Pages Navigation Menu

George W. Korn & J.B.F. Champlin

By Derek Smith,
(This article first appeared in Feb 2013 issue of Knife World Magazine.  This revised and expanded version is used here with permission). 

 

The history of American knife manufacturing in the late 1800s is filled with the names of many ambitious and hard working men, each of whom left their own mark on the ever changing industry as they attempted to carve out a living and get ahead in life.

At first glance the names of these two industrious gentlemen, JBF Champlin and George W Korn might seem a bit obscure to the average collector, but the influence of these quiet giants in the American Cutlery trade went anything but unnoticed.

Both Korn and Champlin have been recognized for their individual achievements and much has already been written about the separate endeavors of each man, however few collectors realize that these two fellows were also close friends and deeply involved in each other’s business affairs.

Before we look at how they worked together let’s look back and quickly review what we know about each fellow’s history and accomplishments.

JBF Champlin ~ Traveling Salesman, Entrepreneur, Visionary

Without the influence of the very likeable John B.F. Champlin we may never have heard the familiar names of several great knife making companies such as Cattaraugus Cutlery, Case Brothers, WR Case & Son, Little Valley Knife Association or Kinfolks, just to name a few.

After working more than 16 years on the road as one of the industry’s most successful cutlery salesmen, JBF Champlin could have easily retired at the ripe old age of 40. Instead he established his own cutlery firm in his hometown of Little Valley, NY, hoping to stimulate the local economy and provide young men in the area with a chance for employment.

Champlin Opera House circa 1891

Champlin Opera House circa 1891

In 1879 he began construction of the Champlin Opera house.  Once the building was complete in 1880, he set up his offices on the ground floor.

 

It wasn’t long before the new jobbing firm of J.B.F. Champlin had a team of skilled and successful salesmen on the road.  Early on, that included three of his wife’s brothers, W.R. (who went by Willie), John and Jean Case.  The exact timing is not clear, but it appears by 1882 the name of the firm had officially been changed to J.B.F. Champlin & Son.  What we do know is, that when his son Tint Champlin turned 15 years old in August of 1881, he came to work full time with his father. It wasn’t until 1885 or 86, that the Case brothers joined the team.

JBF’s wife Theresa Mary Case, had long encouraged him to include her brothers in a business venture.  After all they were family and, had been close all those years he was on the road selling for other firms. As such, they were not unfamiliar with his line of work.  Theresa was eager to see them prosper and do well as she and JBF had.

With the Case brothers on board, JBF’s family business continued to flourish and expand.  As early as February 1885 they were working under the new name of Cattaraugus Cutlery.  The company was officially incorporated in Feb. of 1887 with the following 7 people listed as directors: J.B.F. Champlin, Theresa Champlin, Tint Champlin, Jean Case, John D. Case, Hannah L. Kuehl, and W.R. Case.  The familiar name of Andy J. Case also appears on the documents, but not as a director.

The Case brothers did not stick around for long, and as they say, “the rest is history”. Much has been written about their history and endeavors by other authors.

George William Korn~ Inventor and Importer.

George W. Korn’s name is firmly fixed in the knife history books due to his early patents of two American switchblades.  Of course they were not called switchblades in those days, he simply called his first knife a “Fly-Opener”.

Korn's 1883 Patent

Korn’s 1883 Patent

Patented on March 13, 1883 it is unlikely that this first simple knife was ever produced as none are known to exist.  What makes this knife significant however is the timing.  This was only the second patent ever to be awarded in the US for what we now refer to as an automatic knife.  This predates George Schrade’s first switchblade patent by almost 9 years.

Later the following year on Oct. 21, 1884 Korn was issued a second patent that he said was  “a new and useful improvement in Fly-Open Knives”.  To compare the patent drawings side by side, one would hardly call this new knife a simple “improvement” since the 2 designs look dramatically different.

The second knife is larger and has aesthetic thumb guards with curves that are reminiscent of French “Le Fleur de lys”. It also sports a saber ground clip blade and has the look and feel of a fancy folding hunter, while the first knife is plain looking with a simple spear blade designed for every day use.

Korn 1884 Patent

Korn 1884 Patent

The one thing both knives have in common is that the release mechanism on each design acts something like a child’s teeter totter.  As you push one end down, the other end rises up, and in doing so lifts a pin that releases the spring loaded blade.  In the first design, this mechanism resides on the side of the knife and looks like a long shield or ornament, while in the second knife, the bolster is the moving part that rocks in order to release the blade.

 

Photo, thumb and knife courtesy of Myron Tupa.

Photo, thumb and knife courtesy of Myron Tupa.

These rocking bolster knives were available in handles of genuine mother of pearl, natural stag and what appears to be hard rubber.  (Some collectors have suggested these handles are Gutta-percha).  The intricate handles depict hunting scenes with a man and his dogs.  There is also a stylized letter “K” adjacent to the bolster.

