The Albacete Railway Station Sellers

The text below contains excerpts from the book Aquellos Cuchilleros Que Vendian en la Estacion. Images used with permission.

For years, cutlers sold pocket knives at the Albacete, Spain railway station. Through their tenacity and dedication, they successfully linked two concepts together that are still very much alive today: knives and Albacete. The many men, as well as some women, were pioneers in the telling of the story and bringing to market the Albacete brand in a time when selling consisted of shouting out loud about the products that were being offered. They were there in the morning, in the afternoon and, above all, in the evening to proclaim from the station “Navajas! Navajitas de Albacete!” (“Pocket knives! Pocket knives of Albacete!”).

With the passage of time they managed to build a brand for Albacete knives that stood for quality and reliability. More than a century later the knife makers of Albacete strive to maintain that reputation under the banner of their trade group “Cuchilleria de Albacete.” The objective today for those in the trade remains the same since the beginning: to protect a craft and a way of life. The difference today is that while the original competition was between cutlers in Albacete, the largest threat now is from cheap “knock-offs” from China and other places in Asia.

A presence in the railway station of the platform pocket knife vendors goes back to the year 1866, just two decades after the arrival of railway service to the city of Albacete. Since then the image of the navajeros (“belt vendors”) remains indelibly linked to the platforms of the station of Albacete, until well into the last quarter of the twentieth century. The first known vendor of knives on the platform was Gabriel Sarrión, who had a small artisan workshop on Calle del Puente. He had to sign a contract with the Madrid-Zaragoza-Alicante (MZA) Railway Company in order to start his activity. With few exceptions, the platform vendors were all knife makers who distributed much of their own production at the station. Their workshops were generally very close to the railway station, such as on the Calle del Puente, Paseo del Istmo and later the neighborhoods of the Prison and of “The Star.”

As more platform knife vendors started to ply their trade in the 19th century at the railway station, tension mounted between the sellers and the managers of the MZA Railway Company. However, faced with the tenacity of the navajeros, the activity was tolerated, to a greater or lesser extent, by the railway authorities for many years. The result of this relative permissiveness was that by the start of the 20th century the number of navajeros increased considerably.

Sales at the railway station become a lifeblood to many of the owners of small workshops. These enterprises were generally of a very small dimension and housed the craftsman himself and usually also an apprentice, who was likely a neighbor or relative. Often the artisan lived in this workshop. The floorspace did not normally reach much beyond 200 square feet and consisted of a manual drilling machine called a “pump,” a bench, a lathe or screw, an anvil and a forge. The arrival of electricity affected the mechanization processes of each of these steps and in the second decade of the 20th century almost all of the workshops incorporated an engine that operated the grinding and polishing lathes. This mechanization allowed for more knives to be produced more efficiently.

In order to compete with factories that were producing knives on a more industrialized scale, the small artisans succeeded in maintaining their niche of selling small batch and hand-made knives at the station. Working without a fixed schedule was a common feature of the production environments of the craftsman. The proximity of the workshops to the station allowed the navajeros to take advantage of the time between the passing of trains to steal away just a few more minutes on the wheel and increase their production.

In the last third of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th century the workshops near the station continued to be high in number and this facilitated that at any time of day or night the navajeros could be either be in front of the wheel or at the station to “milk” the express train. This curious expression, “milking” the train, was coined by the old artisans. It was used to indicate that practically all travelers were approached by the sellers and had the opportunity to acquire items consisting of knives and daggers that the navajero transported in wide strips on their mid-section, that later adopted the traditional form known today as knife belts.

At the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939), the MZA Railway Company removed the obligation that sellers belong to the guild of cutlery of Albacete. As a result of this, the internal organization provided by the navajeros themselves established a rotating system that worked well for a time. It took into account the circumstance of age for the assignment to the day or night shift with the young people preferring the day and the older people the night. The nights were sometimes unpleasant and the sale on the first trains of the day tended to set the tone for what the rest of the day was going to be like. In the harsh economic reality of war-time Spain, the platforms were sometimes shared by the seller’s wives who helped the family income by offering sandwiches on the platforms for sale.

