by Sarah Gleason
The following is excerpted from interviews with Louis Fazanno, June 23 and September 2, 2010, about his family’s involvement with the Imperial Knife Company. The audio file and full transcript are deposited with the Providence Public Library.
Background: The Imperial Knife Company was an important Providence industry for many decades of the 20th century. It was founded in Providence, RI, in 1917 by Felix and Michael Mirando, with financial support from their childhood friend, Domenic Fazzano, then in the tire business in Hartford, CT. The three men had emigrated from the Campobasso area of Italy, a region south of Rome known for scissors- and knife-making. In 1921, Domenic moved to Rhode Island with his family to become manager of the growing company. At its peak, Imperial Knife employed 1,000 workers in the Jewelry District complex, 18 Imperial Place. In 1998, operations were moved to Ellenville, NY. The company – at that point called Imperial Shrade Corporation – closed in 2004.
Imperial Knife began in a small office rented from the Vesta Underwear Company in what is now known as the Imperial Knife Building. Eventually Imperial Knife occupied four buildings, still standing, on Imperial Place, Bassett Street, Elm Street, and Hospital Street. (Imperial Place had originally been named Blount Street, but the city renamed it on the grounds it was an unsuitable address for a knife company.)
Regarding use of the building, Lou explained,
“The heavy presses were on the ground floor, and we had some very heavy presses. And we used to stamp out the pieces, a mile a minute; and as a result the pieces we stamped out were not precise to 1- or 2-thousandths of an inch, and the edges were rough because of high speed stamping, so that we had to do a lot of finishing by hand; we’d bunch up 20 or 30 knife blades and springs, clamp them together and finish the whole group. Whereas the company that makes the present Swiss Army knife, it probably makes their parts the way watch parts are made in Switzerland, the machine presses very slowly and the pieces come out very precisely […] By the time the Swiss Army knife came along we probably had a thousand different tools […] and we didn’t have enough money or time to do that, so we stamped them out rapidly and we’d batch them together and finish them. They’d come out pretty good, but not as precise as the army knife.
“Stamping was on the ground floor. When the knife blade was stamped it was the same thickness all around, so to make a knife edge it had to be ground on both sides. And we had created some pretty intricate grinding machines for grinding the blade, we did the designing and those machines were built for us by the Taft Pierce Manufacturing Company in Woonsocket. A central motor […] drove a big belt over a big fly wheel with a long shaft 30 - 40’ down the floor. Eventually we rebuilt the grinding machines so that there was electrical power for each machine […]
We started [on the ground floor], we grew floor to floor till we were up at the sixth, filled part of the building on Bassett Street, then eventually we had them all. […] The buildings at the back were joined with only a three-story building whereas the others were six-story. That area had more of the service departments that were needed for the manufacturing.
Also early on we made knives with cellulose nitrate handles, which was a highly flammable product, and so for insurance purposes we built a building off the back end toward Hospital Street, it was 3 stories, there were no windows in it, completely fireproof for insurance purposes, and we used to store all the celluloid there. Then of course we had lots of celluloid and __ in the knife handles. We never did have a fire.”
“The first knives we made were what we called skeletons, the working part of the knife with no finished handle on it, and they were sold to the jewelry industry, mostly to people in Attleboro, who put Sterling or gold filled or solid gold handles on them. We used to call them Waldemar knives, and they were typically made with what we called bale at the end, a little a loop so a gentlemen could attach it to his watch chain. That was where the company started. [The first such knives were imported from Germany.]
“Let me back up a little. In the late 1930s my father went to Germany to buy a patent for a new way to make knives. [Pulled a pocket knife from his pocket.] In the early days this silver part, which was on the decorating side of the handle, was made of heavy material and hand finished all around. My father bought a patent in which this was a very thin shell, so it was made in a press, and then we would wrap a piece of celluloid around it, it was maybe 10 thousandths of an inch thick as opposed to being 100 thousandths of an inch […] So it was a much less expensive material and didn’t require any finishing, but it was a way to make a knife that looked a lot better and was probably just as good a knife but didn’t have all the finish. […] We had to create all new kinds of machinery to make that.
“Offices were on 6th floor, and the shipping department was on the 5th floor. In the cellar we had two serious disposal problems. When we ground a knife there was a lot of steel […] with the abrasive that ground off […] All the grinding machines had to have fresh water pouring onto them all the time they were grinding. So in the cellar we had a series of settling tanks. We had to clean those regularly. And then we had to take the sediment that was in the bottom, steel and abrasives, we used to load a dump truck every morning, take it to Smithfield where there was a big quarry. Fortunately we were a corporation [so couldn’t be sued]. […] It was important for the state because we had a thousand people working there […] I’m sure the quarry we dumped it in was approved by whatever municipality […] we weren’t trying to [do anything illegal] […] we dumped where we were allowed to dump […] The Norton Company in Worcester […] I think they ended up filling in the land.
“Sixth floor we had packing and shipping, all business. The sixth floor was all offices.
“Fifth floor we had another packing dept, sales office, all of our orders came in paper mail, and someone had to interpret it and create a shipping invoice. Probably on the 4th floor we were assembling and finishing. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd floors were stamping, and finishing metal parts, that kind of thing, 4th floor we assembled knives, and the 5th floor we packed them and shipped them. They were big, big spaces, other than the offices.
“We were like so many companies […] We probably had more mechanized polishing […] We had built these big machines. […] We used to say we were the largest […] in the world. We used to make about 10,000 dozen knives a day – 120,000 knives/day. And they all went. We needed a bigger and bigger stock room. In the postwar period […] we started to make kitchen knives and kitchen cutlery, spatulas, with fine wooden handles; and then in the 1950s we started to make stainless steel flatware, we were probably the first manufacturer of fine stainless flatware probably in the country. We got into it because the fellow who bought pocket knives wanted to get into stainless […] At one point we came very close to creating a joint venture with the Gorham Company, they would design the flatware and market it, and we would manufacture it. They were great at manufacturing silver and we were ahead of them in manufacturing stainless […] That would have been a great idea.
“Steel arrived in rolls – coils, 4 or 500,000 – from the mill, we would unload it, Bassett Street would stamp it all out there. […] Maybe 20% of what we bought became scrap. Most came from a mill in Sharon, Pennsylvania; we used to buy all of our stainless. The other part – solid brass – we used to buy that from the New England Brass Company. They were our sole source for brass. I used to do all the buying. Other vendors asked, ‘Well why won’t you give us the chance?’ I’ll give you the history. When this company was started the tailor who started the New England Brass Company supplied us with brass. At first we said, ‘We can’t buy anything from you because we don’t have enough money to pay you. He said ‘That’s all right, and when you can, pay’ […] so that’s why I don’t use anyone else.
“Michael Mirando was the mechanical guy, worked more on machinery. Felix was more in the community. And my father spent most of his time on sales trips. And it worked. No one kept scores about hours and it was an agreement that they would make the same and it worked. They had known each other as boys. And by the time Michael started they were over here and my dad was in the tire business in Hartford, he would finance them […] It was a nice relationship, they were together for a long time. […] In the late 1940s, he said ‘you kids will see things differently than I did, I won’t come around any more.’ Joe was more in the marketing and sales area, Nick was more in the manufacturing, and I was more in the administrative part, I was the Treasurer […] chief administrator.
“Somewhere between 2003 and 2007 I believe, all the operations were shut down and all the machinery was sold. We could not compete with the similar quality goods they made in the Far East.