There are few products so ubiquitous that their names define their product category; almost everyone knows them and owns them. One such product is the crescent wrench, which originated right here in WNY. Karl Peterson, a Swedish immigrant born in Malmo in 1866, founded the Crescent Tool Company in Jamestown in 1902. The company originally focused on pliers, until Peterson received a visitor from Sweden, who described an adjustable wrench, perhaps made by BAHCO, a Swedish company that also made a modern adjustable wrench. The idea certainly was not new, since the original adjustable wrench patent dates to 1857. In any case, the idea of an adjustable wrench piqued Peterson’s interest and he had soon carved a wooden prototype. But the transition to production proved challenging until Emil Johnsson, Crescent’s plant superintendent, designed a machine that could cut the precise slots required for the sliding jaw.
Crescent’s new wrench proved immensely popular both for its unique design and its high quality. It also appeared at the perfect time to complement other innovative American products like the automobile and the airplane. As early as 1908, a Crescent adjustable wrench and pliers were being supplied with every Model-T sold by Ford. Crescent got another boost when Charles Lindbergh was quoted as saying he brought only “gasoline, sandwiches, a bottle of water, and a Crescent wrench and pliers” on his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. A kit of Crescent tools accompanied Captain A.W. Stevens when he established a world balloon altitude record in 1935. It is no wonder that the “crescent wrench” soon became a brandnomer like its contemporaries: Band-Aids, Nylons and Kleenex.
Crescent’s success led to growth, expansion and acquisitions for the company. Forge Shop No. 2 was completed in Jamestown in 1922. Tool maker Smith & Hemenway was acquired in 1926. A 25,000 square-foot plant addition was completed in 1956. Karl Peterson had retired in 1933, but the company was still family owned until 1960 when it was sold to an investment group. Today, Crescent is part of the $1.5 billion Apex Tool Group based in Sparks, Maryland with 25 plants worldwide and approximately 8,000 employees. Apex continues to sell crescent wrenches.
Echoes of Crescent Tool remain in Jamestown. The Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency is housed in the old Crescent plant at the corner of Foote Avenue and Harrison Street. Phoenix Metal is across the street and there are still WNY manufacturers involved in hand tools, including Dynabrade, Filegar and Matco, among others. Some of the company’s wealth remains as well in the Crescent Foundation, now renamed the Karl Peterson Foundation and administered by the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation, which funds the needs of religious and non-profit organizations. And, of course, we all have at least one crescent wrench in our garage…