The name “Swiss Army Knife” is a household term today. Interestingly, however, though the knife itself has been around since 1889, its iconic brand name dates back only to the post World War II era. The origins of the knife and its name make for an interesting story.
In the Beginning
During the late 1880s, the Swiss National Army decided its soldiers needed a folding pocket knife that would do at least two things. First, it had to be able to open canned food, and second, it had to enable the disassembling of the Schmidt-Rubin M1889 Swiss service rifle, which required a screwdriver for assembly. The Army designed a knife that had a blade, a “reamer,” a can-opener, and a screwdriver, and they designated the knife “Modell 1890.”
The Swiss Army hoped to find a Swiss vendor to manufacture the knife, but unfortunately, a vendor with the necessary production capabilities could not be found in Switzerland, and the first order for 15,000 knives was awarded to a Company called Wester & Company in Solingen, Germany.
At the same time, a 30-year-old Swiss knife maker named Karl Elsener was making surgical equipment at his workshop in Ibach. His Company was called “Swiss Cutlery Guild.” Realizing that he had missed a golden opportunity with the Swiss Army, Elsener immediately went to work upgrading and equipping his plant to make the Modell 1890. Late in 1891, Elsener took over production of the knives for the Swiss Army, beginning a relationship that is now in its one hundred and twenty-third year.
Derivation of the Logo and Brand Names
Mr. Elsener was not satisfied with the design of the Modell 1890, and he developed a spring mechanism that enabled him to attach tools to both sides of the knife handle, effectively doubling the number of tools that could be used. On June 12, 1897, Elsener introduced a new knife, which included a second, smaller cutting blade and a corkscrew in addition to the four original tools. He called it the “Schweizer Offiziermesser,” or “The Officer’s and Sports Knife.” Although this knife was never part of the military contract, it laid the foundation for what would come.
Elsener used the famous cross and shield to identify his knives from the start. In 1909 his Mother died, and in 1921 the Company began using stainless steel to make all its blades. Elsener combined Victoria, his Mother’s name, with “inox,” an abbreviation of the French term for stainless steel, to come up with “Victorinox,” the new name for the Company and an important part of what would become the iconic brand name.
Though the knives themselves have been around for over a century, the name “Swiss Army Knife” did not originate until the late 1940s. The knives first became well known to the US Army troops because they were found on virtually every German soldier who was killed or captured during the World War II. At the War’s conclusion, our soldiers bought huge quantities of the knives, many of them for souvenirs, at PX stores on military bases. The German name for the knives “Schweizer Offiziermesser,” was far too difficult for the American soldiers to pronounce, so they simply called them “Swiss Army Knives,” and the name stuck. The rest, as they say, is history.
Evolution of the Product Line
Over the years hundreds of versions of the Swiss Army knife were manufactured, each with different combinations of tools. The most popular, but certainly not the only tools featured on the knives were tweezers, toothpicks, corkscrews, can openers, bottle openers, Phillips head screwdrivers, nail files, magnifying glasses, ballpoint pens, pliers, compasses, and rulers. In 1937 the Company began manufacturing kitchen knives in the United States in partnership with R.H. Forschner & Company. In 1989 it began to leverage its famous brand name by entering entirely new businesses, including Timepieces (1989), Travel Gear (1999), Fashion (2001), and Fragrances (2007). In 2011 Victorinox formally combined the marketing for all its product lines under the one common, umbrella name by which the Company is now popularly known world-wide – VICTORINOX SWISS ARMY.