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 S...

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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Alloy Artifacts

Alloy Artifacts

A tool collectors’ dream, this site is a deep repository of photos and info on 20th century hand tools and the co… [read review or visit site]

Old Woodworking Machines

Old Woodworking Machines

This collective website, which started as an online discussion forum, now also includes a large database of manufac… [read review or visit site]



Josh and Cam Larios have created this site enabling people to upload and 'tag' photos of historic or artistic manho… [read review or visit site]

A Millers Falls Home Page

A Millers Falls Home Page

Randy Roeder has carved out a niche for himself with his fine website devoted to the history of the Millers Falls C… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Ec Simmons Keen Kutter Jack Knife Beautiful Green Bone Rare 1868Vintage Pocket Knife Lot 13 Total - Keen Kutter, Remington, Kabar, HammerAntique Bone Handled Pocket Knife: Keen Kutter; 2 Blade; Keen Kutter On BolsterVintage Keen Kutter Hatchet Axe Hammer Polished Custom Handle Boy Scout Style Vintage Rare E.c. Simmons Keen Kutter Paperweight Ax Hatchet 1880 -1904 PromoE.c. Simmons Keen Kutter Cutlery & Tools Hatchet With Nail Puller Usa Vintage Vintage Keen Kutter Jumbo Jack Knife Amazing Condition EbonyKeen Kutter 92 Folding Stag Handled Pocket KnifeVintage 1869-1969 Keen Kutter Schrade Walden 3 Blade Folding Knife Bone HandleVintage Pocket Knife Keen Kutter Hawkbill Blade Ebony Wood 1870-1940Vintage Keen Kutter Draw Knife, Woodworking Tool, 10 In. BladeAntique Straight Razor Keen Kutter 88 Simmons Hardware High Quality BladeKeen Kutter 884 Stockman In Good Condition Good Snap Yellow Comp. Keen Kutter Grand Daddy Barlow Knife K1771 3/4Vintage Keen Kutter K3289 Serpentine Jack KnifeVintage Pocket Knife; Keen Kutter; Shapleigh 1940-60; 3 Blade Stockman Usa Keen Kutter K1869 100th Anniversary Not A SchradeKeen Kutter K15 Straight Edge Razor W/box Lot#tb-101Celluloid Advertising Pinback. Keen Kutter. E.c. Simmons, St. Louis U.s.a.Vintage Lot Of 18- Folding Knives Broken - Robeson, Keen Kutter, & MoreShapleigh Keene Cutter Advertising Pencil Tool & Knife Company Cutlery Hardware!Antique Keen Kutter Gimlet Auger DrillOld Keen Kutter 2-blade Folding Pocket Knife Mop Handle W/etched AluminumVintage Keen Kutter Hatchet Axe With Wooden Handle Made In U.s.a. 15" Long Stanley & Keen Kutter CuttersAntique Simmons Hardware Keen Kutter Cream Separator Liberty Lantern Order BookVintage Keen Kutter Pattern 801 Daddy Barlow 1 Blade KnifeKeen Kutter Cutlery Tools Logo Printers BlockAssorted Pocket Knives. Lot Of 8, Includes A Keen Kutter And A Robeson. Lot2Vintage Keen Kutter 02238 Pearl Celluloid With Waterfall Dogleg Pocket KnifeVintage Ec Simmons Keen Kutter Junior Safety Razor Orig Box W/bladesLot Of 3 Fixed Blade Knives Case Keen Kutter Knife Vintage Wood HandleVintage Lot Of Keen Kutter Tools Embossed Hatchet Wrench Curved Sissors HammerVintage Antique Mitchell;s Flexible Keen Kutter Razor Blades 18 Mint In BoxLot Of 8 Vintage Hand Saw Handles & Hardware--4 Disston, W.s., Keen Kutter Old 14&7/8" "keen Kutter" E.c. Simmons Butcher KnifeKeen Kutter K 6 Adjustable Wrench Shapleigh'sCast Iron Ec Simmons Keen Kutter Cutlery & Tools Advertising Match HolderVintage Keen Kutter Model Kk 25 Electric Sander Rare Original Box/ Inst WorkingVintage Keen Kutter 13 1/2" Butcher Or Chef's Knife With Nice Stag Handle Vtg Keen Kut Hand Cheese Slicer , Aluminum Kitchen Gadget Kutter Cutter Knife Antique Keen Kutter Wooden Silverware Box W/ 2 KnivesAntique Keen Kutter Brick Hammer, Vintage Carpenters ToolVintage Keen Kutter Straight Razor With Box E.c.simmons Zebra Wood Large Stockman Pocket Knife Keen Kutter Free Shipping UsaE.c. Simmons Keen Kutter 1150 Straight Razor W/ Original Box--antiqueE.c.simmons Keen Kutter Knives