Rotary knife cleaner

Object Number: 
Wood, iron, paper
Overall: 20 x 21 x 16 1/2 in. ( 50.8 x 53.3 x 41.9 cm )
in relief on either side of base: "KENT'S PATENT / 199 HIGH HOLBORN LONDON" in relief on molded metal plaque affixed to one side of drum: "KENT / PATENTEE & MANUFACTURER / 199 HIGH HOLBORN / LONDON" printed on enameled panel set behind molded metal plaq
Wooden drum set vertically on cast iron base with four feet pierced for mounting to tabletop; with hand crank and four slots in top of drum for inserting knives for cleaning.
Gallery Label: 
George Kent was born in 1806 and apprenticed to the wire work trade in Chelsea. After working as a window blind maker, he was awarded a patent on June 12, 1844 for the knife cleaning machine. He was located at 329 Strand, 218 Regent St and 101 Holborn to 1854, and at 199 High Holborn from 1854 to his death. He manufactured other domestic time-saving machines, including whisks, strainers, sifters, and washing machines. He died on May 23, 1890, after his name had "become a household word all over the civilized world." Kent's patented knife-cleaning machine was incredibly popular during the mid-19th and early-20th centuries before the invention of stainless steel. Since knives were exposed to acidic foods, they had to be cleaned and polished daily to keep them from rusting and becoming dull. Easy-to-use machines like Kent's saved much time and labor compared to the alternative, earning them the label "necessary." They were so helpful that one female education manual cautions against allowing girls to use rotary knife cleaners because the luxury will make them inflexible and indifferent as a housewife. Those who could not afford a mechanic knife cleaner cleaned knives by rubbing them against an india-rubber or linoleum knife-board using emery powder or Wellington paste. While that process was much cheaper, it did damage knives. Even after the introduction of Kent's knife cleaner, knife boards were used in most households for taking out the deepest stains or for common knives stained with vinegar. A servant's day would begin with knife cleaning, taking an hour in most families, even with the aid of Kent's knife cleaner. The operator would insert used knives into slots on the top of the wooden drum, pour Kent's emery powder into the drum's chute, and crank the cast iron winch handle to start the cleaning process. Inside the machine, wooden discs covered with alternate rows of bristles and strips of leather would turn and rub against both sides of the knives. The emery powder sold with the machine polished the steel cutlery as it passed through the wooden discs. Kent's advertisements claimed the machines were easy to use, portable, durable, noiseless, and ornamental, so that any household and even smaller children could use them without incident. One domestic manual reveals, however, that Kent's knife cleaner wore out the shoulder and blunted the edge of knives that were pushed in too far. A later improvement to the machine that Kent patented in 1882 fixed these problems. By the end of the nineteenth century, Kent's patented rotary knife-cleaning machines were used in British colonies, the Americas, had been awarded international exhibition prize medals, and had sold over 100,000 machines. In his advertisements, Kent listed establishments that used his knife cleaner in addition to personal testimonials on their lifespan. Among those listed in one advertisement are: City of London Club, Electric Telegraph Refreshment Rooms, Foundling Hospital, Hanover Hotel, and the Oxford and Cambridge Club, all located in London. Kent also claimed to have permission to share references from members of nobility, gentry, and clergy, but required customers to write to him directly for those. One woman's testimonial claimed that her knife cleaning machine did not need repairs in the thirty years she owned and used it, and another testimonial said knives were not worn by the machine after cleaning them daily for twenty-five years. The cleaners came in eight different sizes, ranging in price from £3 and 18 shillings to £14 and 14 shillings. The largest size could clean nine table or dessert knives and the smallest versions cleaned 3-5 knives. Once Kent patented major improvements to his machine, he sold his original knife cleaners for far less: from £1 and 12 shillings to £10 and 10 shillings. This was a marketing ploy to reclaim sales from competitors who made rotary knife-cleaning machines after Kent's original patent expired. They were sold from Kent's various store locations and through vendors in different countries and cities. In 1897, Lewis & Conger at 130-132 West 42nd St was the only vendor to sell Kent's knife cleaner in New York. Even after George Kent's death, the company continued to supply knife-cleaning machines. In 1906 they adapted electric driving to their machine, complete with an automatic time stopper. As mentioned previously, rotary knife-cleaning machines were rendered obsolete with the invention of stainless steel knife blades in 1912. Today knives should be washed by hand with warm water and mild soap, and dried immediately. Washing knives in the dishwasher ruins their blades and handles, so while people living in the past cleaned knives with machines, people living today do (or should) not.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Mrs. Caroline R. Foulke
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group