This Was Then: Tony the Scissor Man

‘Umbrellas to mend! Knives and scissors sharpened! Scissor grinder!’

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Tony the Scissor Man. – Courtesy Chris Baer

Antonio “Tony the Scissor Man” DeCarlo walked the streets of Martha’s Vineyard every summer, mending umbrellas, sharpening knives, and grinding scissors for local customers. Wielding a 150-year-old brass schoolbell once used by his father, he rang out his services in a three-beat waltz, calling out “Umbrellas to mend! Umbrellas to mend! Knives and scissors sharpened! Scissor grinder!” His 40-plus-pound backpack contained a massive Carborundum wheel in a wooden frame which he drove by pumping a treadle with his foot.

DeCarlo hailed from Manhattan, the son and grandson of traveling “grinders” from the mountains of Campobasso province in southern Italy. By the 1960s, New York City’s last seven pack-carrying grinders were all members of his extended family. It was a dying trade, even in Antonio’s time, as home electric sharpeners competed with these lifelong professionals.

The Vineyard was far from DeCarlo’s only territory — his summer route included Nantucket, Hyannis Port, Bar Harbor, and other New England coastal towns. He spent winters working the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., and springtime on his native island of Manhattan, where he had plied his trade since 1904. He claimed to walk more than a dozen miles every day, six days a week. He worked until his death in 1967.

Inheriting his profession, route, and bell, his oldest son Dominick “Dom” DeCarlo brought sharpening services next to the Vineyard, together with his younger brother Fred. Dom boasted of walking 3,100 miles a year and grinding over 200,000 knives and scissors annually. Heavyset, bespeckled, and usually adorned by a Panama hat or baseball cap, Dom began using a modified golf cart to get his equipment around. His brother Fred used a truck.

Social networking has become an important historical research tool, in this case Facebook’s “I Grew Up on Martha’s Vineyard” group. A post of this photo, initially identified only as “Mr. DeCarlo,” quickly brought a flood of information. DeCarlo’s vocation as an itinerant “grinder” was identified in less than 10 minutes (thanks, Allouise Morgan!), and another 20 or so people quickly weighed in with their memories of Mr. DeCarlo working the streets of Skiff Avenue, Tuckernuck Avenue, Franklin Street, West Chop, State Road, Edgartown, and elsewhere:

Patricia Campos Manzoni writes, “The ‘umbrella man’ used to walk in the neighborhoods ringing his bell. He also sharpened knives, but we always called him the ‘umbrella man.’ He was around in the ’50s.”

Judith Leonard Culver writes, “Every summer the scissors man would stroll down our back street and sharpen all the scissors Mum had. I believe he did hedge trimmers also. His bell was a sure sign of summer.”

Michael Anthony writes, “I remember him stopping in front of our house, and we stood in the front yard while Mom brought out the knives and scissors to be sharpened. Everything happened on Skiff Avenue!”

While Tony is just a fond memory now, his 81-year-old son Fred DeCarlo and grandson Darren DeCarlo are still following the family trade in their KnifeMobile in New York City, sometimes driving into the Hamptons on weekends, and still serving Floridians each winter, but no longer, alas, visiting Martha’s Vineyard. And, yes, they’re on Facebook, too, at facebook.com/TheKnifeMobile.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.