Dinadan: Well, as for knifemaking and the magnitude that would be its sector in a pie chart of the American economy, I do not have. But, I do recall reading that prior to WW I 90% of Americans grew up on farms. Some of those folks may have milked the cows, collected eggs or pitched manure before going into town to work in a store or shop; but still, they were daily exposed to strenuous manual labor. And, this would mean a handy knife would have been a necessity for nearly every worker.
Even in the kitchen, the ladies of the house would not have been buying dressed chickens, in parts, all on a styrofoam tray and wrapped in cellophane from a market, but would have needed a good cleaver to do the requisite processing at home. I have collected a lot of vintage American-made light weight “kitchen cleavers”, which utensils are no longer a regular consumer item.
LongBlade: When you speak of Sheffield knife-making having slid downhill after 1891, you are referring to the volume produced and exported, I assume. I will add that the quality purportedly also declined, if gradually, after World War I. This is usually attributed to the claim that many skilled employees never returned from the war. Additionally, the Great War was a fundamental turning point for all societies of the Western World; that is, not much was ever going to be the same. The Old Order had abruptly been swept away, and knife making was going to reflect the changes.
I once engaged the late Jim Taylor in a discussion several years ago that touched upon this topic. There are many collectors that will remember Jim, who was a British émigré dealer. He could be readily spotted at the shows because he was the guy wearing a bowler. Jim averred that to assign a date to many Sheffield knives, especially if produced by one of the large and long-lived firms whose "town patterns", etches and tang stamps varied little over several decades, you could only go by quality. No date stamps or “dot” codes were going to give their age away.
As Jim put it to me, other than indicating that a Sheffield knife was issued post-1891, due to “England” being stamped on the tang, you had to “handle these things all the time…you get a feel for these things after a while”. The assumption was that over time the quality decreased. Then he went on to say that he had put in 40-50 years looking at knives, and his wife Cindy had been a pro for 35 years.
And, what wonderful catalogues Jim and Cindy published for several years, of some of the nicest American, German and English folding and fixed blade knives! Then came the internet.