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The Birth of the Kelly Perfect Axe

By 1885, the axe manufacturing factory of W.C. Kelly and Company had been producing axes out of Portland, Kentucky, for over 10 years. They had come to be known as a profitable local business that prided itself on innovation, and had been one of the first local industrial facilities to have electric lighting. The company had become quite profitable due to the sale of their popular “Kelly Axes”, and had had moderate success with their “Granger” line of axes as well. However, the axe industry had grown substantially over the previous 5 years, and competitive pressures were now influencing the growth of the company. The new “fad” that other edge tool manufacturing companies were adding to their axes were indentations and cutouts in the faces of their axes. These areas and beveled sections were thought to decrease the surface area of the steel or iron imbedded in the wood chopped by the axe, allowing for an easier removal of the blade after it became imbedded in the flesh of the tree. Numerous other companies, such as the Underhill Edge Tool Company of Nashua, New Hampshire, and Hubbard and Bakewell of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were marketing these modified versions of axes and had done quite a good job at it. Determined to keep up with these competitors, the Kelly Company’s President and General Manager, William C. and James P. Kelly, took steps to design and patent their own “beveled” axes. Both well versed at mechanical design and patent work, as their father was an inventor as well, they came up with numerous designs aimed at the creation of a distinctly different beveled axe. Around early spring of 1885, they began to produce and sell axes with “triangular-shaped” indentations extending from the bit to the back of the blade. These axes, at the time were just known as “Kelly Axes”, and were likely simply stamped with the Kelly name and “Louisville, Ky”. In order to protect their designs, the Kelly brothers submitted numerous patents, the first that would hold importance to the mentioned line being submitted on April 3rd, 1885. Officially accepted and registered on September 29th, 1885, patent number

327,275 would protect this new design and allow the company to market their own beveled axe.

Much like other axe manufacturing facilities of the time, the factory of W.C. Kelly and Company had a tendency towards fires, and in late 1885, the factory burned to the ground. It was not the first fire to cause a loss of capital at the location, and along with being a poor area in which to deal with conflagration, the area in Portland, a suburb community of Louisville, was also not directly located along the main shipping lines of the local railroad. As the company recovered from the destructive fire of 1885, the decision was made to rebuild in Louisville proper, as well as to reorganize the company to increase the capital stock from $50,000 to $100,000. To these ends, the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company was officially formed on January 4th of 1887, and its new factory would be located along the rail lines at 16th and Arbegust Streets in west Louisville. The main focus of the new company was to diversify and produce the new line of beveled axes. Despite the Portland factory’s fire and the decision to work towards building a new facility for manufacturing, the W.C. Kelly and Company continued to produce their new axe on a small scale at the repaired factory while the new one was being constructed. In 1886, the company was still producing their beveled axe, and it was being advertised in the local media in ana around Louisville. Stilled called the “Kelly Axe” or “Kelly’s Axe”, numerous advertisements of the time noted its quality. One such advertisement, by a local grocer and dry god dealer, “Chiles, Thompson, and Co.” out of Mount Sterling, Kentucky, is of particular interest due to its wording. “Do Not Steal. But buy Kelly’s STEEL axe. It is the most perfect axe made……”. There is no verification that this is the origin of the name of the soon to be well recognized line of axes. However, the advertisement was first published in December of 1886, and ran through the winter and spring of 1887, immediately before the use of the word “Perfect” as an official name for the axe.

The new factory was much better equipped to handle both fires and a higher rate of axe production, and by the end of 1887 had begun to put out a visibly different version of the company’s beveled axe. This new version used the patented “Kelly Bevels”, and was composed of a mild steel body with a harder, tempered steel bit, much like other axes of the time. The cheek of the axe head was highly decorated, though, setting it apart and making it highly recognizable. Along with significant scroll work in the corners of the axe’s cheek face, the name “W.C. Kelly” was stamped along the poll edge of the cheek. Beneath that was an elaborately stamped line of text in bold lettering that noted “Perfect Axe”, with the initial “P” and the final “E” separate, enlarged, and detailed to match the scroll work around them. Below the enlarged lettering of the axe’s name was the arched line “Patented Sept. 29th 1885”, memorializing the registration of patent 327,275, the patent for the bevels used on the axe. Following and below the patent date was a simple “Made By” over a more ornate “Kelly Axe Mfg. Co. Louisville, KY”.

