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10 Stainless Steel, Spring-Loaded Things You Should Know About the Swiss Army Knife (Now With a Corkscrew!)

Image credit: Flickr user AJ Cann

Pocket-sized multitools are a dime a dozen, but the Swiss Army Knife is an icon. Its name is shorthand for versatility and its cross-emblazoned red handle has gone to the North Pole, to the top of Mount Everest, to the depths of the Amazon, and even orbited around Earth on the space shuttle. On the tamer side, the knife is also admired for its design and is displayed in the New York Museum of Modern Art and the State Museum for Applied Art in Munich.

I've had a lot of knives in my day, but only recently got my first Swiss Army Knife as a gift. I'm endlessly fascinated by it and have been reading up on its history, so here are ten bits of trivia I just had to share.

1. The Swiss Army Knife has very humble origins. Switzerland was about as poor as it got in 19th century Europe, especially in the sparsely industrialized central cantons, where unemployment spurred emigration and the shuttering of businesses. Karl Elsener, a cutler, or knife maker, desperately wanted to create jobs in his home canton of Schwyz, but to industrialize the traditionally hand-crafted production of knives would have required enormous capital. Elsener could not afford to build a factory or buy machinery so, instead, he founded the Swiss Cutlers' Union in 1884 in the village of Ibach. A small group of some two dozen craftsmen joined the cooperative, manufacturing different knives for use in kitchens, in farm fields and on hiking trails.

2. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Swiss army decided to start issuing a pocket knife to each of its soldiers. Since no Swiss company had the means to produce the quantity needed, it purchased the first 15,000 knives from a German knife manufacturer. Elsener thought that the army's knives should come from Switzerland, so when the army contract was set to expire, he and the co-op seized the opportunity. He designed a simple folding knife - the Soldier Knife, or Modell 1890, that featured a wooden handle - with a blade, a punch/reamer, a screwdriver for the maintenance of the army's new rifles, and a can opener for preparing field rations. The army brass loved it, and Elsener's co-op was able to swipe the contract from the Germans.

3. After the first successful run of Soldier Knives and just a year into their contract, the Cutlers' Union began to falter. The craftsmen couldn't keep up with demand and many of the workers quit, but the others carried on and even released a new Elsener-designed "officer's knife." The new model's tools were spring-loaded, making it lighter and allowing for the addition of a corkscrew. The army looked at the Schweizer Offiziers und Sportsmesser, or "Swiss Officers and Sports knife," but deemed a corkscrew not "essential for survival." They continued to issue their officers the standard Soldier Knife, and left them to purchase the new model on their own.

4. Elsener's knives soon found their way across Europe. During World War II, American soldiers fell in love with them and bought them up whenever they hit the PX (Post Exchange) stores on American bases. Even the Greatest Generation had a hard time getting their mouths around Schweizer Offiziers und Sportsmesser, though, so they took to calling them “Swiss Army Knives.”

5. After his mother, Victoria, died, Elsener named the company that grew out of the Cutlers' Union in her honor. She had, after all, given Karl some of the money he needed to start the operation. Later, when the company started using stainless steel in some of the knives' components, Elsener added inox - a shortening of the French term for the metal - to the end of the company name to get Victorinox.

6. In 1908, the Swiss army decided to split its knife contract, giving half the order to Elsener's company in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and the other half to cutler Theodore Wenger's company in a French-speaking canton. They claimed this was in the interest of national harmony and absolved them of regional favoritism, but the competition probably also helped them with costs, and pushed both companies on the design front, too. Nearly a century later, in 2005, this arrangement came to an end when Victorinox purchased Wenger, reportedly to keep the Swiss Army Knife in Swiss hands after the struggling Wenger had been entertaining offers from foreign buyers.

7. Today, both Victorinox and its Wenger subsidiary continue to manufacture the knives in two Swiss factories. They each supply some 25,000 knives a year - less than a day's production - to the Swiss army. The rest of the two companies' massive output — each factory can make up to 28,000 knives a day and together they produce seven to fifteen million knives a year — goes to the civilian, mostly foreign, markets. Victorinox knives are now labeled as "The Original Swiss Army Knife" while the Wenger ones are identified as "The Genuine Swiss Army Knife."

8. The two companies put out more than 100 models of Swiss Army Knife between them, from the classic bare-bones Soldier-style knife to ones with laser pointers and 64 GB USB drives. Of the two, Wenger is more well known for its cutting-edge and unconventional models, like the ergonomically-contoured EvoGrip and the Giant, a nine-inch-wide, $1,400 monster of a knife with 85 implements. There are a few models that never got off the ground and were lost to history, too, like the one that had a special blade for cutting consistently sized slices of cheese.

9. Even with all this innovation, there have been just eight total models created for the Swiss army since 1891. The updates generally come out to accommodate changes to other army equipment, like new standard-issue rifles. These military model knives might seem alien to those familiar with the civilian version. They lack the iconic red plastic handle, and instead have a dark aluminum grip. They also feature a tool usually not found on the civilian models, meant to puncture ammunition cans and scrape carbon from the hard-to-reach parts of a firearm.

10. Karl Elsener ran the company he founded until 1918, and there has been a Karl at the helm ever since. Karl II ran the show until 1950, Karl III until 2007 and Karl IV is in charge today.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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