Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Cutting Edge

By Patricia Winton

As a child, I was mesmerized by a pair of scissors in my great-great aunt’s handwork basket. They were shaped somewhat like a Great Blue Heron, with an elongated bill as the blades. She made lace by tatting, and she used these little scissors to clip the thread. She had a piece of red string tied to one of the finger holes, which she said helped her find the scissors in the bottom of her work basket.

She died when I was seven, but she gave me those scissors before she went. I have them still, tucked into my sewing basket in Rome.

This early fascination with scissors, I suppose, made it inevitable that by now I would own more than a dozen pairs. I have scissors in every room and a pair on the terrace. I hate struggling to open recalcitrant packaging, so I like to have scissors handy to do the job for me.

Folding Scissors
I carry them in my pencil case and my book bag. I even have a small pair with blades that retract into the handles, making them security friendly at airports because it’s impossible to stab someone with them. I also have a special pair for cutting buttonholes after making them with a sewing machine.

As I began thinking about inventions for this post, scissors seemed like the place to begin. Leonardo da Vinci has been erroneously credited with inventing them, but they’re much older than that.

The first scissors were probably forged around 1500 B.C. in Egypt from a single piece of bronze. The metal was bent into an elongated U shape with the tips flattened into blades. To cut, the user had to squeeze the handle, forcing the two blades to cross each other.

Scissors from ancient Egypt
Examples of this type of scissors have been unearthed in archaeological sites in Egypt, Asia, and Roman settlements throughout Italy. A Grecian urn dated around 220 B.C. contains an image of scissors.

The modern type of scissors, with two blades held together with a rivet or screw were invented in ancient Rome around 100 A.D. Roman-era documents relating to guilds cite scissors as tools used by tailors, haberdashers, and smiths. The guilds for tailors, drapers, and leather workers also designed scissors into their crests.

By around 1000 A.D. there were even guilds for scissor makers. The scissors at that time were made by hand, and the maker who could produce a fine blade was very much in demand. And while Leonardo obviously didn’t invent scissors, he probably made some improvements to their design, thereby making them easier to use.

The real breakthrough in the evolution of scissors came in 1761, when Robert Hinchliffe of Sheffield, England, first used cast steel to manufacture them. The molten steel was poured into molds, creating a uniformity that ensured their faithful reproduction. From this period until late 19th century, scissors often had elaborately designed handles, but designs were simplified to better accommodate mass production later on.

Buttonhole Scissors
Now, there are many specialized scissors: blunt-tipped, blunt-bladed scissors for children; pinking shears for dressmakers; curved-bladed ones for clipping toenails; decorated blades for crafts; and indescribable ones for snipping nose hair.

So as I look at my little Great Blue Heron scissors, I’m amused to think that I live in the city where this type of scissors got their start.

I blog each Monday on Italian Intrigues. Please drop by.


  1. Prior to reading your post, my thoughts about scissors were mainly on the question of where my Mom had hidden them. As a child I had an obsession with cutting paper, and to protect the paper and her sanity my Mom would hide the scissors from me!! It always fascinates me to learn more about the contributions of the Romans to modern day society, thank you.

  2. Oh, I need scissors to be handy at all times--for opening letters, for clipping things from newspapers, for opening packages, for cutting tape (another thing I have to have handy). Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Someone in my family had those heron scissors, maybe my grandmother, but I don't know what happened to them. I have a pair from my dad and my aunt's hair thinning shears. I like scissors, too! I treasure my mom's blunt tipped nurse's bandage pair. Thanks for the history.

  4. Oh, I'd forgotten about the hair thinning shears. Strange, those. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

  5. This is a most practical invention. I don't have anything like your collection, Patricia, but I could not live without scissors close at hand. I love the retractable ones. Can you get them in the U.S. or are they an Italian specialty?

  6. Thanks, Heidi. The retractable ones are American. I've had mine for years. You can buy them in places that sell sewing notions or needlework supplies. My pair have a little hole on one handle with a long cord attached which can be worn around the neck. They're designed for people doing needlework to have scissors close at hand. The blades are quite short.

  7. What a fun read. My mother sewed a lot, and was very good at it. I can picture her with her scissors in her hand. Nice memory.
    Glenn Nilson

  8. Glenn, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Scissors go waaaay beyond sewing for me. They're my favorite kitchen tool. I can't do anything at my desk without them. And on and on.