Time was when no self-respecting man would be caught without a pocket knife.
Changing habits and a shift from a rural society to urban have dulled the desire for these onetime staples.
Wesley Ferrell sold pocket knives for 30 years at a Wilson hardware store.
“We used to sell 10 or 15 a day on Fridays and Saturdays. Now you’re lucky to sell 10 or 15 in a month,” he said recently.
Ferrell, now a manufacturer’s rep, spends his days traveling the back roads of Eastern North Carolina, calling on hardware stores, some of which, he says, still have push ladders to reach merchandise.
“The customer wanting a pocket knife today is older,” he said. “Many are collectors and willing to pay $40 or more for a Case or Buck knife. They’re the only ones left made in this country.”
Ferrell says the 9-11 terrorist attack was one factor that hurt the pocket knife trade.
“Nowadays you can’t go through an airport or into the courthouse with a pocket knife, no matter how small,” he said.
North Carolina law does not specify a minimum blade length for pocket knives. N.C. General Statute 14-269 (d) defines a pocket knife as follows:
“As used in this section, ordinary pocket knife means a small knife, designed for carrying in a pocket or purse, that has its cutting edge and point entirely enclosed by its handle, and may not be opened by a throwing, explosive, or spring action.”
Noelle Talley, a spokesman for the N.C. Attorney General’s office, points to a case in North Carolina in which a court held that a knife 4.5 inches long was “an ordinary pocket knife.”
Regardless how long or short the blade, knife carriers in North Carolina should be prepared to give up their pocket knives or stow them back in the car on entering government buildings, sporting venues and airports.
Pocket knives of “extended length” are banned in some states. Certain knives, such as a switch blade, are illegal. California says a pocket knife with a blade two inches or longer is illegal. Texas permits a blade up to 5.5 inches long.
Glenn Spivey owns a hardware store that was established in 1946 in Trenton, the county seat of Jones County, located off U.S. 70 between Kinston and New Bern.
He has witnessed a steady decline in pocket knife sales since he came to the store 51 years ago.
“People have changed so much,” he said. “I remember when there were 200 farms in this county. Now there aren’t but about 10. Every farmer carried a pocket knife. Now people don’t need them on the job.”
Spivey remembers when it was a right of passage for an 8- or 10-year-old boy to be presented his first pocket knife,
“They used to carry them everywhere, even to school,” he said. “Nowadays they’d be punished and suspended from school for a year. It’s a changing world and it isn’t for the better.”
David Parker, 70, of Cary, recalls his dad giving him a pocket knife when he was 8. He’s carried one ever since.
“I’d be undressed without a pocket knife,” he said. “I carried it to school. That would be heresy today. Every male in my family had a pocket knife. And all my buddies have one today.”
Ty Fowler, 52, a retired police officer in Burlington, is a product of a different time and changing habits.
“I’ve never carried a pocket knife,” he said. “Just didn’t have use for one. My generation didn’t carry them. It was the generation before that did.”
Jim Lasley is a retired financial adviser, former editor and reporter.