Fellow Canadian and friend of mine Chris Cowx wrote a guest article for this website about blades. Enjoy the read and thank-you Chris for putting this together and researching this!
As true research into the social history surrounding the youth gangs of the fifties continues, many smaller aspects are getting explored. David has done stellar work using court records, personal interviews, newspapers, etc. Unfortunately much of what we have comes from one of two sources: either Hollywood-driven stereotypes or dry police reports that don’t cover anything except narrow criminal matters. As the research is removed from pop culture and the subject is covered by serious research into the influential sub-culture that it was, smaller details can become important.
One thing I have always been interested in was the weapons gangs used. Like David, my initial introduction to this topic was Nicky Cruz’s Run Baby Run and Rev. Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade. In both books there is frequent mention of various weapons. Similarly, mention of the weapons and tactics used appears throughout related research and literature. Choice of weapons could vary depending upon the economics, cultural background, location and many other factors. These in turn could very much affect tactics of battle and specific uses of weapons. For this analysis I will concentrate on the switchblade knife, in relation to their use and perception in relation to youth gangs of the fifties. For anyone that is unfamiliar with these knives, Nicky Cruz described them well. “The knife is operated on a spring. When a small switch button on the side of the knife is pressed, a strong spring is released and the blade flips open and locks in place.” There were a variety of knives manufactured in the US that operated on this principal. There were also Italian imported “stilettos” that have become most associated with youth gangs and Mafia of that era. I will concentrate on these, since they are best known today, for a variety of reasons.
I have been looking more than ever before at the history of these knives and I have put a bit of thought into the actual use of switchblades in relation to the gangs of the 50s. Let me explain. The popular Hollywood image that we all grew up with of a leather jacketed hoodlum wielding an Italian style stiletto type switchblade is well ingrained. However, when I looked at some of the things in Brooklyn Rumble and Run Baby Run in regards to vintage knives from the era, something didn’t make sense. Like the double “M” gang jackets and other myths, they have a basis in fact but are a stereotype. Additionally, the specifics of a weapon or tool or piece of equipment can have their own effect on events. I am thinking of things like the slightly awkward safety on a High Standard Sport King and how that resulted in Mau Mau NOT killing several people before the events of February 23rd (editor’s note: see page 235 of Brooklyn Rumble). Similarly, the design, availability and cultural connotations of a particular knife could have impacts of their own.
The design of the classic Italian “stiletto” style switchblade is based on an old Italian poniard, which was a renaissance era weapon in use since the 1400s, though originally they didn’t fold. They were used by knights and assassins, among others, and were primarily a piercing weapon. The edge on them was rudimentary and there was a fighting style developed specifically for them that involved deep stabs followed by moving the blade around to cause massive internal damage. They were particularly effective against armored foes since they could find chinks in armor or were good at piercing chain mail.
Folding automatic knives (the correct term for a switchblade) appeared around 1780-1820, but were obscure. The automatic type from the 1950s were made in the town of Maniago in Italy for several generations by the same families of cutlery makers. They all used standardized parts but they were hand finished and assembled at the individual family shops. After WWII, returning soldiers brought them home as souvenirs, first exposing them to the US. During the 1950s they were imported by several Italian importers in major US cities, along with Italian lace, spices, cheeses and meats. This is referred to in collector circles as the “golden age” of the Italian stilettos. In the 1950s they became popular with street gangs and up to 100,000 were imported every year. Sizes with 4″, 5″ and 6″ blades were standard, usually with Brazilian horn handles. The carbon steel blades were called “bayonet style” which meant long and narrow with a false edge and probably not really meant to be sharpened. It was strictly a stabbing tool, true to the original Poniard style of the 1400s.
Our image of Italian-style knives being the predominant style are likely false. I have found there were several very popular and cheap US-made switchblades that had been for sale since the mid 20s. These were the Edgemaster, Colonial and the Shur-Snap, among others. They were cheaply made and sold on cards in dime stores. There seems to have been a million versions of them and the ranged from 2″ – 4″ blades. They would have been hard-pressed to survive a good whittling session, but would have held an edge long enough to cause a serious injury. I suspect that the 2-1/2″ switchblade quoted on David’s website (the price of a switchblade in 1952) as being bought for $2.98 was likely one of these types (editor’s note see Selling Price for a Switchblade in 1952).There are several reasons why I think this. For starters, the Italian ones came in standard blade lengths of 4,” 5” and 6” in the 1950s. The Italian cutlers in Maniago did not make a 2-1/2″ version at that time. Different sizes were not made by them until the early 60s, by which time imports to the US were difficult. Also, the cost of $8.55 (inflation adjusted) is not realistic for an Italian. The same knife made by the same manufacturer today is $120-$200 USD each and even with consideration for the different exchange and labor costs now vs. 1952, I cannot see a knife like a 50s Italian import going for less than $30-$50 in today’s money. I find it interesting that stilettos were often sold at fairs, curio stores, importers, mail order and lower end jewelry stores instead of dime stores. My guess is that older kids or slightly better off ones had the Italians and the really poor kids had discarded kitchen knives! In all seriousness, much as a 14 year old kid coming out of the theater after watching “Rebel Without a Cause” may have wanted a nice 6” Italian blade like the ones in the “blade game” in the Griffith Park Observatory scene, it was probably above his means.
