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Cutting-edge recent acquisitions sharpen our understanding of food history

One of our favorite food history collecting trips over the last year started with a predicament we are all familiar with—the frustration of a dull knife and a Thanksgiving turkey in need of carving. While continuing to expand our collections on the major changes in American food production, distribution, preparation, and consumption, curator Paula Johnson and I traveled to the headquarters of the EdgeCraft Corporation in Avondale, Pennsylvania in December 2015. We started our day at the family home of Dan Friel, Sr., the late founder of EdgeCraft and the creator of the company’s signature product, a knife sharpener for household knives that could achieve the edge of a professional chef’s best tools.

Two women and a man stand on a driveway running beside a white building/house. It is a cloudy day.

An oval sign nailed to a wooden door or wall that is grey and yellow reading "The Original Home of EdgeCraft Corporation 1985"

A small workroom with white walls and ceilings and a workbench against one wall that shows signs of use and age. There is a red object on the edge of the counter that is used to press items down.

Friel’s son, Dan Friel Jr., showed us his father’s tiny basement workshop, where the story of the EdgeCraft company first began. In 1984, Friel, Sr., was in the process of retiring from DuPont, where he had worked with biomedical products and instruments for 39 years. After a frustrating and spectacularly messy experience with a dull knife and a Thanksgiving turkey, the 64-year-old Friel began testing different materials in his workshop to create a safe, professional-grade sharpening tool for home cooks. The workshop told the story of those early trials, with phone numbers scribbled along the door frame and an wooden sharpening wheel standing nearby. This is where Friel sketched his initial designs on paper, and after testing 13 prototypes, he debuted his first sharpener, the Model 100, under the Chef’s Choice brand in 1985.

The Model 100 electric sharpener featured a magnetic angle guide (eliminating guesswork about how to angle the knife to achieve the best edge) and 100% diamond abrasives, resulting in a sharper, more precise cutting edge. For many professional chefs as well as home cooks, the Model 100 electric sharpener represented a major improvement over the traditional yet unwieldy sharpening sticks and whetstones, and it became one of the top selling home cooking appliances of the 1980s and 1990s.

A wood box, long, thin and rectangular, sits open with three knives resting inside. Their blades are thin and sharp and they have metal handles

At the company headquarters in Avondale, Pennsylvania, we were ushered into a conference room set up for our research—the EdgeCraft team had prepared an array of objects from the company’s history for our review, including different prototypes and models of their knife sharpeners, appliances, and affiliated products. This gave us a better sense of the range of EdgeCraft’s innovations and how Friel’s original designs created a dynamic foundation for the following three decades of kitchen innovation. They also had on display the original prototype Friel developed for the knife sharpener, and one of the Model 110s used at trade shows to expand awareness of the Chef’s Choice sharpener to sport and game aficionados.

A piece of lined notebook paper siting on top of a wood desk with a drawing of it of a small machine/contraption, which looks like an electronic knife sharpener. "A Possibility" is written underneath and it is signed in the righthand bottom corner

A cubed machine that is beige and brown in color. It has a switch near its base and a plug. Some features protrude from it, including a white piece on the top that has slats in it.

An electronic knofe sharpener rectangular in shape and encased in white plastic with a plug and cord. It has a black base with a switch and black sections where one places the knives.

We also collected archival material that explained the advertising campaigns and consumer reactions to the products. A look through archival documents from EdgeCraft reveals testimonials from satisfied customers. A key testimonial came from Craig Claiborne, the restaurant critic and food editor for The New York Times, who was so enthusiastic about the sharpeners that he offered to endorse them by name. Through the 1980s, as more Americans looked to improve their home cooking arsenal with gourmet foods and restaurant-quality cookware, support from a figure such as Claiborne would launch a company’s products into homes across the United States. Chef’s Choice was one of many companies that, via specialty cookware stores like Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma, made it possible for home cooks to experience commercial, kitchen-quality equipment and to hone high-end culinary techniques at home.

A letter sitting in an open manila folder on a table. The letter appears to have been produced by a typewriter and the letterhead says "Craig Claiborne." It is signed at the bottom.

A ledger lays open on a table. Two pieces of paper lay side to side and are taped down. They are old and one is ripped and discolored. There are lists on both with items and numbers to the right of them. The tops of the pages say "Edgecraft Corporation"

By collecting these 15 unique objects, we are not only chronicling the history of one company, but the way that history informs how we think about innovation, technology, and food history here at the museum. We are proud to include these new objects from EdgeCraft in our food history collection. 

Learn more about the EdgeCraft donations in the donated corporation records in our Archives center, and more about the history of knives and cutlery in this blog post by Alison Oswald of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Jessica Carbone is a project associate in the Division of Work and Industry, Food History Project, and the host of the monthly Cooking Up History series. You can learn more about the changes in food in American history in our exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.