Do you suppose the Swiss Guard carries Swiss Army Knives? Everyone else seems to have one.
From humble tool to global icon
By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Geneva
In Switzerland, there is a saying that every good Swiss citizen has one in his or her pocket.
It is an object that is recognised all over the world, and it is globally popular.
But the Swiss army knife had humble beginnings, and, at the start, it wasn’t even red.
In the late 19th Century, the Swiss army issued its soldiers with a gun which required a special screwdriver to dismantle and clean it.
Carl Elsener senior came up with the knife’s original simple design
At the same time, tinned food was becoming common in army rations. Swiss generals decided to issue each soldier with a standard knife.
It was a life-saver for Swiss knife makers, who were, at the time, struggling to compete with cheaper German imports.
“My great-grandfather started a small business in 1884, 125 years ago,” explains Carl Elsener, head of the Swiss knife manufacturer Victorinox.
“He was making knives for farmers, for in the kitchen and so on, and then he heard that the Swiss army wanted a knife for every Swiss soldier.”
Carl Elsener senior seized that opportunity with both hands, and designed a knife that the army loved.
“It was a very simple thing,” explains his great-grandson. “It had a black handle, one big blade, a tin opener and a screwdriver.”
Global cult object
Now, to mark the 125th anniversary, that first knife is on display at an exhibition at the Forum for Swiss History, together with hundreds of other Swiss army knives.
“The thing about the army knife is that it really has become a kind of global cult object,” says Pia Schubiger, curator of the museum. “Everyone seems to have one, lots of people even have collections of them, and we wanted to explore this phenomenon.”
Exhibits include the “Schweizer Offizier Messer”, or Swiss Officer’s Knife, which came on the market a few years after the soldier’s knife.
The very first knife was designed to dismantle guns and open tinned food
A more elegant design, it included a corkscrew and a pair of scissors.
Interestingly, the officer’s knife was never issued to those serving in the army. The Swiss military purchasers considered the corkscrew not “essential for survival”, and so officers had to buy this knife individually.
But it was this design, says Carl Elsener, which launched the knife as a global brand.
“After the Second World War, Europe was full of American soldiers,” he explains. “And as they could buy the Swiss army knife at PX stores (shops on military bases), they bought huge quantities of them.”
“But it seems “Schweizer Offizier Messer” was too difficult for them to say, so they just called it the Swiss army knife, and that is the name it is now known by all over the world.”
Today, there seems to be a knife for every kind of activity. There are knives with altimeters for mountaineers and knives for anglers with special tools to get hooks out of the mouths of fish.
But not every prototype proved successful, and some of these are on display as well, including a knife with a pencil sharpener. It made an ugly bulge at one end of the knife, and was eventually rejected.
The knife with 314 blades is in the Guinness Book of Records
Then there is the knife with a special blade for cutting cheese in precise slices of exactly the same shape and thickness. It seems that even in Switzerland, there was not enough of a market for this one.
And in pride of place, there is the knife which no-one will ever put in their pocket, but which has an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. With 314 blades, it is the world’s biggest penknife.
Visitors also have the chance to make their own knives – a basic design, including the ever popular corkscrew, bottle opener, tweezers, toothpick and screwdriver.
Master knife makers can put one together in less than two minutes, but for amateurs it takes much more time, patience, and a very steady hand. Nevertheless, visitors to the exhibition are queuing up to try.
It is a sign of just how successful the idea has become, despite one or two false starts, like the cheese blade.
The Swiss army knife has even been into space with the crew of the space shuttle.
And an oversized copy is on display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Its original designer probably never dreamt of such attention.
“I do not expect my great-grandfather ever had the idea that the Swiss army knife would be popular over the whole world, and become a symbol for Swiss quality and reliability,” says Carl Elsener.
“I think for him his vision was, in his small workshop, to manufacture a knife for the Swiss army.”