The Interesting History of the Swiss Army Knife

When it comes to useful tools, the Swiss Army knife is arguably the most versatile. The Swiss Army knife is not just an ordinary knife like its name suggests, as it also consists of different tools that serve different purposes. The most common tools that are built-in to the Swiss Army knife are the screwdriver, a small pair of scissors, a can opener, and a corkscrew. 

True to its name, the popular Swiss Army knife that most of us use originated in Switzerland, although not a lot of people actually know why the tool was invented. To know more about the origins of one of the best tools ever invented, here is a brief history of the Swiss Army knife.

Before the Swiss Army Knife

Before the Swiss Army knife was invented, a multi-tool similar to it had already been discussed and written in several texts during the 1800s and beyond. One of the first mentions of the multi-tool was in Herman Melville’s classic novel, “Moby Dick,” wherein a description noted that a tool that looks like a regular pocket knife actually hides other tools like corkscrews, screwdrivers, rulers, and even pens. Through this text, it could be said that the concept for the Swiss Army knife was already developed or being developed even before the tool’s invention in the 1880s.

Origins of the Swiss Army Knife

The Swiss Army knife was invented during the 1880s out of necessity, as the Swiss Army needed a small tool that could have different applications in the camp and on the battlefield. So, it was in that particular period when the leaders of the Swiss Army bought folding pocket knives for soldiers in order for them to open canned food or for repairing their service rifles.

It was only in January 1891 when the Swiss Army was able to design the earliest iteration of the Swiss Army knife, which has the official designation “Modell 1890.” In addition to the knife, the Modell 1890 had a can opener, reamer, and screwdriver and had a handle made of dark oak wood (that was later replaced with ebony wood). Unfortunately, the Swiss Army was unable to make a deal with manufacturers for months, as most of these companies could not produce the 15,000 Modell 1890s that the army needed. But, they eventually found a company willing to manufacture the knives, and this company is called Wester & Co., a German knife manufacturer based in Solingen, Germany, that successfully delivered the ordered knives in October 1891.

Wanting to produce the Swiss Army knife in Switzerland, a Swiss business by the name of Karl Elsener began an independent venture to manufacture the knives at the end of 1891. Because he was competing with Wester & Co., who sold the knives at a much lower price, Elsener suffered financial losses in his company. Furthermore, Elsener also saw competition with a newly formed manufacturer in 1893 called the Wenger Company, who produced knives similar to the Modell 1980.

Fortunately, when he was nearing bankruptcy in 1896, he had one last effort to increase his sales by improving the safety of the knife through the installation of a spring mechanism that holds the useful tools on a Swiss Army knife in place while they are tucked in inside the knife’s handle. This spring-loaded Swiss Army knife was then patented on June 12, 1897, and was instrumental in the boom of Elsener’s company during the 1890s, as the knife was able to become successful internationally since the Swiss Army didn’t actually commission the knife.

By 1909, Elsener decided to install the Swiss coat of arms in the handle of every manufactured knife in order for people to recognize his company and brand. Around the same year, Karl Elsener then renamed his company “Victoria” in honor of the death of his mother. The “Victoria” company would later become the now popular knife and watch manufacturer Victorinox.

The “Genuine” and “Original” Swiss Army Knife

In 1908, when the contract with Wester & Co. ended, the Swiss Army created a new deal with Wenger and Victoria wherein the two companies would split the manufacturing of the army’s ordered knives. Through a mutual agreement, Victoria marketed their knives with the slogan “The Original Swiss Army Knife,” while Wenger decided to advertise their product with the slogan “The Genuine Swiss Army Knife.” From 1961 to 2005, the knives given to the Swiss Army soldiers were exclusively manufactured by Wenger and Victoria (Victorinox).

In 1921, Karl Elsener’s son Carl renamed the Victoria company to “Victorinox,” which incorporated the French term for stainless steel, “acier inoxydable,” into the brand’s name. The name change in 1921 is significant because it was during that time when the company started using stainless steel for its knives.

Victorinox eventually acquired the rights to operate Wenger on April 26, 2005, which made them the sole manufacturer of Swiss Army knives for Switzerland’s military. Through the acquisition of Victorinox, Wenger remained in operation until January 2013, when Victorinox decided to abandon the Wenger brand to focus more on producing Victorinox knives and other products.

Until 2008, Victorinox was able to give more than 50,000 knives to the Swiss Army each year, although they have produced more for public selling and export to different countries around the world, including the United States. Because of their success in the US, Victorinox tried to register the word “Swiss Military” and “Swiss Army” as a trademark in the said county, but they were sued by the Swiss Confederacy and the Armasuisse (Federal Office for Defence Procurement) in October 2018. Victorinox then agreed to cede the trademark registration for “Swiss Military,” but under the condition that Armasuisse would allow them to use the name to market perfumes.

For more than 50 years, Victorinox has been able to manufacture high-quality Swiss Army knives that are sold worldwide. There may be new companies or manufacturers that may produce better knives, but Victorinox would still remain a popular brand.

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