The Italians were featured in a large number of films of the era, especially gang related films. “Blackboard Jungle,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Twelve Angry Men” are just a few examples of Hollywood movies portraying the Italian stiletto as a gang tool. As they became symbolic of the highly publicized youth violence problem, some politicians jumped on them as being a political cause. Senator Kefauver, a presidential candidate at one point, was one example. Women’s magazines got behind it and many PTA type organizations as well. One particularly influential article was “the Toy that Kills” in Lady’s Home Journal, which swung a surprisingly large stick in those days. Problem was that the US DOJ wouldn’t support a ban on a simple knife, so instead of it being a federal ban it became a Customs law restricting import and interstate commerce. It came into effect in 1958. Many cities and states came up with various bylaws etc but right now many are also apparently being repealed. The law was made in response to a current social issue and politics, rather than a real need. Society was completely freaked out at that time about the leather-jacketed street gangs of the inner cities and the Italian stilettos of the day came to symbolize that issue. This is an image that has resonated to this day! A black leather jacketed Fonzi from the 70s TV series “Happy Days” is still very recognizable today with a generation that was not even born then, let alone during the 50s. Reality is that most cops today would give a lot to return to the days when a switchblade was the issue, rather than an AK-47.
After the ban in the US and other countries in the late 1950s, the Maniago knife makers fell on hard times. From the 1960s to the 1990s, they made newer versions using leftover and new parts that were a bit lesser quality, though still good. More use of stainless steel, rather than the earlier ones made of carbon steel, for example. More handle materials were used, such as wood, pearl, plastic, etc. Now they make some very nice ones as well as some cheap ones, but their primary market is more collectors than users. During the 60s – 90s, there were a lot of them made in Japan and Korea and sold through tourist markets in Mexico. That is where most people these days got their introduction, including myself.
Since the 1950s, the US has moved onto other enemies in society and the war on communism and the war on drugs, among others, have taken their place as public enemy number one. Since the ban on switchblades was largely against a symbol, when that symbol became outdated so did the urge to enforce the law. Cases of prosecution for simple ownership of a switchblade are extremely rare and are almost exclusively as an added charge to other criminal activities. Unless an assault or robbery or similar is associated with the use of a switchblade, they are generally simply confiscated. The only real effect of the ban was to compel the domestic manufacturers of switchblades to cease production and the importers to stop importing. Shows and knife magazines did not advertise them, hoping to avoid controversy. Kits were available to those willing to go the extra mile. Some were simply imported illegally. They did not cease to exist, they simply went underground and law enforcement found other priorities.
In Canada, a law passed in 1959 that made switchblades a prohibited weapon, on par with a sub machine gun. We don’t have a 2nd amendment so it was much simpler. That is where it sits, but as with the US enforcement, it seems that the social moment has largely passed. Other than confiscating them when they find them, there does not seem to be any meaningful priority on them by law enforcement. Obviously, if you are committing some other crime with one, they could tack on the extra charge if they choose to, but I was unable to find any mention of anyone being charged specifically with owning one. Frankly I only found one reference to anyone in recent history being charged with having one, and that was a guy that was also being arrested for drug dealing. I suspect that local law enforcement was quite familiar with the gentleman and looked for a way to keep him on ice for a while longer!
To come back to the original intent of this piece, I think it is safe to assume that there was a wide variety of switchblades in use in the US during the 1950s. In the years since and under the steady influence of Hollywood, there has been an obscuring of the realities of the time. It is hard to nail down the exact nature of the weapons used by youth gangs, since no one was actually trying to document it. Some records survive in police files and perhaps a deep dive into customs records and such might yield some information, but overall common sense and anecdotal information is what is available. I suspect that Italian switchblades were around and given that NYC had a large Italian population and many import companies to serve them, they were fairly prevalent in New York. Economics and the fact that many gangs were not Italian, would also dictate that many other types of automatic knives would have been seen. It is notable to me that many of the weapons mentioned and pictured in newspapers, Brooklyn Rumble, Run Baby Run and other sources, are weapons of expedience. Kitchen knives, military surplus and what could be found on the street like car aerials predominate. Carl Cintron had a k-bar knife, which was likely army surplus, for example. Carlos Reyes had a meat cleaver. I suspect that due to both price and the handle material, the pearl-handled switchblade that Israel’s brother Benny gave him was likely one of the domestically made ones, bought at a dime store. Availability and economics were probably the biggest determining factor as to what was used to fight with.
To come back to some specifics about the weapons in question, here are some thoughts and examples. Since many here are familiar with Run Baby Run, The Cross and the Switchblade and of course Brooklyn Rumble, I will use some examples from those sources.
