Antique and Vintage Juggling Knives and Axes

Knives, swords, and axes have long been popular juggling props, pre-dating the use of clubs by thousands of years. In Chapter 8 of the Liezi, a very old collection of Daoist sayings, we read about a juggler who lived during the reigh of Duke Yuan of Song (531-517 BC). The passage reads:

In the State of Song there lived a man named Lanzi, who sought favor from Lord Yuan of Song for his skills. Lord Yuan of Song summoned him, and he performed on stilts that were twice as long as his body and attached to his legs. He walked and ran on them, and he also juggled seven swords, alternately throwing them and always keeping five swords in the air. Lord Yuan was amazed, and at once he granted Lanzi gold and silk.

This would indicate that juggling with bladed objects is at least 2500 years old.

Lanzi juggling 7 swords

Swords continued to be popular in China. Below is an image from the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) showing someone juggling with swords and balls. The photo is courtesy of Arthur Lewbel.

Han Dynasty Sword Juggler

Below is an illustration of a juggler from the Ming Dynasty era (1368 to 1644 A.D).

Ming Dynasty sword juggler

The Jewish Talmud mentions Levi bar Sissa (circa 150-220 AD), who juggled eight knives in front of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, the national leader.

Tulchinne, the royal buffoon of Irish King Conaire, is described in “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel,” as juggling nine swords. The earliest manuscript of the tale dates from the 12th century.

Norse Mythology from the same general time period includes a character named Gylfi, who supposedly juggled 7 swords.

Medieval depictions of juggling show swords and knives being used, as you can see below.

Illustration of knife juggling from an early 11th century manuscript

11th century knife juggler

Medieval knife juggler

Medieval knife juggler

Knife juggling rabbit from a Bible, circa 1265

After the middle ages, knives continued to be used by jugglers, as you can see in the following French woodcut from the 1700s of a juggler dressed in Indian garb with knives shown next to him.

French wood cut, 1700s

Another juggler who passed himself off as an Indian was Angelo Orsini. Below is an illistration of him juggling knives from 1826.

Angleo Orsini 1826

Actual Indian jugglers used knives as well, as you can see in the following depiction of Indian jugglers from 1830.

Indian jugglers 1830

Axes have also been a popular prop. Early juggling star Karl Rappo juggled four axes in the 1830s, as you can see in the following illustration.

Karl Rappo

In the 1880s, The Mighty Cradoc amazed audiences with his axe juggling.

When retail prop makers started selling their wares in the 1890s and 1900s, knives and axes were popular items in their catalogs. Very few of these props still exist today, but let’s take a look at some that do.

The Catalogue Of Fine Juggler Goods Manufactured By Prof. Otto Maurer, which was published in New York City in the late 1890s, featured two styles of juggling knives, as you can see below.

Otto Maurer Catalog illustration

Otto Maurer Catalog illustration

The Museum of Juggling History has a set of Maurer knives on display.

Otto Maurer knives

The Otto Maurer catalog also included juggling axes as well.

Otto Maurer axes

Edward Van Wyck opened his juggling prop manufacturing business in Cincinnati, Ohio (USA) in 1895. He sold both knives and axes. He sold double bladed Roman axes in three styles.

Photo from a Van Wyck catalog

Very few Van Wyck axes still exist today, but below are a collection of five of them.

The Van Wyck catalog featured a photo of the Great Javelle juggling Van Wyck knives. Below is a better version of that same photo.

The Great Javelle with Van Wyck knives

Very few of these knives still exist today as well. Below are the Van Wyck knives on display in the Museum of Juggling History.

Ellis Stanyon also sold juggling knives, doing so in three styles.

Illustration from the Ellis Stanyon catalog, 1905

Below are a set of juggling knives owned by Charlie Holland. They may be Stanyon knives.

Knives belonging to Charlie Holland

The De Vere Catalog from the 1890s or 1900s sold three two types of knives, shown below.

The Museum of Juggling History has three knives resembling the knife shown above on the left. You can see them below.

Below are some knives from the Museum of Juggling History from this same period.

Other early juggling prop manufacturers made knives as well. Below is an illustration of knives sold by A.W. Gamage in London in 1911.

Another UK prop manufacturer was Gasgarth Press, which advertised the following knives for sale in 1921.

The Museum of Juggling History contains other knives and axes from the past. Let’s take a look at these.

Bill Gnadt’s knives

Bill Gnadt’s axe

Knives from the Fabulous Fishers

Knives and a knife mouth stick from the Juggling Jacksons, believed to have been made by Harry Lind

Antique and vintage juggling knives and axes can be found in other museums and collections around the world as well. The Larry Weeks Collection contains three axes used by early juggling innovator Ollie Young.

Ollie Young’s axes, photo courtesy of the Erik Åberg Collection

The Garst Museum in Greenville, Ohio contains the juggling knives and axes of the Three Famous Russells.

The Three Famous Russells’ knives

The Three Famous Russells’ axes

The International Circus Hall of Fame Museum in Peru, Indiana has Ed Tierney’s axes in storage. You can see me below holding them.

Ed Tierney’s axes

If you know of any other antique or vintage juggling knives or axes, please let me know about them.

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 16 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of twenty-six books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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