Steel City: Entrepreneurship, Strategy, and Technology in Sheffield, 1743-1993

By Geoffrey Tweedale | Go to book overview

8
Individualism in the Era of
Mass-Produced Cutlery and Tools

The reputation of certain Sheffield cutlery is world-wide and the competition of cheapness and mass production can accordingly be withstood--within limits. But, while Sheffield skill counts for a great deal in this trade, as in every other of the city's industries, the old order is being appreciably undermined. In the old days, the illiterate Indian sought the sign of Sheffield reputation on his knives. Now, the more literate Indian has new and more nicely commercial standards; he balances price against price, and may in the end buy Japanese.

"Sheffield Steel and Cutlery", The Economist, 130 ( 26 March 1938), 688.

The 1920s and 1930s were also black decades for the Sheffield cutlery and tool trades. However, as was the case with special steels, negative trends for the industry--such as growing international competition, trade depressions, the erosion of craft skills, and changing consumer demand-- were offset by other developments which offered new opportunities. The inter-war period was, in fact, one of the most significant eras in the history of cutlery. Above all, it marked the arrival of the modern knife--stainless, machine-produced, and reaching the customer through the channels of mass distribution and advertising. This chapter explores Sheffield's response to these trends.

As we have shown, the First World War provided Sheffield cutlers with unexpected opportunities to meet the challenge of overseas competition. It did so in three ways. It made Sheffield industrialists more aware of the advantages of co-operation in the task of reforming the industry. Secondly, it forced the city's producers to provide many of the products-- such as razors, scissors, and swords--that had previously come from abroad, And thirdly, it kept German cutlery producers out of international markets for almost half a decade and gave Sheffield the opportunity to catch up with, perhaps even usurp, its old rival. Technologically, Sheffield steelmakers had also supplied the industry with a trump card-- stainless steel--which was to revolutionize cutlery in the 1920s. Leading Sheffield industrialists were keenly aware of these opportunities. Many would have agreed with the Sheffield Independent when it stated that 'the war has brought the country up to date. We have caught up more pushful

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