Initial advertisements for the Perfect Axe showed the Kelly’s patented design with the beautifully etched face starting in 1888. “Kelly’s Perfect Axe” was noted in publications with enough detail that in the following years, a change to the etch was apparent. These axes, noted in advertisements in late 1889 through 1892, continued to have the “triangular” bevels noted in the original patent, but had 2 significant changes to their etch. The first of these was a simplification of the ornate “P” and final “E” in “Perfect Axe”. These letters were now more continuous with the flow of the rest of the words, and lacked the ornate flourish of the original design. The second was the addition of twos more lines of text in the form of “Kentucky”, which replaced the “KY” in the previous version, and “U.S.A” below it. The date of “Sept. 29th 1885” remained unchanged, showing that, up until that point, no changes to the beveled design had been made.

The new axe design was functional and beautiful, but internal documents, as well as correspondences with distributors, noted troubles with the manufacturing process. The main issue seemed to be the bevel forging process. The addition of a harden steel bit along with the forging and grinding process of the softer poll left inconsistencies in production quality. To make the process easier and more cost effective, the Kelly company redesigned the production of the polls they would use to make their “Perfect Axe”. On June 27th of 1888 W.C. Kelly submitted patent applications for two new designs, one for a new die design for polls of beveled axes and the second a design for the polls themselves. The drawings added to each of the new patent applications distinctly showed the bevels that were results of the new designs, and were relatively self-explanatory in the way that they would allow for better production of the bevel axe heads they were designed for. Both applications were officially registered as patents on February 5th of 1889 as patents number 397,368 and 397,369.

Two weeks after the acceptance and official registration of the new poll and die design, on February 19th, 1889, W.C. Kelly would again submit a set of applications for patents, this time for an axe design, a die for making the design, and a process to make that axe. The design was a culmination of the previous 3 patents: number 327,275’s bevel design idea, the improved poll production design of patent 397,368, and the use of the die design in patent number 397,369. Patent number 19,056 for W.C. Kelly’s new axe was formerly approved and registered on April 23rd, 1889, and the die and process by which that axe would be produced were approved as a registered patents 402,936 and 402, 937 soon thereafter on May 7th.

With the inception and use of this new patented design came a need to solidify the rights to name that was being used for what had now become the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company’s flagship product. The popularity of the design had become apparent, and the factory at 16th and Arbegust had been focusing its production on a wide range of “Perfect” axes and hatchets since it opened in 1887. To protect this newfound bit of visual marketing, the company filed for a trademark of the etch that they had been using on the Perfect Axe on February 12th,1890. However, the image used in the trademark application was notably different than the originally advertised axes. The axes pictured on the application had noticeably “rounder” bevels, much like those pictured in the new patents from 1889. Verifying this was a change to the patent date shown in the axe’s etch. The new dates were April 23rd and May 7th, the registration dates of patent 19,056, 402,936, and 402,937. This new axe design and etch would be noted on the Kelly “Perfect Axe”, from then on.

Between 1887 and the end of 1891, the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company focused so directly on the production of the Perfect Axe, that their customer base soon began to mention the lack of more economically priced products. Though their Perfect line had grown to include hatchets, full sized axes in numerous “standard” patterns, Turpentine or Boxing axes, specialty double bits such as the California Felling pattern, and even the gigantic “Asphaltum” axe for crushing asphalt, they were being outsold by a wide range of lower priced competitor options. The response from the company in early 1892 was widely advertised in trade journals as: “To The Hardware Trade. Gentlemen- You will probably be solicited soon to place your contract for axes, and we beg to say you are perhaps aware that hitherto we have manufactured only our Kelly Perfect Axes, but owing to assurances from many of our friends that if we would make all kinds of axes they would give us their entire order, we some time ago decided to enlarge out works with this object, and we now take pleasure in notifying you that we have completed improvements which give us the largest and best equipped axe factory in existence……… …….We have something new in axes this season, and it will be decidedly to your interest to buy no axes until you have seen our new goods.”

This announcement came in the form of a 2-page advertisement, and included not only a picture of the Perfect Axe with the newest etch, but also a large image of the all new “Kelly Standard” Axe. This first look at one of the company’s new lines would be followed with the introduction of such other lines as the Vulcan and the Falls City, allowing for a financial gradient of products of different value. However, the Kelly Perfect Axe would remain as the highest end offering the company would produce in Louisville.

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Unknown member
Jul 24, 2023

Thank you Michael, fantastic information as always!

Unknown member
Jul 24, 2023
Replying to

Glad you enjoyed the read! This will be the first 6 pages on the chapter on the "Perfect" in my next book, so hopefully there will be tons of more good info as well!

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