Museum of Ethnography
H-1146, Budapest, Dózsa György út 35.
Phone: +36 1 474 2100
Collapsible, spring-operated pocket knives like the one shown here first arrived in Hungary in the 19th century. This particular piece, a legendary type known as the “Szeged fish-handle knife,” “carp pocket knife,” or “Tisza pocket knife,” sports a gently curving handle in the form of a swimming or leaping fish. A recent acquisition of the Museum of Ethnography’s Crafts and Trades Collection, the knife belongs to a class of products that were a popular mark of prestige among men of the southern Great Plain region during the final third of the 19th century.
The maker of the knife himself was also a person of note. Historically, fish-handle knives made their first appearance to great popular acclaim among the wares of master knife and sword-makers at the Millennial Exposition of 1896. Though at the time, the knives were available from around a dozen different plains craftsmen, the original is associated with a single man, József Sziráky (1829-1899), whose products, in particular the fish-handle knife, earned him the exposition’s silver medal. Sziráky’s father, Mátyás Sziráki, had been a founding member of Szeged’s first knife makers’ guild, which began operations in 1835. Following in his father’s footsteps, Sziráky established his own company in Szeged in 1854, having spent his journeyman’s days in Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. Working at first as a maker of medical instruments, Sziráky eventually gave himself over exclusively to knife-making, his high-quality products appearing in multiple domestic expositions (Szeged, 1876; Szabadka, 1879; Budapest National General Exposition, 1885), where they earned him various awards. His work was eventually carried on by his son, János.
During the latter decades of the 19th century, Sziráky’s exceptionally made, uniquely designed knives with fish-shaped, mother-of-pearl handles attracted the attention of male visitors to international fairs in Paris (1889), Vienna (1890), and Brussels (1897). The knife also enjoyed unparalleled popularity among watermen, including Szeged’s master fisherman János Bitó, for whom Sziráky created a special piece – a veritable masterwork – featuring an engraving of Saint John of Nepomuk, patron saint of watermen, on one side, and an image of a carp, together with the owner’s monogram, on the other.
Another esteemed individual to take notice of Sziráky’s wares was Hungarian novelist Kálmán Mikszáth, who worked several years in Szeged as a journalist. In an anecdote included in an essay entitled The Hungarian Artisan (1882), Mikszáth claimed that an English company had ordered serial production of Sziráky’s knives, or would have done so, if Sziráky’s worldview and manufacturing capacity had permitted. Instead, the order had been rejected with the following words: “I’d be happy to present the Englishman with a knife or two, and will certainly do so, but as for the rest...” Mikszáth’s sketch of the master’s character – that of a decent, principled rural craftsman working with meticulous attention to detail amidst modest circumstances, but with little more than the rudiments of business sense – was intended as a model to be emulated. Another novelist to write of the Sziráky workshop, the fish-handle knife, and the peasant customer seeking a high-quality product was István Kömörkény, whose folk short story To Buy a Knife (1887) alludes to the prized nature of its subject matter in that buyer, enamoured of the spring-operated blade’s ability to deliver in even the most exacting of situations, ultimately fails in his bid to procure one.
By the end of the 19th century, the Sziráki or fish-handle knife of Szeged had become an unmitigated sensation. As noted above, the legends that surrounded this unusual product were numerous, and the anecdotes propagated by the other knife-makers of Szeged only served to expand its cult following. Legend had it, for example, that the shape of the knife had been influenced by a visit to the region of Ministry Commissioner Lajos Tisza, one of the key figures in the reconstruction work necessitated by the Great Flood of 1879. In this story, the form of the knife’s handle – a swimming or jumping fish – was born of a suggestion by the commissioner following his survey of the completed works, who saw it as a fitting symbol of both the Tisza River, and its soon-to-be-rejuvenated city. A fish-handle knife was duly presented to the representative as a gift.
Regarded as a product unique to Szeged, the fish-handle knife has, since the early 20th century, been made only within the greater Szeged area and, it is no exaggeration to say, was for a time a defining part of the city’s image.
The knife recently acquired by the museum is an original: according to the hallmark stamped into its blade, it was made by József Sziráky himself, whose work was recognised not only in the region of his birth, but also at expositions across Hungary and abroad. During the first half of the 20th century, virtually every knife-maker worth his salt offered some form of the fish-handle knife, whether identical Sziráky’s or of varying execution and size. Between the First and Second World Wars, production of imitation Tisza knives gradually ceased, however, in favour of authentically formed knives made in Szeged and Csongrád by artisans whose ancestors had learned the fine points of their craft within the Sziráky family tradition.
Equipped with safety springs, fish-handle knives are generally made from wood, bone, or horn. The term “pocket knife” refers to several dozen different varieties of knife, within which the fish-handle knife represents its own, separate class. Today, the variant with the curved profile and mother-of-pearl handle is regarded as unusually rare.
The blade of this particular specimen, which widens at the middle of the spine, is made of steel and bears the stamp “Sziráki J”. The material of the grip is secured from without on both sides to a pair of internal spacers (platina), which surround and hold the spring. Riveted to this are the pecsétvas and the brass paknik (or baknik) that cover it. The knife’s fejpakni (headpiece) and farokpakni (tailpiece), each held in place by a single rivet, depict the head and tail of the fish, respectively. A third brass pakni, this time disposed at the centre of the handle and decorated with multiple incisions, flares slightly outward on both sides to resemble the fins of the fish. The grip is overlaid with pieces of mother-of-pearl that have also been riveted into place. As this material was procured from ocean shell-fish, old-time knife makers were forced to import it from Vienna or Hamburg. Today, the mother-of-pearl handle is rare and can be found only on knives left behind by craftsman of previous centuries.
This unique Sziráky fish-handle knife, one of the most-venerated traditional products of the knife-making craft, with a form that mimics that of a swimming fish and mother-of-pearl handle that shimmers like scales, is a rarity among the specimens of Hungarian museum collections. The Museum of Ethnography acquired the piece via auction in 2017.
Inventory number: Museum of Ethnography 2018.1.1
Szeged, late 19th century