This morning I was emptying the dishwasher, putting away the cutlery, when a bunch of memories came flooding back. That sent me digging through our silverware drawers, looking for a cheap old steak knife with a plastic brown handle, now slightly melted due to an encounter with a hot stove. Sadly, I think we tossed it away not long ago in a purge. The memories are still there, though…
It was the late 1960’s and my dad’s favorite gas station was the Garrett Gulf Station just south of downtown Laurens, up from the county library on South Harper Street. It was the first gas station in town with an automatic car wash. It also had fantastic (for a kid) giveaways to encourage more gas purchases. It was the first place where I got information about Disney World, and it was where I got a paper model of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module.
The biggest prize, though, were steak knives. You got one for free for each fill-up of 10 gallons or more. Dad visited until Mom had a substantial collection of these knives.
These were cheap, with plastic wood-grain handles, but they served their purpose. It was the only kind of steak knife we had in our house while I was growing up. As mentioned previously, we had one or two of them at our current house until just recently. Though cheaply made, it seemed like they would last forever.
The memory of these knives sent me down a rabbit hole. I began to wonder if this was a local thing or if it was more widespread. As I dug deeper, it seems that during the 1960s and early 70s the whole nation seemed obsessed with free steak knives.
But it wasn’t just limited to gas stations. During that time free steak knives were offered as a draw for other services. Like the iconic “free toaster with every new account” at banks, these were meant to attract customers, but they were a lot less expensive than toasters for the merchants. Depending on the cost of the item purchased, you might even get an entire set of steak knives.
Here’s a particularly odd one I found. A movie theater was offering a free steak knife for ladies night at some movie.
I’m not even going to speculate about this one.
How did all this get started? What prompted this obsession with steak knives as a give-away? Of course, I had to find out.
The knives in the first ads I posted seem to be of a different type than the ones I remember. However, most of the photos I could find online from Flickr, eBay, and other sources were consistent. Some had white handles, but most had the brown faux wood grain.
These images are from several eBay postings.
A close up of one of the eBay images showed the manufacturer’s name – Quikut.
The name Quikut popped up in several of my other references. I now had a starting point and a keyword for further research.
In the 1920s the area around Fremont, Ohio was the center of cutlery manufacturing in the United States. Several recognizable names such as Henkels and Case began making knives in Fremont. In 1921 the Clyde Casting Company applied for a trademark for a new line of knives to be made in their Clyde, Ohio plant.
The new line proved to be successful and the company sought to build its sales force across the country. Here’s an ad seeking salesmen for the Pennsylvania area.
Clyde Castings moved its operations from Clyde to Fremont, Ohio, where it found a niche making both high quality and inexpensive knives. In 1939 the company began a nationwide campaign to market its knives, combining these with other items.
Sometime after 1939 the company changed its name to Quikut Corporation. Through the 1940s and 50s the knives were used as promotional items, usually not given away for free, but offered at a ridiculously low price. In most of these promotions the name “Quikut” figures prominently.
Sometime in the late 1950s merchants began giving away Quikut knives with their products. Lipton, Proctor & Gamble, and Pillsbury and other flour companies all used steak knives in their promotions.
Even Kentucky Fried Chicken got in on the act.
A steak knife was the perfect promotional item. It was lightweight and thin so that it could be attached to or included in larger boxes. It was also the type of item where you would want to build a set, so the customer would be motivated to return for more purchases. It only made sense that gas stations would also start to offer these, along with water glasses and other promotional items.
One thing that I noticed was that the early ads from the 1930s and 40s heavily promote the “Quikut” brand name as an indicator of quality. That seems to have trailed off in the mid-50s, focusing only on a generic “steak knife.” My speculation is that in post-WWII steak was more readily available to the average family. If you were serving a meal with steak you would want a complete set, or at least one for each person at the table. This wouldn’t be the case for paring knives or other utility knives from Quikut that were advertised in the 30s and 40s.
I don’t know if other cutlery companies got involved with the promotions or not. I would assume so from the different styles of knives seen in the ads at the top of this post. But, for now, I’ll just stick with the story of Quikut.
In early 1964 the Quikut Corporation merged with an automotive company to become Douglas Quikut, then later that year it was purchased by the holding firm of Scott & Fetzer. Quikut would continue as a brand name, but Scott & Fetzer wanted to use the company’s plastic molding capabilities to manufacture parts for its Oreck and Kirby lines of vacuum cleaners.
The steak knife fad started to fade out in the early 1970s. In 1975 Ed Valanti and Barry Becher came up with a new way to promote Quikut’s knives. They made up a non-sensical Japanese name for a new line of very sharp knives and began promoting these with catchy TV ads. Thus, the Ginsu Knife was born. Yeah, that Ginsu, the one “as seen on TV™.”
Eventually Scott & Feltzer was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway and knife production moved to Walnut Ridge, Arkansas in 1972. Ginsu is most closely associated with Walnut Springs, and the Quikut name faded into obscurity. Around 2006 most of the knife production moved overseas, but shipping and distribution still operated out of Arkansas. Ginsu is still making knives.
So, that’s the whole story. Quikut promoted inexpensive knives and promotional giveaways. The availability of steak as a commodity in post-WWII made people want steak knives, and thus the gas station steak knife was born. Garrett’s Gulf Station in Laurens is now long gone. There’s just an empty lot where it once stood. But the knives have survived much longer. We may not have ours in our knife drawer anymore, but I’m sure there are still a few out and about. So check your steak knife collection or take a close look at the knife you’re given at a restaurant. Just at the tang where the blade meets the handle there might be the word Quikut, a reminder of a bygone era.