The most fruitful time to sell was during the harvest, because the farm workers were traditionally the most coveted customers. Other loyal customers were both enlisted military men and officers, especially the young recruits who were on their way to unfamiliar destinations.

The sellers were a tight-knit group who would often meet for olives and wine in the old establishments of the Jardin, the Rialto or at the Rex. But, undoubtedly, it was the house of Firmas on the corner of Calle del Muelle and Mayor Conangla Street that was the preferred place where the navajeros would meet and socialize.

By the 1950s, the authorities began to look at the sale of the knives and daggers somewhat unfavorably. For this reason, Renfe (the nationalized railway of Spain) tried to gradually limit the navajeros’ activity by 1959. Among other provisions, they established the prohibition of boarding cars or hindering of the movement of passengers and railway personnel. The sellers were no longer allowed to shout out about the sale of their wares. Despite this effort, the salesmen’s chants could still be heard for several more decades announcing the knives of Albacete.

By the 1960s there was a gradual disappearance of many of the belt sellers. In some cases it was simply because they were aged and their young did not take over their businesses. Also reducing the number of sellers was the good economic climate in the second half of the decade allowing the cutler of the small workshop to survive without the need to sell on the platforms. While Albacete remained an important junction, the national railways began to schedule trains with less time stopped in the Albacete station which reduced the chances for the navjeros to mingle with potential customers.

>In 1981 the national government issued a regulation classifying knives as a weapon, further restricting the tradition of selling knives and daggers at the Albacete station. El Bocha and El Fati were the last of a lineage of navajeros who made their living selling knives from the belt with El Fati working the platform into the 1990s. His romantic image on the platform of the station proclaiming “Navajas de Albacete! Cuchillos y llaveritos!,” (“Pocket knives of Albacete, knives and keychains!”) is part of Spain’s history. It is important to remember and pay tribute to some of the navajeros: Antonio Peinado Escobar; Drovegar: the saga of Los Picatorres, Los Racos and Los Pajeros; Pascual Santero; Loops; Antón, José, Miguel and Isidro Verdejo; Jordanian Juanina; Poche El Chato Porras; Felix; The Maestrillo; Medrano; Chuchumeno; Juanico El Carlista; Rehuma; Sagato; Pataleta Mediometer; Monina; Tartaja Ramoncico; Chato Mengajo; Ortega; Chimbolero; Pascual Martinez; Juan Real; Ceferino González; Perico del Mongo: Jose Carpio Cuchilletas; Gaspar; the Sáez brothers; José Carcelén and Martin Martinez Nieto, whose belt, dated from 1926, is one of the most important objects in the Municipal Museum of Cutlery in Albacete. As a tribute to them all in 1998, a sculpture was erected in the Plaza del Altozano in the city of Albacete which tells the story of the sellers at the station: the brothers Roncero, Los Peseta, The one-armed and Tito.

The Belt and How It Was Prepared

At the beginning, in their wanderings through the platforms of the station, the navajeros transported the knives and daggers for sale in large handkerchiefs and wide cloths or leather strips. Over time, the belt was transformed to adopt the shape and characteristics of the traditional belt. The first such specialized belt was found to be from around 1915. The belts were made by leather craftsmen from the city called “corrioneros”. These belts allowed the seller to present his selection in a variety of ways. The various types of knives and daggers were divided into different compartments aligned longitudinally in 4 or 5 rows of various sizes. In them were lodged the knives and daggers according to their dimensions. Starting in the 1940s, many of the sellers added keychains to their offering. The belt was often wrapped with a cloth to get a better grip and to cover the merchandise. The first belts were able to carry and display around 20 Lbs of merchandise; by the end of the era the belts were able to present as much as 45 Lbs of goods.

Folding displays

Some of the salesmen of knives and daggers used wooden suitcases to show and carry their wares which were called “folders.” Toward the end of the fifties the bottoms of these folders were lined with velvet, usually red. For many years the folding cases were customized to fit into the seating compartments of the trains for easy presentation.