Answer Man: What's up with selling a knife to a bride?

News-DemocratApril 2, 2014 

Before my wife and I married, my grandmother sold a knife to her for 2 cents at a wedding shower. She said that it was an old tradition that the bride had to buy something sharp for 2 cents before her wedding day. Have you ever heard of such a tradition? My grandmother was Irish if this helps. -- K.E., of Belleville

Tell you what -- I would have dumped that gal immediately had I been you. She was being far too cavalier with her money for my tastes, according to most accounts I read of this centuries-old superstition.

The idea is that it's unlucky to give anyone something that can cut or sever -- knives, scissors, can openers, you name it, writes Talley Sue Hohfield for Martha Stewart Weddings.

The thought is that a blade will sever the friendship. And of course it's particularly ominous as a wedding gift because the sharp edge could slice those carefully prepared wedding vows to smithereens.

But, hey, if I were tying the knot, I would love to receive a good set of cutlery -- not to mention flatware -- as gifts. So how can my friends and family get around this nuptial no-no? With a little creativity -- and it usually shouldn't cost the newlyweds a red cent.

According to many accounts I find, the gift-giver should wrap both the knife and a penny in the same package. (For extra luck, the giver lightly rubs the blade with the coin.) Then, after opening it, the couple gives the penny back to the giver so that it's technically a purchase and not a gift.

Of course, there are sticklers who say this is a sham and that you must, like your wife, offer your own penny (or 2 cents, I suppose, in times of inflation) to truly avoid the curse. But there are some interesting ways around this, too, that will keep your coin jar happy.

One insists that the penny coming with the knife is the real gift; the knife somehow got mixed in accidentally during the wrapping. My favorite, though, is that you lend the couple a penny to buy the knife -- and then you simply forgive the loan.

As for its start, many do point to an English/Irish origin along with similar fanciful ideas. One woman wrote of an Irish grandmother who would hide coins all over her grandkids' house so that there not only would always be money somewhere, but also that it might attract more. She says they're still finding money even though Grandmum died years ago.

But the tradition seems somewhat popular throughout much of Europe, and even some Asians hold to the belief that you shouldn't give such gifts at all.

Still, some gift-givers like to live on the edge. In Finland, receiving a puukko -- a fixed-blade belt knife -- apparently is considered an honor because its versatility in woodworking, food-preparation and defense shows you really care about the recipient.

You recently wrote about an Ernst Hilgard teaming up with A.W. Herr to open a dry goods store in 1880 in Belleville. Can you tell me if Ernst was a sibling of Theodore Hilgard of West Belleville fame and the builder of the oldest brick house in Belleville today? -- Chris Beykirch

Sibling? No. Grandnephew? Yes, according to Belleville historian Robert Brunkow, who has an extensive genealogy of the Hilgard-Engelmann family. But there are so many Theodore Hilgards in this tale, you almost need a scorecard to keep them straight, so follow carefully.

Born in 1790, Theodore Erasmus Hilgard came to the United States in 1835 and bought a large farm in what became West Belleville. He later sold 230 lots at $50 to $75 per while settling into what now is the oldest brick home in Belleville at 210 Voss Place. Later, Hilgard would return to Germany, where he died in Heidelberg in 1873 at age 82.

He and his wife, Margarethe, had several notable sons, including Theodore Charles Hilgard. Born in 1828, the younger Hilgard became a doctor and died in New York a week after his 47th birthday in 1875.

But according to Brunkow, Theodore Erasmus had a brother who had a son also named Theodore. In turn, this Theodore begat at least two children, Ernst and -- you guessed it -- Theodore. So these two were the grandnephews of the "virtual founder of West Belleville," as the Belleville Advocate said in this obituary.

Ernst was a mover and shaker, too, serving as city treasure and probate clerk while running various dry goods stores and serving on the boards of various banks and organizations. A Civil War veteran (43rd regiment, Illinois Infantry), he died on Christmas Eve 1914. His brother Theodore died in 1922.

Today's trivia

In what movie did Brooke Shields make her film debut?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: Four states have capitals that take their names from towns in jolly olde England. They are Boston, Mass. (after a small town in Lincolnshire); Dover, Del. (after a city in Kent); Hartford, Conn., (after Hertford, England, early settler Samuel Stone's hometown); and Richmond, Va. (after what is now a London suburb).

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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