Sandburg's Hometown

September 8, 2014

The Scissors Grinder (1870) - John Eastman
The Scissors Grinder 1870 
John Eastman (American Painter, fl 1842-1880)

The Scissors Grinder

by Barbara Schock

In writing his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers, Carl Sandburg recalled the scissors grinder coming along Berrien Street, ringing his bell. It was a signal to the homemakers that they could get their scissors sharpened. In those days, most women made their own clothes, shirts for their husbands and outfits for their children. Cutting all that fabric tended to dull their scissors.

The dark-haired man who came to sharpen scissors on the street carried a wooden frame on his back which included a round grinding stone. It had a treadle which he operated with his foot to rotate the wheel. The blades of the scissors were held against the stone to put a new edge on each one. Sparks flew from the wheel which fascinated the children.

When the man was finished sharpening the scissors, he said, “Tenna cents,” to the householder. The two words may have been the most important of the few words in English that he knew. Being a street merchant may have been his first step on the ladder of success for an immigrant from Italy. The price of sharpening the scissors would be $2.55 in today's money. It would not be a way to earn a living wage in today's economy.

Scissors and knives produced in the nineteenth century were of steel, but of lesser quality than today. Their sharpness was more difficult to maintain. Blades became thinner with each grinding and eventually the metal would snap in two.

The homemaker using her kitchen knives daily would pass the knife edge over a honing steel or a whetstone made especially for the purpose. It restored the edge for cutting vegetables and slicing meat.

Men of the household kept their straight razors sharp in order to cut their whiskers with as little pressure as possible, thus avoiding bloodletting. They stropped the razor on a leather strop impregnated with a fine abrasive. It helped realign the edge molecules and shine the blade.

Axes were sharpened to ease the labor of chopping wood for the kitchen stove. The angle of the edge was not nearly so thin as the scissors or knives.

Care was taken to keep razors, scissors and knives in good condition. They were cleaned immediately after use. They were stored in a case so the edges wouldn't be damaged.

The sharpening of tools to a fine edge by a street merchant is not commonly done today. Some expressions of an earlier time persist. For example, men prefer a “knife edge crease” in their trousers on formal occasions. Certainly, they would not readily give up their electric shavers for a straight razor.


Sandburg's Hometown
Date Title
September 8, 2014 The Scissors Grinder
September 1, 2014 Baseball
August 25, 2014 Howard K. Knowles, Capitalist
August 18, 2014  Alcoholic Beverages
August 11, 2014 Soda Water
August 4, 2014 Sweet Corn
July 28, 2014 Marching Through Georgia
July 21, 2014 The Knox County Fair
July 14, 2014 The Panic of 1893
July 7, 2014 The Rev. T. N. Hasselquist
June 30, 2014 The Knox County Courthouse
June 23, 2014 The Family Photograph Album
June 16, 2014 Parades
June 9, 2014 Lingonberries
June 2, 2014 Where We Live
May 26, 2014 Old Main
May 19, 2014 Rhythms of the Railroad
May 12, 2014 Spring Tonic
May 5, 2014 The Milkmen
April 28, 2014 Gray's "Elegy..."
April 21, 2014 Off to War
April 14, 2014 Swedish Easter
April 7, 2014 A Father's Face
March 31, 2014 Secret Societies
March 24, 2014 George A. Murdock, Merchant
March 10, 2014 Trade Cards
March 3, 2014 The Demorest Medal
February 24, 2014 Rip Van Winkle
February 17, 2014 Cabbage Soup
February 10, 2014 Lincoln's Birthday
February 3, 2014  The Colonel
January 27, 2014 The Lincoln Penny - A Little History
January 20, 2014 Walking to Work
January 13, 2014  A Small Abode
January 6, 2014 Birth of a Poet
December 30, 2013 Christmas 1880
December 23, 2013 Swedish Christmas
December 16, 2013 The Reporter Sees Santa
December 9, 2013 The Coming of Christmas
December 2, 2013 The Fire Boys Talk
November 25, 2013 Galesburg Will Feast on Turkeys and Cranberries - Thanksgiving 1893
November 18, 2013  Mary Sandburg Johnson
November 11, 2013 Carl Sandburg's Bicycle
November 4, 2013  Lace Curtains 
October 28, 2013 The Front Room
October 21, 2013 A Warm Breakfast
October 14, 2013 Marion D. Shutter
October 7, 2013 Cigars and Consumption
September 30, 2013 Forrest F. Cooke & August Sandburg
September 16, 2013 Forrest F. Cooke, Mayor
September 9, 2013 Dusty Streets
September 2, 2013 Typhoid Fever
August 26, 2013 Coffee and Water
August 19, 2013 A Horse! A Horse!
August 12, 2013 Gaddial Scott
August 5, 2013 The Racetrack
July 29, 2013 John Peter Algeld - Part II
July 22, 2013 John Peter Altgeld - Part I
July 15, 2013 Tramps, Tramps, Tramps
July 8, 2013 Lady Liberty
July 1, 2013 Galesburg's Fourth
June 24, 2013 John H. Finley
June 17, 2013 The World's Columbian Exhibition
June 10, 2013 Fruit Short-Cake
June 3, 2013 Horatio Alger, Author
May 27, 2013 Memorial Day, 1887
May 20, 2013 Professor Jon W. Grubb
May 13, 2013 Beginnings of Lombard University
May 6, 2013 Young Sandburg’s View of Lombard College
April 29, 2013 Thinking
April 22, 2013 Robert Colville, Master Mechanic
April 15, 2013 The Galesburg Opera House
April 8, 2013 Grocery Stores and Sample Rooms
April 1, 2013  A Hearty  Breakfast 
March 25, 2013  The Lost Wallpaper Legend 
March 18, 2013 Martin G. Sandburg
March 4, 2013 The Edison Talking Machine
February 25, 2013 Joe Elser, Civil War Veteran
February 18, 2013 Remember the Maine...
February 11, 2013 Lincoln's Birthday
February 4, 2013 Curiosity