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The Stanley Companies Pictorial Promotions Circa 1860-1960

Updated: May 15, 2023

Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 62 no. 2, June, 2009

by Roger K. Smith

Brief History of the Stanley Company In 1858, the Stanley Rule & Level Company was formed by the consolidation of the rule business of A. Stanley and Company with the level and try square business of the Hall & Knapp Company, also of New Britain, Connecticut. Stanley continued to expand through the purchase of other firms and adding to its product line. With the purchase of the E.A. Stearns rule business of Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1853, Stanley in-creased its manufacturing base and its reputation for the production of high quality boxwood and ivory rules. In 1869, the small Stanley Rule & Level Co. took another giant step, one that would influence the developments of woodworking tools and the entire woodworking industry for generations to come. The company purchased the metallic plane and spokeshave business of Bailey, Chaney & Co. of Boston, Massachusetts, along with several of Bailey’s patents. Leonard Bailey, founder of the company, moved to New Britain and became head of the plane manufacturing department. (1)

Catalogs, Broadsides, and Other Advertising Prior to 1858, the original A. Stanley & Co. distributed yearly price lists, which had few pages and few, if any, illustrations. The Stanley Rule and Level Co. distributed catalogs for each year from 1859 until 1868. It also distributed a full-color, 12-1/2– by 17-1/4–inch broadside sometime in the mid 1860s (back cover, left ). (2) Although Stanley illustrated some of its main products, i.e. rules and levels, in the broadside, like most other firms of the period, the company wanted to emphasize the size of its factories.

Starting in 1870, Stanley initiated a more aggressive campaign through the distribution of pocket catalogs, broadsides, testimonials, advertising in trade magazines, and exhibitions at industrial trade shows. These efforts were mainly to acquaint carpenters with the new and more efficient iron planes as developed by Leonard Bailey, Justus Traut, Charles Miller, Edmund Schade, and other important inventors employed by Stanley.

In 1870, the company issued its first general catalog that illustrated and priced the Bailey planes. Stanley was way ahead of McDonalds and its hamburgers in announcing the totals of products sold. Its 1871 catalog proudly states that over 6,500 of the new “Bailey” planes were sold. This trend continued with each subsequent catalog issued, listing a new tally until about 1900 when the total reached three million planes sold. These totals did not appear in any subsequent advertising.

Starting about 1870, Stanley had an advertisement in nearly every issue of every trade magazine that was available to carpenters and other mechanics, including Iron Age, Hardware Age, and Carpentry & Building. The ads would change weekly, with each one featuring a different single tool. This marketing strategy has continued through to the present, not just in trade magazines, but popular publications including, on occasion, Time and Newsweek.

Stanley and other tool companies also benefited from some “free” publicity. Magazines such as Carpentry & Building would often illustrate and describe “new tools” in their editorial sections. Of course, the “free” exposure was limited to companies that were advertisers. At any rate, it certainly did not hurt sales.

Starting in 1872, small, 3-by-6-inch pocket catalogs were distributed by the thousands. They could easily be mailed in small envelopes to potential customers in the woodworking trades and given out by hardware stores, but most importantly, would fit in the cardboard box with each plane sold, thus providing an instant “wish list” for the mechanic to think about possible future purchases.

Figure 1. Stanley pocket catalog. “The Imp” shown in the bottom catalogs first appeared in 1888.

The first pocket catalogs were actually 11-1/2- and 13-inch broadsides that folded up to the 3-by-6-inch size. Starting in about 1892 and later, they were separate pages stapled together. Prior to 1888, they were light blue in color. Subsequent issues were white, and those printed circa 1898-1902 had tan covers with off-white pages. In 1888, the whimsical fellow known as “The Imp” was first shown on the front cover of the pocket catalogs and on the rear cover of the general catalogs for 1888, 1892, and 1898 (Figure 1). This fellow was never named by Stanley, but has been called “The Imp” by current collectors and historians. He was shown on the pocket catalog through 1902. We know that the artist was E.A. Johnson, but there is no information in the Stanley files as to how “The Imp” was adopted. Apparently someone at Stanley suggested this fellow to illustrate how fast the Bailey planes, as manufactured by Stanley, were gaining momentum in use and of course sales. (3)

Figure 2. A 13-by-22-inch full-color broadside. Stanley was a pioneer in the use of color in their advertising.

Stanley was one of the pioneers in the use of color in advertising. Its general catalogs for 1888, 1892, 1896, and 1898 had multi-colored covers with a different design for each year. In 1887 and 1888, it distributed a large, 13-by-22-inch, full-color broadside (Figure 2). This may have been mailed in tubes to potential customers of the wood-working trades, distributed at trade shows and through hardware stores. It is quite rare to find one intact, but apparently they were put to use because this writer has observed several tool cabinets at the famous Brimfield, Massachusetts, flea market that have traces of these posters pasted to either the inside back and sides, and even on the backs of the cabinets. They are actually reproductions of the unfolded pocket catalogs of the same date but with the title “Woodworkers Companion” and a factory illustration included in the design. The 1887 poster lists seven hundred thousand planes sold, and the 1888 poster lists eight hundred thousand. As with pocket catalogs, the company’s intent was that they would be hung up in a shop and serve as a wish list for young tradesmen to add tools to their kits and for older tradesmen to replace their tools with the more efficient Bailey planes.

