John Primble & Belknap Hardware
By Leroy Roark
© 2005: all rights reserved, used by permission
While Abraham Lincoln, a Kentuckian, was practising law at Springfield, Illinois; Jefferson Davis, another Kentuckian, was a plantation farmer; before Steve Foster wrote the song “My old Kentucky Home” and before the Civil War; 29-year old William Burke Belknap established Belknap Hardware Company in Louisville, Kentucky.
The year was 1840. Mr. Belknap started his business in a modest three story brick building at Third and Main streets on the Ohio River, next to Louisville’s largest bank, and carried iron, horseshoes and nails along with other standard hardware items of the period. His judgement in picking a location was correct, as steamboats were docking a block away and iron was being smelted twenty five miles south of which kept his operating expense low.
As a young boy, Belknap had been intrigued by steamboats and the way they opened up new trade territory. He also had gained experience with iron ore and furnaces during this time. In 1827, his father paid a visit to General Andrew Jackson (Old Hickory) in Tennessee. While travelling through the Cumberland Mountains, William’s father saw that coal and iron were plentiful and decided to build a furnace there. A memo written by William in1870 said he was instructed by his father to purchase the machinery and equipment for it. “My father preceded the family to Tennessee. In the spring of 1828 I purchased the equipment for the furnace and took it and our family to the landing on the Cumberland River. I made the contracts, disbursed money and attended to the business of building and operating a furnace for two years.”
Between 1840 and 1860, river traffic in Louisville became heavy. At the same time, turnpikes (toll roads of cracked limestone gravel) were opening to Frankfort, Bardstown and Elizabethtown and the rail-roads were also becoming important. America was growing, and so was Belknap Hardware. Pioneer days were passing and a new era was dawning on the new world.
William Burke Belknap, founder of the company, headed it for forty years. His oldest son William R. Belknap succeeded him as president in 1880, and served until 1910 when he gave up the position to become Chairman of the Board. By this time, pocketknives had become one of Belknap’s primary lines, and with good reason – back then, a pocketknife was depended on much more than today. Belknap always carried top quality products; along with their own John Primble India Steel Works and Blue Grass and L.F.& C. knives. One of their trademarks was a shield with the words”Primble – Goods Of Honor” – this was a philosophy of their products and how business should be conducted (a good philosophy for any time). During this period, an illustration in their catalogs showed a well worn John Primble four blade congress pocket knife, with after thirty two years of daily use was still in great working condition. The caption stated the original cost to the owner of $1.50 was less than 5 cents per year!
William Heyburn, an outstanding purchasing agent for the company became Belknap’s Presidentin 1910. He served until 1930, then became Board Chairman. Charles R. Bottorff, who had held many positions in the company became president at that time.
Through the years Belknap had many outstanding employees. In1940, one old timer said he started as a porter in 1880, before W.B. Belknap retired and while W.R. was active in the business operations. The old man stated that that he had spent his life with Belknap Hardware and still held a job in the Purchasing Department. Another was 79 years old and still working in the harness factory at the time. A one hundredth anniversary pamphlet issued that year claimed that Belknap’s complex included twelve buildings under roof on thirty seven acres of land.
An example of Belknap’s evolving with the times was a company Vice President recalling being asked, “What became of the bell on the pole by the kitchen door at the farm?” He replied, “It made me realize how few calls we have for dinner bells now but we did have a large supply of watches, which has become the norm.” Belknap was keeping pace with the times.
One of their famous trademarks on tools and knives was “Blue Grass”, which included a picture of a bell with the word ‘knap’ inside it, standing for Belknap. I once had a antique carpenters level with the Blue Grass emblem and a patent date of Oct. 29, 1912 stamped on the brass plate. I understand that all knives with this trademark were dropped in the 1950s, other than the barlows.
All of Belknap’s trademarks are treasured by lovers of old knives and tools. The one most prefer, myself included, is the John Primble India Steel Works, which is probably the oldest, dating around 1890 to 1940. They were made with a high quality steel imported from India. I have owned several of these through the years and I can say they were all quality top of the line knives. Rumor has it the name John Primble was borrowed from one of their top salesmen; hence the stamping John Primble India Steel Works. These early knives showed the best in workmanship, fit, tolerances, finish and steel. The quality was top notch. While their knives were manufactured on contract by other cutlery companies, it was to Belknap’s high standards and specifications, and the main pasterns have provided a good variety for collectors.
Another of their trademarks was the Jas. W. Price “Pine Knot” which was in existence in the 1930s. Some state the Pine Knot was named for a town in Kentucky, while others say it was for being as tough a a pine knot. the story I have heard on the Jas W. Price name was that he owned a hardware store in Tennessee and had purchased inventory from Belknap. Times got rough and he went broke while still owing Belknap money. Being an honest man, he went to Louisville and offered to work off what he owed. Later, working his way up in the company, the marking Jas W. Price – Pine Knot was named for him.
John Primble Belknap Hdw. & Mfg. Co. was a stamp used in later years from about 1940 to 1968. Knives with this tang stamp were what my Dad carried. I can recall the first time I heard about pocketknife brands; it was at a family homecoming picnic in the 1950s. The men were all sitting around waiting for the big meal being prepared by the ladies and placed on a wagon bed under the big oak trees in the yard. My Grandpa was saying there was no better knife made than a Case (which he normally carried, and had three of four more laid up). Several agreed with him, then my Dad said he carried a John Primble and knew of none better. Then the argument was on, back & forth, about their knives.
In 1968 the stamp was shortened to Belknap Inc. Collectors can date this by a Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper article published in July of 1968. It stated, “Louisville’s Belknap Hardware and Manufacturing Co. is no more. The company hasn’t gone out of business, but its stockholders yesterday approved the change of the company name to Belknap Inc.” The reason given for the change was that U.S. Fair Packaging & Labeling Act had disallowed abbreviations of firm names, and Belknap’s whole name was simply too long to put on small items.
Other stamps used on the firm’s knives include J. PRIMBLE BELKNAP GERMANY in about 1955 and BLUE RIBBON CUT CO. from 1910 to 1952.
One of the largest and oldest hardware companies which marketed knives, Belknap outlasted all the major hardware companies of the era such as Simmons Hardware, Shapleigh Hardware, Hibbard, Spencer & Bartlett, Van Camp, Witte and even a competitor in Louisville by the name of Robinson Brothers, which may be subjected for a later article. Belknap finally closed their doors in 1985.
Some of Belknap’s trademarks have been purchased by a company called Blue Grass Cutlery Inc., the same firm that produces the popular Winchester knives. Thus, the trademarks still live and the legend continues. In the years since Belknap’s demise, all their knives, including the later Belknap Hdw. & Mft. Co. and Belknap Inc. marked items, have become ever more sought after by collectors. And when you look closely as them, it’s easy to see why!
This article was published in the January 2005 issue of Knife World Magazine. Visit Knife World’s website when you get a chance and subscribe to their great publication. Also make sure to leave them a comment for recognizing Mr. Roark’s great work. (Their email address and phone number is on the bottom of their home page.)
We would like to extend a special thanks to Mr. Roark for allowing us to post this article here.