage applies to jackknives: “Bigger is better.”

Shadow Pattern Definition

Shadow pattern knife examples
Western Cutlery addressed the lack of bolsters on these two- and three-blade shadow patterns by adding oversized bird’s-eye rivets.

In order for a knife to be a shadow pattern, it must have one important characteristic that separates it from other penknives. Unlike almost all other types of penknives, the shadow pattern does not have a bolster at either end. In fact, the shadow pattern is the only penknife style missing bolsters.

Why is that significant? Bolsters on each end strengthen the knife since the pin that goes through the pivot portion of the blade also goes through both sides of the knife and passes through a hole in the bolsters.

Since many knife users pry the blade sideways from time to time, this action dislodges the pin holding the blade in place, and frequently damages the knife. Shadow patterns defined as having no bolsters at either end of the knife are substantially more delicate than penknives that have bolsters.

Shadow patterns have blades held in place by a pin that passes only through a thin piece of brass and the handle material itself. When you use the knife to pry sideways you quickly widen the pin hole, and, frequently, crack the handle material.

Of special significance is that many of the expensive shadow patterns had either jigged bone, tortoise shell, or mother-of-pearl or abalone sides.


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Given the fragile nature of the natural handle materials, an examination of many shadow patterns reveals cracks or missing handle parts.

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Antique shadow pattern knives
A Schrade Cutlery mint shadow-pattern advertising knife in French ivory celluloid sports a bail for attachment to a watch chain.

Why produce a pocketknife with no bolsters that is prone to the cracking or breaking of the handle material? The answer lies in the beauty of the vintage penknives. Handled in tortoise shell, abalone, mother-of-pearl or even fancy celluloids, the small shadow patterns have sides not limited by bolsters at each end.

A mother-of-pearl side with iridescent shades of pinks, purples, blues and greens are displayed without being “bordered” by bolsters. Even bone, especially those with peachseed- or Rodgers-style jigging, outfit the knives’ sides.

Another reason for eschewing the bolsters was understanding the knives’ general uses. Lightly constructed, small in nature and finely finished, the knives were never intended for opening paint cans or scraping rust from a piece of metal as with standard pocketknives.

Instead, they were designed to handle such delicate tasks as cutting a loose thread, cleaning fingernails, removing splinters, opening packages and loosening a stamp from a piece of mail.

Collecting Shadow-Pattern Knives

In terms of overall beauty, the shadow pattern has few equals. Because of its slight size and rather thin cross section, the knife can be fully appreciated for the work involved in producing such a subtle style. Because the blades oppose each other there is some fascination with the craftsmanship needed to produce a knife with limited clearance between blades.

Some manufacturers found yet another use for shadow patterns—as advertising knives. Because the sides of shadow patterns have no bolsters, the entire side could be used to advertise various products.

Western States Cutlery used the technique often. Western States also found that without the bolsters and by using less expensive handle materials, engraved “tourist knives” could be produced inexpensively and distributed to souvenir shops across the Western USA.

Shadow patterns are under collected and underpriced compared to other knives of similar size and handle material. As an added bonus to collectors, any number of American and foreign cutlery companies made the knives, especially those in mother-of-pearl.

When examining them, look especially close to where the pin comes through the handle material. Here is where the cracks will appear.

Meanwhile, you can amass an outstanding group of these delicate pocketknives for a reasonable price.

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