This is part I of my description of the history of Solingen, Germany as it relates to the cutlery industry.
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Solingen, Germany has the most dynamic history of any of the worlds knife towns. No other place has produced and exported as many cutlery items as has Solingen. According to some sources during the turn of the century close to 50% of all cutlery exported worldwide came from this one little German town. That's production!
The origins of cutlery manufacture in Solingen can be traced to the Wupper river and the small grinding mills called Kottens (cottages) which used the swift moving Wupper to power their grinding wheels and trip hammers.
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.
Finally, the proximity to powerful export companies 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.
In the coming days I will add part two and expound on the Kottens and the people who worked them.
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