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The Evolution of the Kelly Fire Axe

The Kelly Axe companies produced firemen’s axes for at least 60 years, and throughout that period, the stamping, labels, and form of those axes changed with enough of a pattern that the attributes can be used to give an approximate age of the heads when found. At this time, I have not seen an example of or an advertisement for a fire axe from the time the companies were manufacturing out of Indiana or Kentucky, though the “Standard” line, which was typically the line that represented the fireman’s pickhead axe for the companies, existed in both locations, so they may have been produced there as well. With that possibility in mind, I’ll start with a description of the tool in Charleston, West Virginia, as represented in the 1921 catalog of the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company.

As noted previously, the Standard line of axes was not new in 1921, having come onto the scene around 1890. By its time of production in Charleston it was representing axes in all shapes and sizes, single bits, double bit, hatchets, trade hatchets, and, of course, Firemen’s “Pickhead” axes. No size restrictions were noted in the 21 catalog, however, the only other line of Firemen’s axes in that Catalog, the AmericanAx brand, was noted as available in 4, 4.5, 5, 5.5, and 6 pound sizes. As the Kelly Manufacturing Company, who, through stock ownership by its president, “owned” the American Axe and Tool Company at the time, was matching the lines of the “competitive” company at the time, it’s reasonable to assume that the Standard line could be had in at least those sizes, if not more. Interestingly, the A.A. & T. Co. had previously used the Lippincott, Hunt, and Underhill lines to represent their Firemen’s axes, though in the 1921 combined catalog, the company did not have a listing for any of the three. The Kelly line was noted as having a hardened point, a hand tempered bit, a polished pick and bit, a red painted poll, and a red painted handle. The paper label was the soon to be trademarked knight on horseback image with “Charleston, WV” text. Though no mention of a stamp is made in this catalog, examples that are identical in description but including the stamp of “Kelly Axe Mfg. Co, Charleston, WV” have been found. As the company would undergo a name change in 1924, we can assume these were made during this time (between 1905 and 1924).

When the American Axe and Tool Company officially merged with the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company in June of 1924, the lines all came under one ownership. The Firemen’s axes changed slightly in marking, but not some much in marketing. The Standard line continued to represent the company’s Fire Axes, with a similar label, but with the name change noted. The stamp found pressed into the cheeks of those axes was also changed, noting “Kelly Axe & Tool Co., Charleston, WV, USA”. On the opposite side of this stamp, or directly below the other stamping, they also tended to stamp “Forged Steel”.

The company would again merge in 1930, this time with the American Fork and Hoe Company of Cleveland, Ohio. As many know, this would throw the name, and stamp, used on axes to the “Kelly Axe and Tool Works”, or shortened, the “Kelly Works”. The fire axes advertised during this time were paper labeled, and similar to the previous version in numerous ways. Handles and heads were painted red, polls and picks were hardened and polished. No stamp is noted in the catalogs of this time, and heads with Kelly production related markings from this era have been found with no company name stamp at all, simply stamped “Forged Steel”. The 1931 initial catalog under the American Fork and Hoe Company for the Kelly Works notes only the Standard line, however, the large catalog from 1938 adds an additional option of an alternative “Underhill” branding. The former lists available “weights 3 ½ to 8 pounds”, whereas the latter limits the pickheads to 3.5, 4, 4.5, 5, 6, or 8 pounds.

(Kelly Axe and Tool Co pics courtesy Mr. Jimmy Newberry)

