Friday, November 18, 2011

Foster Bros. Meat Cleaver

The other week I was sectioning a rabbit for some rabbit stew. This process uncovered a gaping hole in our arsenal of kitchen tools. We needed a meat cleaver that could easily cut through the ribcage and spine of an animal. The meat cleavers offered by today's knife producers are shiny, modern looking, and expensive. I wanted something with a little more character, something that a deranged ax murder might wield in a horror movie. So we decided to go the antique/vintage route and get an old cleaver. After much searching, I found this Foster Brothers cleaver on ebay (at a fraction the cost of a new one). The cleaver is 17 inches long with a 9 inch blade and weighs in at 3 lbs. It may be a bit overkill for home use, but looks awesome hanging on the kitchen wall.

This is an old knife and I wanted to know more about it, so I put all those years of watching Antiques Roadshow to use and began researching. There wasn't much on the internet, this is what I found....

Foster Brothers Factory around 1915

Foster Brothers was started in 1878 by Frank and Allie Foster in Fulton, (upstate) New York. Within a few years all of the Foster Brothers were involved in the business. The Foster brothers were heavily involved in Fulton politics which formally became a city in 1902. JA Foster served as Fulton's first mayor and John M. Foster served as the third. In addition to serving as mayor, the Foster boys were involved in all aspects of early Fulton politics serving on Board of Public Works (JA Foster), Clerk (Langdon Foster), Board of Fire and Police (John Foster, C. Earl Foster, CF Foster), and the Board of Health (JA Foster CF Foster LC Foster).

James A Foster, first mayor of Fulton
Foster Brothers was acquired by Chatillon around 1900, but continued to produce knives in the Foster factory. Around the turn of the century they mechanized the factory adding modern tools like power hammers, all knives prior were hand worked at an anvil. At the height of pre-WWII production they made over 500 different sizes and styles of knives the largest being a splitting knife for meat packers that had a 2 foot long blade and a 2 foot long handle.

While researching I stumbled upon this interesting passage from the Documents of the Senate of the State of New York, Volume 1 (1901):
"On December 20th 5 men employed in grinding knife blades at the factory of the Foster Brothers' Knife Works at Fulton went on strike for an advance in wages on certain lines of work. Their employers refused to concede their demand. Several conferences were held, but without result, and on December 26th the strikers gave up their contention and resumed work at the old rate of wages."

No surprise since the Foster Brothers seemed to run things back then.
Foster Brother's 1928 factory crew
During WWII Foster Brother's production focused on cleavers and butcher knives which were used in the military's food supply chain. They produced more than 250,000 meat cleavers during the war. The factory was closed at some point during the early 50's because Chatillion decided to liquidate the Foster Brothers properties

Dating my knife

According to this old article you can determine the timeline of the company name that would have been marked on the blade. I have confirmed this with some knife collector online discussion boards:

1878ish-1890 FOSTER BROS. (founding name of company)
1891-1904 FOSTER BROS. COMPANY  (incorporated under new name)
1904-1953 FOSTER BROS. & CHATILLON CO. (acquired by Chatillon)
1953-1956 FOSTER BROS.
1957+ COLUMBIA CUTLERY CORP uses FOSTER BRO. LOGO, original plant closes

I initially thought my knife was war era based on the fact that they produced so many during that time. But, the trademark on my blade shown below reads "FOSTERBROS" and the only times they were producing under that name was from opening to 1901 and in the 50's. The blades from the 50's that I saw online had much less patina and the engraving was much more pronounced and mechanized looking. Also my cleaver only has two rivets in the handle, most of the war time knives have 3 rivets. And there is detail on my handle that I did not see on many of the knives online. So this leads me to believe that my cleaver dates somewhere in the 1880's. But that's just my uneducated guess....


  1. nice work chuck, all thoes years of watching PBS have paid off!

  2. Sweeny Todd!! A+ for researching, though. I wonder how many people have used that knife before/how many creatures it has butchered.

  3. I am trying to date my old Foster Bros. cleaver and could use some help. It is about a 14 inch cleaver with about a 8 inch blade and old worn wood handle. The markings on the blade state:
    made by
    Foster Bros.
    The number 1107 is also on the blade.

    Any help anyone can give would be appreciated.

  4. I so much appreciated your article. I was also having trouble finding information on the internet. I recently inherited a Foster Bros. meat cleaver that has a 13" blade, old wooden handle that has a bend in it. The handle is wrapped with a thin rope. The handle is about 18". The story is my great great grandmother used it for slaughtering. So, I'm assuming it was made btw 1878 and 1890, based on the information you provided. Thank you.

  5. Hey! I just bought my Foster Bros. cleaver and decided to do more research on it. This site will tell you what the numbers mean, it's a carbon/alloy chart. I'm trying to date mine, but I'm having a lot of trouble with that. It has 3 rivets and is the 2190.

  6. Sorry, here's the link!

    1. Maybe someone can help me. I have a cleaver that is marked Solid Steel..underneath is Foster Bros, and under that is just MARK...then just nest to the handle it's market 280 The cleaver is 14" straight across the top, the blade at it's widest is 4 1/4 " ...What do I have? I know for a fact that it was being used in the 1930' also has three brass rivets on the handle. The blade itself is 7" across the top and 8" at the bottom.

    2. Did you ever figure out a date for this meat cleaver? I just discovered an identical one. It says:

      Also, it shows 238 to the right of FOSTER BROS

  7. help|! 25 in ocverall fulltang cleacver....elecven and 3/4 in blade..\13and a half handle..what is it??

  8. oh, and 7 and \1quarter at widest

  9. I have an old cleaver it is marked FOSTER BROS. under that SOLID STEEL. but what I have not seen before are the initials LC stamped and C2190. Anyone else ever seen this?

  10. Be my girlfriend was digging up a fig tree in Geneva Alabama. About a foot underground we found the meat cleaver. The number on it was 1107. I'm not the rust off of it it took no time at all to bring it back to its original state. I made a wooden handle for it. Looked up the history. It was an excellent find

  11. I have a 12" blade with 18" handle foster brothers meat clever. It has the arrow and also three numbers by the handle on top of one another (1,21,25). Does anyone know what they mean and any other info on this. thank you

  12. I just lucked upon one. #1107
    What does that mean?

  13. I just lucked upon one. #1107
    What does that mean?

  14. Juggalo278@hotmail.comApril 7, 2017 at 1:51 PM

    Foster Bros usumc? 8. Have not found any info on the usumc part. Any ideas?

  15. My cleaver was my fathers I says Foster Brothers solid steel 1138 could you tell me how old it is?

  16. For more info on these blades, contact Dan aka @upbeatvintage (on twitter and Instagram) he restores these blades and is a wealth of knowledge.