Introducing this knife!

While the semester as a whole will contribute towards studying, documenting, and somehow preserving Lesley the sneakbox, each of us will also be investigating an object within the Independence Seaport Museum’s collection that has some connection to sneakboxes but has not been processed. Mine is a knife.

Image of a knife in tissue paper. Photo by author.

The knife is 10″ long, where the external blade is 3.25″ long and secured to the handle with 2.25″ worth of wire wrapping. The blade was very long and thin, like a filleting knife. The handle, made of wood and mostly cut along the grain,  seemed to have an even and practiced shape to it. It’s covered in various designs, including a crescent moon, vines, a pierced heart, two names (“G. A. Paul” and “L. W. Bishop”), and a date (“Oct 2 06”). It is unclear whether these designs were carved, burned, or otherwise made, who made them, and whether they were made when the knife was or later on. There are also several notches and nicks, presumably from wear-and-tear. The handle is coated with a light finish.

Close-up of left side of handle. Photo by author. 

It felt good to hold the knife! It was a comfortable weight in my hands, and when I picked it up, it easily fit into my palm. The “knob” at the end of the handle rested comfortably against my palm, and thumb quickly found a concave area on the underside of the knife. This is a knife that I would have little problem using for extended periods of time.

From the accession records, I know that this knife was used to cut the ribbon at the celebration when the Gazela Primiero opened to the public in the 1960-70s. Presumably, the knife has some history with the ship, which was built in 1883. With the length and width of the blade, I imagine that this knife would have been good for deboning fish as well as smaller boat repairs. The blade is in fact curved slightly to one side — a sign that it was used frequently.

This knife brings up a number of questions to investigate. My top ones are:

  • Who are G. A. Paul and L. W. Bishop?
  • Who is J. Welles Henderson, who donated the knife to ISM? Does he have any connection to Paul and Bishop?
  • What happened on October 2, 1902?
  • What is the cultural significance, if any, of the handle designs?
  • What kind of work did the Gazela do, and how could this knife have been involved in that?

There is one book published about the Gazela, by Allison Saville in 1978. I will start there to check her references, as well as contact the Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild to find out where the Gazela’s ship logs are stored. I will look for references to the date and names, as well as possible uses for the knife. Additionally, I will look into Portuguese symbols and boating culture to investigate the handle designs as well as knife handle carving/burning.

While receiving the knife as my object was unexpected, I felt an immediate emotional attachment to it — maybe it was how intricately the handle is decorated, or how delicate the blade is. I have also spent the past few days asking friends, “Hey, have I shown you my new knife?” before showing my pictures to their confused and concerned faces. That said, I look forward to spending my semester uncovering the story of this knife.


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