“Vicious fantasies of omnipotence, idolatry… barbaric and sadistic atrocities, and monstrous violations of the accepted values spring from the cult of the weapon, and the switchblade knife is included in this. Minus switchblade knives and distorted feeling of power they beget – power that is swaggering, reckless, and itching to express itself in violence – our delinquent adolescents would be shorn of one of their most potent means of incitement to crime.” – Representative Sidney R. Yates of Illinois, 1958
Although it may seem surprising, the above quote is not from some dystopian film, but rather from a Politician about 60 years ago, Sidney R. Yates, who was speaking in support of the 1958 Federal Switchblade Act.
The Origin of the Switchblade
When many people think about a switchblade, they often depict 50s thugs with greased back hair and leather jackets trying to mug you for your lunch money, or however the story goes. However, in all actuality, the term ‘switchblade’ is really just another term for an automatic knife.
These knives were quite popular throughout the USA and became even more popular upon the introduction of the Italian Stiletto to the US market.
For quite a while, these knives were considered normal, and didn’t have any underlying propaganda associated with it. Farmers, hunters, and even everyday people used their automatic knives with joy.
After World War 2 there was a lot of campaigning for peace and that sort of thing.
Some politicians felt the need to appease their supporters by any means necessary, as most of them wished to get reelected. Switchblades eventually became a political target.
One good example correlating to the switchblade was the 1950 release of Woman’s Home Companion which contained one of the most ridiculous anti-knife sentiments ever to be written, dubbed ‘The Toy That Kills’. It contained anti-knife quotes and statistics, yet never referenced a single citation. This article spoke about how switchblades themselves were responsible for juvenile delinquency and gang violence.
Even today, there’s no real evidence of what was written in the article.
Five tips offered from within the article included:
1. Make sure your kid is not carrying a switchblade.
2. Make sure to “de-glamorize knife-carrying” in general.
3. Use all your power as a mom and wife to get knives out of stores. (He even included verbiage for signs to hang up in stores.)
4. Help police round up “dangerous knives,” even though there were no significant bans or laws in place at the time.
5. Work on a state and national level for switchblade bans that are to be “strictly enforced.”
The article was actually written by Jack Harrison Pollack, who was a known ghostwriter for Senator Harry S. Truman.
After this article was released, other newspapers began releasing articles condemning switchblades and associating them with violence. Hollywood wanted their piece of the hysteria as well, and profited off of films such as Rebel Without A Cause, 12 Angry Men and West Side Story.
New York became the first state to ban switchblades in 1954.
The 1958 Federal Switchblade
Eight years after the Woman’s Home Companion article, the issue of switchblades were brought to Washington DC.
It’s important to note that most politicians recognized the fact that these knives were useful tools and not merely weapons.
“The Department of Justice is unable to recommend enactment of this legislation. The Committee may wish to consider whether the problem to which this legislation is addressed is one properly within the police posers of the various States…Switchblade knives in the hands of criminals are, of course, potentially dangerous weapons. However, since they serve useful and even essential purposes in the hands of persons such as sportsmen, shipping clerks, and others engaged in lawful pursuits, the committee may deem it preferable that they be regulated at the State rather than the Federal level.” – William P. Rogers, Deputy Attorney General, Department of Commerce and the Department of Justice
“The intent of these legislative proposals appears to be to improve crime prevention by control of the use of the switchblade knife as a weapon of assault. This approach gives rise to certain objections. One is that, at best, it is an indirect approach which addresses itself to only one of the many implements useable by an assailant. This casts doubt upon the resulting effectiveness in the reduction of crime in relation to its enforcement problems. To us, this ignores the needs of those who derive and augment their livelihood from the ‘outdoor’ pursuits of hunting, fishing, trapping, and of the country’s sportsmen, and many others. In our opinion there are sufficient of these that their needs must be considered.” – Sinclair Weeks, Secretary of Commerce
However, politicians carried on with the ban because they felt they were symbolically fighting crime and decided to go ahead with the plan anyway due to public support from media bias.
It was on August 12, 1958 that congress finally enacted Public Law 85-623, also known as the Federal Switchblade Act.
The act banned certain transportation and sales of switchblades and automatic knives. It also banned them outright in certain locations.
The law defines a switchblade as:
“The term ‘switchblade knife’ means any knife having a blade which opens automatically-by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle of the knife, or (2) by operation of inertia, gravity, or both.”
Main Image By Iamthawalrus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30350788