Article Contributed by
Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist
The Crescent Tool Company was one of the premier industries in Jamestown when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, and in their 2004 book Jamestown, Currie and Crocker referred to this company that had been established in 1907 by Karl Peterson, a Swedish immigrant from Malmo, as “’one of the crown jewels of Jamestown’s industry.’”
Among the many hand tools that were manufactured by Crescent Tool was the practical and popular crescent wrench, whose origin has an interesting history. How much folklore has crept into this history is hard to tell, but the story goes something like this. Karl Peterson received a visitor from Sweden who described an adjustable wrench. It could very well have been the work of Swedish inventor and industrialist Johan Petter Johansson who invented the adjustable spanner and plumber wrench. The idea appealed to Peterson, and he carved a wooden model based on the visitor’s description. The concept of an adjustable wrench was not new in 1907; in fact, the original adjustable wrench patent dates to 1857. But apparently Peterson knew a good thing when he saw it, so he and company engineers figured out how the wrench could be produced efficiently. One of the major problems was cutting the precise slots for the sliding jaw, and Crescent’s plant superintendent, Emil Johnsson, is credited for designing a machine that could do exactly that.
The Crescent wrench was extremely popular for its design and high quality, and it hit the market at a time when America was producing automobiles and later airplanes that required maintenance by mechanics who had this perfect hand tool at their disposal. It has been recorded that by 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’ with him on his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic.” The popularity of the brand name Crescent wrench became known over time simply as the crescent wrench or just crescent, taking its place beside other well-known brand names, such as Kleenex, Band-Aid, and Xerox, that indicated all such products that met similar needs as the original.
In addition to its line of pliers and adjustable wrenches, the company developed a folding screwdriver that doubled as a light-weight hammer and auto wrenches. Its physical plant expanded to include Forge Shop No. 2 in 1922, the acquisition of tool maker Smith & Hemenway in 1926, and the addition of a 25,000 ft. plant that was completed in 1956. In 1930 Crescent developed a line of alloy steel pliers and wrenches under the Crestoloy brand, a registered trademark.
Karl Peterson passed away on June 20, 1933, whereupon the company was taken over by his son Marvin L. Peterson. The Crescent Tool Company was family owned until 1960 when it was purchased by a group of investors and became the Crescent Niagara Corporation. In 1968 Crescent Niagara was acquired by the Cooper Industries conglomerate, and the Crescent brand continued as part of the Hand Tools division of Cooper. Some time after this acquisition, the Crescent plant at the corner of Harrison and Foote Avenue closed. Crescent is now part of the Apex Tool Group in Sparks, Maryland with 25 plants worldwide and approximately 8,000 employees. Apex still continues to sell crescent wrenches.
My personal familiarity with the Crescent Tool Company was through my father, Tony Cusimano, who worked there from about 1942 to 1969. Those war years were one of the company’s busiest times as it turned out tools that found their way into the hands of mechanics and machinist mates in every part of the world where U.S. Armed Forces were serving during WW II. When the June 10, 1945, tornado hit Jamestown, we were still at war with Japan. Because Crescent Tool was one of the war plants in this country and it had sustained much damage from the storm, the War Department wanted the plant up and running quickly. Skilled men answered the call to repair the plant so that the production of essential products for the war effort could continue, and Crescent Tool was in operation within a day or so.
The Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency is now housed in the old Crescent plant, and the Crescent Foundation that was renamed the Karl Peterson Foundation administered by the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation funds religious and non-profit organizations. The Peterson and Crescent names are still a palpable part of Jamestown’s history. Think on that when you pick up that crescent wrench from your tool box, your garage shelf, or your basement work bench!