Starting with Run Baby Run, it seems that Nicky Cruz erred a bit on the side of dramatic at times. Also adding in the fact that one is unlikely to be taking detailed notes and measurements of a weapon one is being assaulted with, we can allow a bit of leeway. All that being said, here goes:
– The knife that he was threatened with by Roberto of the Bishops is clearly described as a switchblade with a 7” blade. Given that such a size was not readily available in a mass produced Italian, it was probably either smaller or MAYBE it was a blade produced somewhere else, like France. Since I don’t think the Bishops were any wealthier than the Mau Maus, it was probably something else and Nicky described it loosely, through the eyes of a scared teen. I doubt that an upscale French-made or custom knife was available.
-The knife held to his throat when leaving school could have been anything, but given the sharp point may well have been an Italian.
-The example of when the Mau Maus accosted an Italian youth who slapped the knife out of Nicky’s hand and Tico slashed an M on his back with it likely did not involve an Italian knife. Not having an edge or a blade design for slashing, the best you would likely get is a shallow scratch or tear, not a long cut. Probably a domestically made US knife of some sort.
-The 8” switchblade that Joe the Bishop tried to kill Nicky with after his conversion, was likely an Italian, though it would not have been 8”blade. I say likely an Italian since it would probably have done more damage than just a stab if it had an edge. Hard to say and it could have been anything.
The Cross and the Switchblade has some examples, though there is less of a concentration on weapons than other books:
-The knife that the boy threatens Wilkerson with and then carves the sign frame was possibly an Italian. The sharp point may be a clue but hard to say.
-JoJo’s knife is visible when Wilkerson introduces him to Mrs Artero. It was sticking out of his pocket, which would argue perhaps a larger Italian, but again hard to say. Domestic switchblades were generally smaller.
Some of the best examples come from Brooklyn Rumble, largely because as a research piece long after the fact it is less prone to literary license and drama than either Run Baby Run or Cross and the Switchblade. Here is a selection of examples and some attempt to actually identify the weapons:
-First of all, I would think that most weapons identified as “stilettos” are likely Italian style switchblades. This would include the “blue handled stiletto” (editor’s note: see page 317 of Brooklyn Rumble) that killed a Fort Greene Chaplain with a stab in the back and also likely the weapon that killed Priest of the Mau Maus when he intervened in an argument. I will further add that in the case of Priest, the attack style – “sliced his liver in half” – would be typical of traditional usage of a stiletto. Deep stab wounds followed by moving the blade around internally.
-There are several references to “choking” the blade of a knife in order to leave a shallower, non fatal wound. This is made often in reference to the Italian Sand Street Angels gang, which would make sense. They would have been very aware of the traditional use of a stiletto, since it was cultural. I will also point out that another weapon commonly associated with Italians and the Mafia at that time was the ice pick. An Italian stiletto switchblade is effectively a folding ice pick, i.e. a stabbing weapon. Because it does not have a sharp edge, it is possible to hold the knife farther down the blade to make a shallower wound. Trying that with any other type of knife is a good way to need more stitches than your opponent, including a Shur-snap or similar American-made switchblade.
To help illustrate some of these points, it is useful to include some pictures of the knives in question. Below are several pictures of a genuine Italian stiletto of the era, with a 6” blade, 13” overall. It was imported into NYC between 1951 and 1954 by Umberto Romanelli imports from Venice. It is a nice, but fairly typical example and would look right at home in the prop room of “Rebel Without a Cause”. Notable is that it has no edge and the blade geometry is thick and has a strong central spine, making it near impossible to put a sharp edge on it. It is even doubtful if the steel has been hardened. It has prominent guards, as suits a pure weapon, probably originally intended to catch an opponent’s blade. The lock mechanism is very strong but not particularly user friendly. It is a very specialized stabbing weapon and while it would not slash effectively you could probably drive it through an oil drum if need be. Perfect for the “blade game”, right Buzz?
In contrast, here are some examples of the readily available US-made weapons. They have a broader, thinner blade that could easily be sharpened. The button open/button close type mechanism is easier to make but less secure than the Italian. Handles are bakelite or plastic, often in garish colors. The guards are vestigial and not really effective for a weapon. The longest I have seen is around 4” blades, marginal for a dedicated weapon. These would have been available at dime stores and general stores for the equivalent of less than $10 today, or a fraction of the cost of a proper Italian, even then.
So, as a quick recap, it would seem that while the classic Italian style stiletto switchblade was part of the scene in the 50s and certainly used by the youth gangs of the era, it was not the only or even most common such weapon. They appeared on the scene post WWII and were largely gone by the end of the 50s due to legal issues and the social moment having passed. There had been common and cheap domestic automatic knives available for decades before that and those had been used both by criminals and lawful citizens for years. The Italians were only there for a few years and had Hollywood not figured out that they looked sexy as all heck on a TV screen they may have remained obscure. As it was, they were pricey, specialized and part of a moment in time that has passed.
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