One night in the mid-1860s, Edward Campbell Simmons, a junior partner at Waters, Simmons and Company, a St. Louis hardware wholesaler, went to bed agitated. He had just had a sales call with the manufacturer of the wildly popular Lippincott axe, whose thin blade worked best on soft woods—the manufacturer had refused to reduce Simmons’ price to a competitive rate. Simmons woke up with a start and, in the middle of the night, began to whittle a prototype of an even thinner axe.
As Saunders Norvall, who spent 30 years working for Simmons, wrote in his book, “Forty Years of Hardware,” “When it was finished to [Simmons’] satisfaction, without any premeditation, he wrote in pencil on the fresh pine wooden axe: Keen Kutter. The next day he started out to find a manufacturer who would make his new axe, and he succeeded."
That manufacturer was Isaiah Blood of Bollston, New York. Simmons ordered 24,000 of his new axes from Blood, and they sold out quickly. Keen Kutter axes were an instant hit...
Before Simmons’s Keen Kutter, his St. Louis firm—which became E.C. Simmons and Company in 1871 and then incorporated as Simmons Hardware Company in 1874—had been a jobber, which is a distribution company that buys large amounts of tools and hardware from manufacturers and sells them in smaller quantities to hardware stores and other retailers. By designing his own axe to compete with the Lippincott, Simmons introduced the concept of jobber special brands.
At first, Keen Kutter referred to a specific kind of axe, but in the 1880 Simmons catalog, the name had been applied to all of the company’s top-of-the-line cutting tools, including axes, hatchets, saws, scythes, adzes, bill hooks, shears, scissors, files, stones, razors, and knives. The success of Keen Kutter led Simmons to develop other brands, including Blue Brand, which was second in quality and price to Keen Kutter.
Simmons was also the first to introduce the concept of traveling salesmen to the hardware jobbing market. At one point, Simmons employed more than 600 salesmen. The successful ones, as well as favorite retailers and other long-time employees, would receive small gifts like axe-head pins to acknowledge their exceptional service—the pins also served as walking ads.
Company officers and top employees at Simmons were rewarded by having products in the Simmons Hardware Catalogue named after them. These include J.E. Pilcher's Cant-B-Beat Hand Saw, H.M. Meier's Polar Ice Saw, S. Norvell's Chip-A-Way Axes, and R.H. Stockton's Gold Dust Axe. A superior salesman from Texas named William Enders (he eventually became a company vice president) had the whole line of Oak Leaf tools, safety razors, and padlocks named after him.
In 1880, Simmons published one of the first fully illustrated hardware catalogs in the world. The catalog, several of which still exist, was an instant hit with the retailers, each of whom received a free copy. Simmons Hardware Company continued to issue a hardware catalog every three to four years. The 1899 catalog, which was published on high-quality paper, featured 1,992 pages and 9,759 illustrations, all of which are perfectly legible today. The 1908 catalog, sometimes called "The Encyclopedia of Hardware," was even bigger: 4,200 pages and 78,137 items.
In spite of its size, this 1908 book was made in huge numbers: 25,000 were printed. The 1912 catalog, in contrast, was substantially smaller, thanks to reduced image sizes and lighter paper. By this time, the company was emphasizing its specialty catalogs which focused on areas like lamps, cutlery, padlocks, sewing machines, bicycle parts, baby carriages, sporting goods, and builders hardware.
E.C. Simmons had a particular fascination with knives, especially pocket knifes, that went back to his childhood. As an adult businessman, he found that pockets knifes, which were easy to store and ship, had a high profit margin. Around 1874, Simmons began to buy pocket knives from Walden Knife Co., which were branded as Keen Kutter pocket knifes. By 1902, Simmons owned the controlling interest in the manufacturing firm.
Beyond its catalog, the company understood the importance of advertising and public relations. Its elaborate Keen Kutter display, featuring 12,407 Simmons tools including more than 5,000 axes, at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair received the festival’s top award. The firm won a similar honor at the 1905 Exposition in Portland. Early 20th-century World’s Fair giveaway items included hand fans, postcards, and brochures, and these are highly collectible today.
Around that time, Simmons opened its own retail stores in St. Louis and Chicago to test out products, prices, and advertising campaigns. The St. Louis store, the only one branded as Simmons, raised a clamour about unfair competition with the other retailers and closed in 1905.
Simmons also went on a magazine advertising blitz during the early 20th century, taking out full-page ads in 54 popular magazines like the “Saturday Evening Post” to promote the Keen Kutter brand. The company also took out newspaper and billboard advertisements in areas where sales were slow.
One of the companies biggest stunts involved purchasing an airplane covered with a Keen Kutter advertisement in 1919. Since flying in a plane was such a novelty at the time, dealers, clerks, and hardware conventioneers were thrilled to take the ride.
In addition, Simmons offered its retailers loads of advertising materials, most of it free. The company provided signs for stores, fences, and streetcars, as well as complete window displays, some of which were animated.
The first Keen Kutter logo, used between 1880 and 1904, had a shield design, usually featuring the words “E.C. Simmon’s” above and “Celebrated” below. This shield is found on the handles of cutting tools like axes and hatchets, as well as invoices and letterhead.
The company’s famous “wedge and bar” logo, which looks like a slice of pizza with a banner over it, was introduced in 1905 and trademarked in 1906. Between 1895 and 1939, Simmons also offered standard wooden bench planes, made by the Ohio Tool Company but branded as Keen Kutter and featuring Keen Kutter double irons. Irons made before 1899 bore a rectangular saw-tooth logo—around 1905 they had a semi-circular saw-tooth mark.
In spite of all these advertising efforts, though, the company was on the decline in the early 20th century, thanks in part to the popularity of mail-order houses, which also threatened hardware stores, and the economic downturn caused by World War I.
Many of the company’s old guard resented Simmons’s sons, who ran the firm after their father retired, for hiring their young, inexperienced friends from the East Coast. H.M. Meier. and J.E. Pilcher resigned, while Saunders Norvell left to take over Shapleigh Hardware Company, taking sporting-goods expert W.H. Yantis with him.
Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which had received a boost during the war, came up with a plan to sell its own sporting goods, cutlery, and hardware directly to retailers, bypassing jobbers. Winchester demanded exclusive deals with merchants. Naturally, E.C. Simmons railed against this plan in 1919, warning retailers it was doomed to fail.
Two years after E.C. Simmons died in 1920, though, his sons George and Edward, without the consent of their older brother, Wallace, who was the company's president, began to negotiate a deal to sell Simmons to Winchester. In 1922, the firm was sold to Winchester for $3.4 million plus some stock of questionable value.
The Simmons workforce was completely demoralized—the salesman who had warned retailers against Winchester's plan lost the trust of their best clients, who went elsewhere. Winchester, meanwhile, produce a quality product, but could not get its price point down to what customers were used to paying for Keen Kutter.
That said, the Winchester salesmen were successful enough to enlist 6,400 stores, one-quarter of all the hardware stores in the U.S., but Winchester did not escape the Great Depression, and it filed for bankruptcy in 1934. Winchester's 1935 and 1939 catalogs show a shift from tools to housewares, and the cutlery line, except for Keen Kutter pocket knives, was greatly reduced.
The Simmons assets were sold to Shapleigh in 1940, which replaced “E.C. Simmon’s” with “Shapleigh’s” on the Keen Kutter logo. Shapleigh went out of business in 1959. Many years later, the Keen Kutter trademark emerged again, when the rights were sold to Val-Test Distributors of Chicago. This company discontinued its Keen Kutter line in the 1990s.