Starting in 1940 catalogs for the company began to become significantly more detailed, and pictures of products tended to be much more visible, allowing for better identification. The 1940 catalog itself showed a visible stamp on the Standard Firemen’s Axe that read “True Temper” over “Kelly Works” over “Forged Steel”. Not only did this stamp reflect the company’s full ownership, but it also showed the value the company placed on the Standard line at that time. During this era, low end axes were never marked with “True Temper”, as the slogan was reserved for only “high quality” products. The slogan would hold so much weight to the company’s image with the public that they would change their name to the “True Temper Corporation” in 1949. Lower end lines, such as Jim Dandy, Demon, and Woodslasher, would never be found during this time with “True Temper” on them. Another change that occurred to the line of fire axes (and by this time, the only Firemen’s Axe in the catalog was the “Standard” line variety) was the addition of a “Bus Axe” with a 2.75-pound pickhead. Bus Axes were smaller sized axes that were sold to be placed on buses in case of fire or overturing. They would eventually be found on other forms of transportation as well, but due to the large volume sold for use on buses, the name stuck. It is likely that the inclusion of Bus Axes in the Kelly line up was pushed due to the Evansville Tool Work’s manufacturing of the smaller size, as that company and their firemen’s axe line had also become a part of the American Fork and Hoe in 1936.

Further changes came to the Firemen’s Axe line in 1942. The Standard line dissolved all other items under its name, leaving the Firemen’s Pickhead the only item in the line. Its variety of sizes were decreased as well, and early in the year it was listed as available in only the 4.5-, 6-, and 8-pound sizes, as well as in the Bus Axe size. By the end of the year, the 8-pound version was gone as well. These changes were likely in response to the War Production board’s (formed in January of 1942 in response to the War) manufacturing limitation orders. They were mirrored by the Evansville Works in their “Good Service” line of Firemen’s Axes as well. The labeling and stamp on the heads remain the same, however, with the stamp continuing to show “True Temper” over “Kelly Works” over “Forged Steel”. The trademarked paper label showing the horse mounted knight, Standard name, and Charleston, WV remained similar, with the company re-applying for and receiving the trademark in 1944 under the American Fork and Hoe Company name.

After the end of the war, even with the lifting of the War Production Board’s limitations, the company would stick to the 4.5- and 6-pound head sizes, with the Bus Axe available until around 1950. The next major change to come for the line was the re-design of the stamp included on the head. Just prior to the War, the company had taken to using the “3 Line” pattern of labeling. This design included text in the form of the words “True Temper” in a medium text above a larger text string with the line’s name, all above the medium text of “Kelly Works”. Other lines such as the Black Raven, the Flint Edge, and the Dynamic had sported this theme since the early 40s, and in the early 1950s the Standard Line would join the ranks of the 3 Liner. This would mean losing the trademarked label, but likely decreased production costs as well. By the 1953 catalog, the line would be well pictured with the 3 Line stamp and the Bus Axe would no longer be listed. The 4.5-pound head would disappear by 1957, leaving the once mighty Standard line represented by the 6-pound Firemen’s Pickhead alone.

As the 1960’s came into being, the company itself continued to evolve, and the decrease in overall sales in the axe manufacturing industry further minimized the need for a wide variety of axes. Those lines that remained were assigned catalog numbers, and many of the line names disappeared permanently. This included the “Standard” line, and the name itself likewise disappeared from the axe it had represented. The 6-pound Pickhead Firemen’s axe was still represented in the catalogs of the Kelly Works, but it was now simply called the “True Temper Fireman’s Axe”. It’s catalog code was deemed 60A1W, with the “60” denoting the 6.0-pound weight, and the “1” referring to the fact that the axe was a single bit axe. These portions of the catalog code were repeated in all the represented axes in the True Temper catalogs of the time. The stamp on these axes was “True Temper” over “Kelly Works”, and the heads from around 1960-1968 exhibited the same 6 ridges in the eye as other True Temper axes, and those after would have 4 ridges until they were no longer used by the company.

The evolution of the Kelly Fireman’s Axe over the years of its production is certainly an interesting flow. The changes show just how directly the influences of the economy, Wars, and marketing can be on a product. It also reminds us, as collectors and enthusiasts, that the nuances that we use to date an axe are the way we find them for a reason, not just because the manufacturer made changes randomly. Looking at what was happening in the world at the time of those changes can give us better insight into the axes we love, and also help us appreciate what axes meant to the world at the time they were forged.

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