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Object of the Month #17: Fe₂O₃

Object of the Month #17

Knife from the Great Fire of London (2013.01.257)
May 2016

This month’s object is a knife that appears to have had a rough few centuries. It may have already been old before surviving the Great Fire of London in 1666. Sometime between the 17th century and the 21st, it ended up here in the NMH Archives where it led a quiet and unassuming existence until it was introduced to the AP Chemistry class last week.

The knife is made of iron, and 19.3 cm long (approximately 7.5”), maybe a bit shorter than your average table knife. On first examination it was brownish-red and covered in rust. The tip of the blade is pointed, although no longer all that sharp. The blade itself is a bit bent and has several nicks and dings, obvious even through the rust. The handle is cartridge-shaped with a well-eroded finial on the end (once perhaps circular). The knife must have been meaningful to someone at one time, because it also bore a small, printed paper label glued to the blade that read “3897”.

It was found in a small cardboard box together with a random assortment of objects including a rusty key, a rusty fire steel, and a magnolia-like seed pod with a wooden stand. All of the metal objects had paper labels with printed numbers glued to them.

The cardboard box gave me my first real break.  A postmark and addresses indicate that in 1964 the box (but not necessarily its current contents) was sent from the Book Cellar bookstore in Brattleboro to a Mrs. M. Given at the Talcott Library of the Northfield School. Given was one of the Northfield School librarians, and the Book Cellar remained in business at that same address until 2011 when it was destroyed in the Brooks House Fire.[1]

Written in marker on the side of the box is “RELICS FROM THE / FIRE OF LONDON, 1666”. In early September 1666, on a windy day after a relatively dry summer, a fire broke out in the still-walled city of London. Officials weren’t particularly quick to respond, and the fire raged out of control sweeping across the city. The fire was strong enough to create its own weather system, and hot enough in some places to melt pottery (which happens at 1700°C, or almost 3100°F).[2] Three days later when the fire began to die down, 70,000 people were homeless, and mobs were looking for scapegoats. Rumors spread that the French and Dutch, then still fighting the British during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (over trade routes), had started the fire. Some immigrants were lynched. King Charles II, the first king on the throne after the English Restoration, was getting nervous about rebellion.

Could the knife and the other objects really date back to the 17th century and the Great Fire? It, and the other objects in the box, certainly looked old enough, but that was hardly conclusive. There is no good information about who donated the objects, and while it is certainly possible that the donor was Mrs. Given, the librarian, it seems far more likely that the empty box was simply available and at hand when someone needed a place to store the collection.

If the knife could be cleaned off, maybe new information would come to light. Archaeologists excavating underwater or waterlogged sites, such as shipwrecks or wells, regularly find extremely rusted artifacts, and have often made use of a rather elegant solution that allows them to reveal what lies underneath the rust without damaging the objects themselves. After talking it over with AP Chemistry teacher Kurt Luthy, we decided to bring the knife to his class and introduce them to electrolysis rust removal.[3]

We placed the knife in an electrolytic solution (sodium carbonate dissolved in water), and then passed a weak electrical current between it and a sacrificial metal anode. This reduced the Fe₂O₃ (or, simply, rust), to FeO, which could then be washed away.[4] After letting the knife fizz for almost 24 hours the electrolyte went from clear to disgusting, but the knife was vastly improved. I washed the knife, baked out the remaining water in the oven, and gave it a thin coating of wax to hopefully prevent new rust.

While not completely rust free, many more details were now visible. There is some minimal decoration on the handle, although the finial remains unidentifiable. The shape of the blade was now much more distinct and easier to compare with knives of known date and origin. The knife’s blade was now nearly clean, which allowed us to see a very small (only 0.4 cm, about 3/16”), but very clearly defined six pointed star stamped into the spine of the blade near the heel. This mark is called a cutler’s mark, and was used to identify the knife’s maker. Marks could be symbols (such as our star), a letter or letters, or any combination of the two.

I spent some time trying to identify the mark’s owner (assuming the cutler was based in London or Sheffield, England, two cities known for their knives), but beyond some references to stars used by at least three London cutlers, there’s nothing certain.[5] Even a good match would not necessarily have been definitive because marks could sometimes change hands as well.[6]

A closer examination of the now relatively-clean knife revealed a blade that would have stylistically fit in nicely in 17th century London. But it turned out that it was an even better match when compared to knives from the 16th century, and I would tentatively date it to the late 1500s. A knife like this probably would have been used for eating rather than fighting. Whether or not this knife is actually a relic from the Great Fire of London in 1666 is unprovable, although it does seem plausible.[7]

Forks weren’t used widely in Britain until about 1670, which is to say shortly after the Great Fire. As forks came into vogue, their tines (usually only two) began to replace knife tips as spearing implements of choice. Knives, once usually with pointed tips like ours, now began to sport rounded ends more like a modern butter knife.[8]

This was never a knife that was particularly special or fancy (except, perhaps, to its owner), and there’s almost no chance it was ever used by anyone famous, royal, or noble. Ironically, its very commonness makes it special today. You would be unlikely to see a knife like this in a museum exhibit, in part because it lacks artistic bravado, but also in part because not many implements like this survive. They were not considered worth keeping, treasuring, or preserving. Common artifacts like our knife tend to come to light more often in archaeological settings.

The NMH Archives plays an important role in preserving objects like this one, objects that may be considered so mundane that they have often been overlooked by preservationists or collectors. While this knife may not have come from an archaeological context[9], it is artifact-like in nature, and has been lucky enough to have been chosen for preservation twice: once by the individual or organization that valued it enough to give it a number, and the second time by NMH which accepted responsibility for it some unknown number of decades ago.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist[10]


[1] Unfortunately, all of this information is probably a red herring and almost certainly completely irrelevant. Moving on.

[2] You can see a piece of melted pottery from the fire in the Museum of London.

[3] Many thanks to Kurt and his class for allowing me to bring the NMH Archives to them. Any and all chemistry mistakes are my own.

[4] Butler, D., & Herbert, B. K. (1989). A Method of De-rusting Archaeological Iron Artifacts. Bulletin of the Wealden Iron Research Group, 9, 19-26, p. 20. Renfrew, C., & Bahn, P. (1991). Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice. New York, New York: Thames and Hudson, p. 49.

[5] Shackleford, S. (Ed.) (2009). Blade's Guide to Knives and their Values: The Complete Handbook of Knife Collecting (7th Edition ed.). Iola, WI: Krause Publications, p. 121.

[6] Brown, P. (Ed.) (2001). British Cutlery: An Illustrated History of Its Design, Evolution and Use. London: Philip Wilson, p. 79.

[7] For a discussion of an American relic, see Object of the Month #13, about a possible fragment from King Philip’s Tree.

[8] Brown, British Cutlery, pp. 13, 14.

[9] Lack of context is its own problem. See the Object of the Month #11, about a possible Roman unguentarium, for another example.

[10] Update: Due to shifting priorities in the library, this will be the last Object of the Month column.  It has been an honor to work in the NMH Archives, and to be able to share just a small selection of the realia with you.