Examples of Stanley’s general catalogs issued prior to 1900 are quite rare, indicating that they were distributed by salesmen only to special customers and hardware stores. These catalogs were not numbered and were issued approximately every four years. It is interesting to note that the prices of planes decreased rather than increased. Due to the higher production and sales, prices could be reduced. In 1900, the price of some planes was about half of what it had been when they were first introduced in 1870.

Figure 3. Stanley catalogs from 1900, 1905, and 1907. Beginning in 1905 Stanley began to number its catalogs “no. 34.” The 1905 and 1907 catalogs also feature Stanley’s trademark—a notched rectangle.

Stanley’s No. 34 Catalog Stanley’s general catalog for August 1900 was designated no. 26. Its catalog for January 1902 was designated no. 28. Sometime in late 1904, it was decided to designate the 1905 issue, and nearly all subsequent general catalogs, as no. 34. (Catalogs were generally printed late in the year prior to the publication date.) There are no records at Stanley to explain the reason. Several years ago, this writer suggested that in 1904, it had been thirty-four years since Stanley had first issued a catalog offering Bailey and other planes in 1870, and someone at Stanley suggested it could commemorate this fact with the no. 34 catalog. No one has offered a better explanation as yet. Except for a few unexplained exceptions—general catalog no. 39 was issued in 1908 and no. 102 was issued in 1909—the designation no. 34 was used on all subsequent general catalogs through 1966 (Figure 3). The no. 34 was also used intermittently from 1969 through 1975 on the larger-size dealer catalogs.

Unlike most companies of the period who distributed free calendars, the Stanley Rule & Level Co. never issued any. However, The Stanley Works of New Britain distributed calendars circa 1910–1919. The examples known feature an attractive lady in fine conservative Victorian dress. The same woman is featured each year, but the color and style of dress is changed. Apparently, the Stanley Rule & Level Co. had decided that the wide distribution of its no. 34 catalog showing all its products was more efficient in promoting sales than a colorful calendar.

Starting in 1905, Stanley became much more liberal in the distribution of the no. 34 general catalog. Thousands of the catalogs were given away. All Stanley advertisements in the trade and family magazines included a statement that anyone could request a free catalog by mail. Hardware stores could have their names imprinted on the cover and distribute them to anyone who asked.

Orange colored pages were used in the 1905 no. 34 catalog only. This color was used to emphasize that Stanley had adopted this new color for its card-board boxes. Prior to about 1900, boxes and labels had been light green. Most all manufactures of tools and hardware used these same colors. Apparently, Stanley decided to have more distinctive packaging. The covers of all no. 34 catalogs from 1905 through 1929 were dark green with white lettering to match the color of the box labels. Obviously, the well-designed packaging would certainly stand out in the hardware stores and create interest in the tool contained within.

The 1905 catalog also features the notched rectangle logo that was to be Stanley’s trademark on tools and in advertising (in various size proportions) up to the present time. It was also the shape of its box labels through the 1950s.

The year 1909 was sort of a renaissance year for Stanley. It introduced many new tools and redesigned others and issued a spectacular catalog of a complete new design with exceptional airbrush illustrations on heavy glossy paper. The general catalog (6 by 9 inches) was designated no. 102. The dealers’ catalog (9 by 12 inches) was designated no. 101 and was an exact enlargement of the no. 102. Both catalogs were printed in a horizontal format.

Figure 4. A Stanley display sign featuring an American Indian chief using a plane. From the collection of Walter Jacob.

The designation no. 34 appeared on Stanley’s general catalog for 1910. At that date, Stanley adopted “Olde English” script in its advertising and on the lettering cast on some planes and other tools that were introduced in that year. It went back to line drawings for its illustrations. However, pocket catalogs issued in 1910 through 1919 have the same airbrush illustrations as the 1909 catalogs. The script and airbrush illustrations were also used on display signs that were distributed for hanging in hardware stores and school shops circa 1910–1919. One card showed American Indians surrounding a chief using a Stanley plane (Figure 4).

Stanley Merger in 1920 Another firm named The Stanley Works had been established in 1843 and co-existed with the Stanley Rule & Level Co. in New Britain. The Stanley Works manufactured builders’ hardware only. Due to many facets of compatibility, it was decided in 1920 that it would be mutually beneficial for the two firms to merge. The new name became the Stanley Rule & Level Plant of the Stanley Works.

Figure 5. Mr. Stanley Worker. From the collection of Walter Jacob.

William H. Hart had been associated with the Stanley Works for more than sixty years when he retired in 1915. About that time, The Stanley Works adopted a new trademark. It was an outline of a heart with S.W.—for Stanley Works—inside it. This trademark was in honor of Mr. Hart, and it was stamped on its hardware and used in all advertisements such as the “Mr. Stanley Worker” counter display (Figure 5).

