Did the Swiss army really use the Swiss army knife?

–Matthew Steiner, via the Internet

But of course. I know this because I heard it from one Tanya, a Swiss citizen living in the U.S. whose father served in the Swiss army. Tanya confirms that her dad was issued a regulation Swiss army knife not unlike the ones we civilians are familiar with. I was going to ask Tanya for more details, but unfortunately I lost her phone number, one of the hazards you face in this business when you start doing research via talk radio rather than the library. But I’m confident Tanya would have told me that the main difference between her father’s knife and, say, Mrs. Adams’s was that the handle was anodized aluminum rather than red plastic. (Red is supposed to make the knife easier to find when dropped in the snow, a mishap to which military personnel are apparently immune.) I am also certain she would have told me the knife was furnished with the standard soldierly assortment of tools, consisting of a thick stainless steel blade, two screwdrivers, a can opener, and an awl. That is, unless her father was an officer, in which case his knife might have included a corkscrew. The privileges of rank.

Two Swiss manufacturers, Victorinox and Wenger, each supply 25,000 knives annually to the Swiss army, which amounts to a little more than one day’s production. The rest of the two companies’ vast output–together they produce about seven million knives a year–is mostly exported, the U.S. being by far the largest customer. (Non-Swiss knockoffs are also available; the real thing will have Victorinox or Wenger stamped on one of the blades.) Hundreds of models are available, ranging from a basic two-blade version to an eight-ounce, 29-tool octopus that will let you simultaneously rebuild an Edsel, perform open-heart surgery, and pick your teeth. You can get everything from corkscrews and magnifying glasses to aspirin-bottle-cotton pullers. There’s even a model with a blade that will let you perform–I am not making this up–an emergency tracheotomy, no doubt inspired by an actual emergency tracheotomy performed with an SAK aboard an airliner in flight. The in-store demonstrations must be quite a sight.

The modern Swiss army knife dates back to 1891, when Victorinox founder Karl Elsener began supplying the Swiss army with knives made in Switzerland, previous army blades having been manufactured in Germany. The original wooden-handled knife featured a blade, a screwdriver, a can opener, and a punch, but Elsener didn’t really hit his stride until 1897, when he invented an officer’s version that used a special spring mechanism to enable more utensils to be added without increasing the size of the handle. In 1908 the Swiss army decided to split the contract, with half the order going to Victorinox, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and the other half to a firm run by rival cutlery maker Theodore Wenger, headquartered in a canton where everybody spoke French. They claim they did this in the interest of national harmony, but they may have also figured a little competition would keep the price down. If so, they were right. Today you can get a Swiss army knife for as little as nine bucks.

American GIs discovered the Swiss army knife during the World War II era, but it’s only in the last 20 years or so that it has become a mass-market item in North America. Today the knife has become emblematic of almost comical versatility. Some feel the knife is overrated, and Cecil must say his personal panacea for life’s little crises is duct tape and drywall screws. (They work wonders with kids.) But neither can be conveniently carried in a business suit, and an emergency tracheotomy with drywall screws is not a pretty thing to contemplate. All things considered, a Swiss army knife is probably still your best bet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.