Barlows: Quintessential Americana
by Steve Crowley
I became aware of the barlow pattern a little later than most. During the summer of my junior-senior high school year, I volunteered for two weeks at an archeological dig of Fort Nonsense, a revolutionary war earthworks atop the highest point in Morristown, New Jersey. We were given two-bladed CAMCO barlows with imitation saw-cut bone scales to scrape dirt from the artifacts we found. Following the two weeks, I carried that knife around our farm for weekend chores and after school bass and trout fishing. The barlow stuck with me when I turned eighteen and summers found me earning union wages at our local paper mill on the banks of the Delaware River. But a heavier Camillus TL-29 electrician’s knife soon replaced the barlow. Frequent passes across an oiled whetstone kept a razor edge on the TL-29’s carbon steel blade – being able to shave forearms was the standard that deemed a knife worthy of being carried on the mill floor.
But now the barlow. Its simple pattern is an embodiment of American culture, especially for youngsters in the south and midwest. Mark Twain wrote in his classic, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:
“Mary gave him a bran-new “Barlow” knife worth twelve and a half cents; and the convulsion of delight that swept his system shook him to his foundations. True, the knife would not cut anything, but it was a “sure-enough” Barlow, and there was inconceivable grandeur in that…”
Twain’s (Samuel Clements’ pen name) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876 and is the story of growing up during the 1840s in the Mississippi River hamlet of Hannibal, Missouri – Clements’ hometown. In 1884, the barlow reappears, this time in Twain’s sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
“All the stores was along one street. They had white domestic awnings in front, and the country-people hitched their horses to the awning-posts. There was empty dry-goods boxes under the awnings, and loafers roosting on them all day long, whittling them with their barlow knives; and chawing tobacco, and gaping and yawning and stretching – a mighty ornery lot.”
This article appears in the September 2021 issue of KNIFE Magazine. Online Premium Members can view the whole thing by clicking the blue button below.