When the two firms merged in 1920, it was decided to adopt a new trademark to use on the hardware, tools, and in advertising for the new company. A contest was opened to the employees for the new design. The design selected was a combination of the heart logo of the Stanley Works and the notched rectangle used by the Stanley Rule & Level Co. This is known by collectors today as the “Sweet-heart” trademark. This trademark was used continuously until about 1935. All advertising and catalogs printed in 1936 and subsequently show only the notched rectangle. However, the policy of Stanley was always to sell all tools with the trademark until the inventory was depleted before tools with the new trademark were distributed.

Figure 6. A selection of Four-Square displays that hardware stores could use for their window displays.

Stanley introduced its famous “Four-Square” line of tools and trademark in 1923, catering to the growing home craftsmen and homeowner’s market. A classic of early modern American advertising, Stanley launched a nationwide promotion aimed both at the public and hardware dealers. Stanley had full-page advertisements in popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Literary Digest, read by homeowners. Stanley distributed slides for movie houses, streetcar ads, whimsical storefront display figures, and special packaging. This line was discontinued in 1935, a victim of the Great Depression (Figure 6).

Figure 7. Stanley used full-color posters to promote its introduction of tool cabinets and sets.

In 1922, Stanley introduced another trademark that was used in advertising and as a decal applied to planes and other tools. It was a circle of light blue with a yellow border and the notched rectangle in front. In that same year, Stanley distributed a set of six different 13-1/2-by-18-1/8-inch, full-color posters to promote its introduction of tool cabinets and tools in sets (Figure 7).

Figure 8. Stanley adopted the slogan “The Tool Box of America” in 1934.

Stanley adopted another trade-mark and slogan in 1934. It featured a full tool chest with “The Tool Box of America” around the perimeter of a circle (Figure 8). This was used on a multi-colored, 24-by-34-inch poster, imprinted on the rear covers of Stanley’s no. 34 catalog and in other advertisements only. Because of its increased overseas sales activities by 1938, Stanley had changed the slogan to read, “The Tool Box of the World” (back cover, right). Even in its early years, Stanley exported tools. A pocket catalog, dated 1876 and printed in German, is known. Several catalogs from the 1920s and 1930s printed in Spanish and in French have survived.

Figure 9. Counter displays featuring the “Happy Carpenters” were introduced in 1939 and were used with revisions until the early 1950s.

In 1939, Stanley introduced a set of cardboard counter displays featuring the “Happy Carpenters,” each of which is shown using a different Stanley tool. Similar posters with revised features of the big fellows were used in the early 1950s (Figure 9).

Because of Stanley’s concentration on war products during World War II, most of the tool catalogs issued were revisions of the 1940 edition only. However, in 1942, it did issue a special catalog, no. 50, with “Stanley Tools for Victory” on the cover. The tools were made to government specifications. Tools for use in the aircraft industry were emphasized.

In 1947, Stanley issued its first post-war edition of the no. 34 catalog. It had light blue covers. Several types of multi-colored counter displays were distributed during the 1950s. It also offered matchbook covers, featuring different tools that could be personalized with the name of the hardware store.

Figure 10. In 1958, Stanley switched from multi-colored publications to a yellow, black, and white color scheme.

In 1958, Stanley catalog no. 34 had yellow covers with black and white print. This was the beginning of a new advertising campaign with those colors featured in all the advertising including counter displays and magazine ads (Figure 10). The 1960s marked the end of an era. Multi-colored posters, the friendly little “Happy Carpenters,” and other fanciful advertising were eliminated. Perhaps the yellow, black, and white color scheme was eye-catching, but it doesn’t have the same appeal to collectors and historians today and is not included in this study. Whether coincidental or not, it is in this same period that the quality of Stanley’s hand tools diminished, although not through any fault of Stanley. Workers required higher wages, resulting in higher production costs, and consumers demanded lower prices. Something had to suffer. However, Stanley’s high quality and creative catalogs and other promotional material through the late-nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries have left a legacy to admire and appreciate and preserve. (4)

Notes 1. See John Walter’s Stanley Tools Guide to Identity and Value (Marietta, Ohio: Tool Merchant, 1992) for more information on the history of the Stanley Company. 2. The pocket catalogs were approximately 3 inches by six inches. The general catalogs were 6 by 9 inches until after 1900, when the size was 5 by 7 inches. Dealers’ catalogs were 8 inches by 12 inches. Also Stanley used the spelling “catalogue” for many years. However, the spelling “catalog” will be used throughout the text for consistency. Also, Stanley Rule & Level Co. and later variations will be shortened to Stanley, except to define actual facts. 3. It is interesting to note that when the Stanley Tool Collectors Convention was held in Hartford, Con-necticut, in 1993, the president of the company at the time, Stewart Gentsch, was so impressed with the Imps he observed on catalogs in this writer’s collection that the official Stanley Christmas card sent out that year featured The Imp on the cover. 4. Stanley had other promotional advertising for its Defi-ance line, circa 1939 and the Handyman line, circa 1954, but those are not included in this study. The company’s current slogan is “Stanley helps you do things right.”


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