An independent documentary focusing on the history of Solingen, Germany as it relates to the cutlery industry. THE SOLINGEN PROJECT is part one of a series documenting the history of knives, knife makers, manufacturing techniques and innovative people.
THE SOLINGEN PROJECT
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THE SOLINGEN PROJECT started with a book idea. I went to Solingen in 2006 with a notebook and voice recorder to do some preliminary research. It was a fascinating and eye opening experience. When I got back I began to put some of the information together for a series of articles and eventually a book.
As I poured through the information I realized that I had way more questions than I did answers. I realized my research had just begun and decided I needed to make another trip.
In the interim I made friends with a man who, among a lifetime of other fascinating jobs and adventures, had been involved in documentary film making for National Geographic.
He suggested that when I go over I take a good quality video camera and document my trip on film. I had had some experience producing a couple of promotional films (in the distant past when editing suites still used tape!) but I had rarely found myself behind the lens of a video camera. But I could not ignore my excitement at the idea of filming in Solingen.
In May of 2007 I bought a good quality video camera, a tripod and a Lavalier mic and had a couple of weeks to learn how to use them.
In June of 2007 I spent two weeks in Solingen, Germany shooting shooting everything I possibly could related to the cutlery industry and its history. I set up interviews with the owners of most of the existing manufacturers in Solingen.
I filmed several interviews with them and other local historians. I shot footage of rare old blades and brand new designs. I shot in museums, shot in factories, shot the exteriors of defunct companies, shot personal collections; I shot and shot and shot. I got the bug and I got it bad.
The people of Solingen could not have been more gracious and helpful and I was granted unprecedented access to the museums, manufacturers and archives resulting in a plethora of fascinating and historically relevant material.
In March of 2008 I returned to Solingen to interview Dr. Jochem Pustch (curator of the Rheinisches Industriemuseum) and to take digital images of the museums extensive collection of archival material.
I started editing the material from the initial trip this past winter. I decided to create several documentary shorts to "get the ball rolling". As of April 21, 2008 I have completed several of these shorts including The History of The Linder Company, a Virtual Tour of The Deutsches Klingenmuseum, a Short Tour of The Otter-Messer Factory and The Making of The Mercator K55K Knife. You can see all of these videos (and any new additions) by clicking the www.youtube.com link below:
YOUTUBE DOCUMENTARY SHORTS
At this time I am working on a full length documentary with the working title of THE SOLINGEN PROJECT. It will briefly document the early history of Solingen, Germany from the 14th to early 17th centuries and then go into more detail about the period from about 1650 to current times.
A common misconception is that "Solingen" is the name of a German manufacturer as so many knives were simply marked "Solingen, Germany". In reality, Solingen is a town in Germany that has enjoyed the longest and most prolific production of cutlery anywhere world wide. Solingen has never been a company name in and of itself.
One of the most interesting aspects of the story and a good starting point are the small independently owned water powered "kottens" (German for cottage) that were the real nexus of the contemporary manufacturing industry in Solingen.
The Wupper Valley was not suited for agricultural purposes like much of the surrounding area. However the area was perfect for metal production. The soil was rich in iron for the production of raw material. The surrounding hardwood forests allowed for easy access to the coal necessary for the forging process. The fast moving water of the Wupper was used to power the grinding wheels and trip hammers. Finally, the proximity to trade routes allowed for easy export possibilities.
The kottens operated much like the early grist mills in New England. Harnessing the power of the swift Wupper river they allowed for increased production and created a much needed locus of industry for the area. Besides the obvious grinding and forging jobs there were several other jobs created.
Men and women were paid per piece for carrying metal goods from the Wupper Valley up the steep hillside to Solingen proper - sometimes in novel ways.
As much as a boon the emerging cutlery production was it held many of the dangers endemic to hard trade work. Unlike today the grinding wheels were made of natural stone material that was vulnerable to flaws. Many lives were lost when these large stones rotating at a high rate of speed would explode due to these natural fractures. This explosion would send sharp pieces of heavy stone in every direction injuring or killing those in close proximity.
The often cold and damp environment along with unnatural body position and grueling work would cause a host of physical problems for workers. In addition workers would suffer a form of Black Lung Disease from breathing the dust that came off the wheels while grinding.
The development of steam power emerged in Solingen in the early to mid 19th century. This allowed for larger manufacturing plants to be built anywhere in the city and did not limit production to the Wupper Valley.
In some ways this new technology improved the work environment. But it did lead to much longer hours exacerbating health problems. Previously there were natural built in breaks in production that were beneficial to the overall health of the worker.
The Wupper would sometimes freeze during the winter or dry up in the summer months. This allowed for unplanned "vacations" and rest from the tough work.
It would be fair to assume that technological developments lead to the loss of craft and jobs and quality. Although this may have been true to a small extent the overall industry benefited from a symbiotic relationship with hand-work and emerging machine work.
Dr. Jochem Putsh, curator of the Rheinisches Industriemuseum, calls this productive relationship "flexible specialization". It describes the way in which the Solingen cutlery industry was able to adapt to changes in demand. Between the pool of experienced hand workers (grinders, polishers, assemblers ect.) and the emerging mechanization leading to increased production Solingen could handle jobs that other world cutlery hubs could not.
This ability to produce more of the right thing at better prices and higher quality made Solingen the single largest producer of knives, edged weapons and scissors in the world. During the turn of the century Solingen was responsible for producing a full 60% of the cutlery exported world wide!
THE SOLINGEN PROJECT documentary is slated for completion in September of 2008. Please check on the World Knives ":News" page for any updates. Also, feel free to e-mail personally at firstname.lastname@example.org or call my office toll free at 866-862-5233.
GERMAN KNIFE HISTORY