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The Van Doren origin of Kelly Vanadium Hatchets

Vanadium is found on the Periodic Table of Elements at the 23rd spot, and is represented by the symbol “V”. It tends to be a moderately hard, grey, and malleable metal that is rarely found in it’s pure form in nature. First noted by Spanish-Mexican scientist Andrés Manuel del Río in 1801, it was not converted to its purest form until 1867. The name “Vanadium” was given by Swedish Chemist Nils Gabriel Sefström in 1830, stemming from the Scandinavian goddess of beauty and fertility, “Vanadís”.


    By the turn of the century the attributes of Vanadium were well known to manufacturers of steel and steel products, but the heavy use of Vanadium in striking tools would not be seen until the second decade of 20th century. Tools crafted with Vanadium Steel were said to have higher durability as well as a distinct resistance to rusting. These marketable traits left tools of this type at a slightly higher price point, lending to the thought of those tools being “higher quality”.  Vanadium based hatchets and hammers would be marketed by a number of historic American edge tool manufacturers, including Vaughan & Bushnell, Craftsman, and the Kelly Axe and Tool Company. One of the first companies to push these types of tools was the “Van Doren Manufacturing Company” of Chicago Heights, Illinois.


    The Van Doren Manufacturing Company was incorporated in early September of 1906 by William Van Doren Wright, Frank L. Borwell, and Theo A. Shaw, Jr. with $50,000 capital. The group had been manufacturing steel fishing rods at a low capacity for some time prior to that date, but had grown enough of a market following to incorporate and expand into production of hand tools as well. Within 5 years of their initial incorporation, the company was advertising their line of hammers, under the line name “Vandor” (a play on “Van Doren”), across the country. By 1914, the Vandor line was noted as being a Vanadium Steel based line. 


    The Vandor line itself wasn’t all that impressive in its variability. Available in only 4 sizes or models, a Standard, a General Purpose, a Ripping, and a Finishing model, all weighing between 10 and 16 ounces. The heads of these hammers were stamped with “Shield shape” with a stylistic “V D” within, and were supported by a hickory handle that was labeled “Vandor Vanadium”. Each unit was guaranteed by the manufacturer, and they were touted as lasting up to 3 times as long as a standard, non-vanadium, hammer.


   Though the marketing for the company was impressive, the company itself did not seem to be as profitable to shareholders as had hoped, and in September of 1915, the business was broken into 2 sections, the fishing rod portion and the tool section, and sold to competitors. The fishing assets of the companies were transferred to the Richardson Ball Bearing Skate Company of Chicago, and the tool assets were purchased by the American Axe and Tool Company of Glassport, Pennsylvania.


   The American Axe and Tool Company was an interesting time in its history at the time the Van Doren company was acquired. In 1911 the stock of the company had been at an all-time low, and William C. Kelly of the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company, a competitive corporation, had purchased a majority share. Over the next 3 years, as an “outside” stock holder, Kelly had manipulated the business dealings of the company, closing and consolidating unprofitable factions and assisting in gathering the profitable portions as Glassport. In February of 1915, in a final blow to the A.A.&T. Company’s management, James P. Kelly, William’s brother, was placed as the President of the company, while William B. Lockett, William’s brother in law, was placed as general manager of the business. In essence, the Kelly company would now control the American Axe and Tool Company, despite not being able to functionally merge with the competitive business due to political and economic factors. This complex association would leave the Van Doren “Vandor” line, and the assets associated with it, under the control of the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company after September of 1915.


    By the 1921 catalog of the Kelly company, the Van Doren lines had evolved into a new form that retained a few important aspects of their predecessors. A look at the Vanadium hammers in the catalog show a familiar looking handle with an almost identical name, with the exception that “Vandor” had been replaced with “Kelly” in front of Vanadium. The heads now bore a simple stamp noting “Kelly Vanadium”, however, the old “V.D. Shield” design had been found used elsewhere, on a new product. On the page immediately preceding the Vanadium hammers was a page of new products: Vanadium Hatchets. These new hatchets had the same “Kelly Vanadium” handle labels that resembled the older Vandor Vanadium labels, and the heads had a shield etch much like the older “V.D. Shield” form on the preceding companies hammers. However, rather than a simple Van Doren “VD”, these new tools bore an etch of “Kelly Axe Mfg. Co., Kelly Vanadium, Charleston, WVA, USA”. Though a much larger etch for a much more substantial product, the heritage of the line was definitely obvious. Though the Kelly Vanadium hammers were noted as being available in the Van Doren lines, these new hatchets were only available under the Kelly Vanadium line.


    The new Vanadium hatchets would continue with the company with the company until the early 1940s, when it would be discontinued. In 1924, when the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company finally merged with the American Axe and Tool Company to become the Kelly Axe and Tool Company, the Vanadium hatchet etch would change to reflect the new company’s name. However, unlike other lines, when the company merged with the American Fork and Hoe Company, the etch was not changed to reflect the new company name, and simply continued on with “Kelly Axe & Tool Co”. However, the shield design, a lasting testament to the line’s heritage, remain the same until the product was no longer available.

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Unknown member
Apr 05

Great article and explanation of Vanadium and its use in steel. Hard to find a striking tool that wasn't connected to Kelly back then it seems.

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