Self-Taught Genius spotlight: Knife Grinder

By | May 23, 2016
Knife Grinder, probably New England, c. 1875; Artist unidentified; paint on tin; 13 ½ x 16 ¼ x 3 ½ inches; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York; Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.60; photo by Gavin Ashworth

Knife Grinder, probably New England, c. 1875; Artist unidentified; paint on tin; 13 ½ x 16 ¼ x 3 ½ inches; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York; Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.60; photo by Gavin Ashworth

The United States was always a country of tinkerers. Behind the love of mechanical ingenuity, though, lay a desire to produce advances that were both practical and timesaving. By the late nineteenth century mechanical innovations induced a growing sense of nostalgia for a way of life that was quickly vanishing in a changing and industrializing America. Knife grinders, peddlers, and other itinerant tradesmen, once common figures in the rural and urban landscapes, were now in competition with settled business establishments as well as machines that accomplished their work on a larger scale and with greater speed.

This figure seems to tell such a story. The clothing and activity date to the 1830s. As the large slatted wheel in front caught the wind, the figure probably once pumped the tread. A pin in the cart handle suggests that the smaller grinding wheel may once have turned as well. However, the tin can suspended on a stick over the grinding wheel—designed to drip water on the wheel to keep it cool as it revolved—betrays the later date of this whirligig-type figure: tin cans were in fact not widely used until after 1860.