 

 

 

Knife photos courtesy of Myron Tupa

Knife photos courtesy of Myron Tupa

These knives are most commonly marked “Korn’s Patent” on one side of the tang and “Criterion Quality” on the other.  There are knives with other markings out there as well.  There is also a smaller variation of the rocking bolster knife for every day use that has no guard.

Today Korn knives in any condition are very rare and highly sought after by collectors who appreciate early switchblade knives.  The term “Holy Grail” easily comes to mind.

 

When it comes to tracking down the history of George W. Korn’s life, he’s a bit of a slippery fish.  He traveled extensively and in the course of his career lived in at least four US cities.  He had some connection to manufacturing in each location and was not shy when it came to creating business opportunities using his patented designs.  (See photos at the end of the article for more on this).  Even when living in Chicago, it appears that he kept a permanent mailing address in New York City.

He was born on May 22nd, 1846 in Breslau, Prussia (That city is now called Wroclaw, Poland) and immigrated to the United States from Hamburg, on Feb. 20th 1866 when he was 19 years old. The US Census of 1870 enumerates a 25 year old, George W. Korn working as a farm laborer in a town near Rochester, NY. (It is possible that this Census is referring to a different man).

We learn from his obituary in the American Cutler Magazine that shortly after his arrival in the US he became associated with Walbridge & Co. in Buffalo, NY. Walbridge & Co. was a mercantile firm that sold just about everything in hardware, tools and cutlery that one could imagine. Not to mention guns, sporting goods, home furnishings, and toys.  (Many years later Korn stated that he got into the cutlery trade about 1873. It is quite probable that Korn was introduced to cutlery while working with Walbridge in Buffalo).

The same obituary goes on to tell us he was later associated with Alfred Field & Co. in New York City.  According to Goins, Alfred Field & Co. had additional offices in Sheffield, Liverpool and Birmingham, England as well as Solingen, Germany. Alfred Field & Co. were exporters and importers of hardware and cutlery from America, England, France and Germany. They also had their own line of American made pocketknives marked “A. Field & Co. Progress”.  According to Goins and others, they also used the “Criterion” trademark. This is a little confusing in light of the fact that Korn scissors and knives exist that are marked “H. Cromwell” over “Criterion”.  (See photos below). “H. Cromwell” was another importer of hardware and cutlery based in New York City.

Korn traveled extensively in his work as an importer and merchant, but he was also an inventor and businessman.  A newspaper clipping from the Cattaraugus Republican, dated Jan 17th 1890, sheds a great deal of light on his endeavors, and it is our earliest public record of Korn and Champlin doing business together.

“-Mr. And Mrs. Geo. Korn of New York were last week entertained by J.B.F. Champlin.  Mr. Korn is the buyer of all the imported goods for the Cutlery Company, and travels in Germany about six months a year.  We learn that Mr. Korn recently purchased the stock owned by A.T. Fancher in this company, and is therefore interested in seeing the company do its best.”  (The “Cutlery Company” referred to above is Cattaraugus Cutlery).

It is of interest to point out that Mr. Korn’s wife Pauline O. Pribyl was born in the US and was about 18 years younger than he.  Korn wanted to ensure she was well groomed in proper German etiquette so she would fit comfortably into his business and social circles while traveling. Consequently he arranged for her to have extensive training in Europe before they were married so she would have the practiced manners of a traditional German wife.

If one goes to the trouble to research a few old passenger lists on the Internet, it is easy to discover George W. Korn’s name on manifests as he steamed back and forth across the Atlantic. His young wife Pauline accompanied him more often than not.  (Please note:  After investing many hours of internet research, this author has not been able to discover any passenger lists or passports that document JBF ever leaving the country).

In 1888 George W. Korn along with A.H. Saxton of Alfred Field & Co. testified before the Senate Subcommittee on the Tariff.  As importers, they were strongly opposed to any new increase in taxes on the items they were bringing into the country.  Especially knives and razors from Germany and England.   In the long run, the Committee was not persuaded and the Tariffs were eventually increased.

It’s ironic to look back now, and see how dramatically that change in tariff affected everyone involved in the world of cutlery production. Both in Europe and the US.  In the long run it provided much needed opportunity for Americans like JBF Champlin who created his own manufacturing facility about 1890, but it had negative effects on those working overseas.  As the demand for European products declined many skilled cutlery workers from England and Germany picked up their families and moved across the Atlantic looking for work and opportunity in the US.

The tariff legislation significantly affected Korn’s work as an importer.  For many years he had been a buyer of German goods for prosperous US jobbing firms like JBF Champlin and others. It wasn’t long before Champlin and similar companies were producing their own lines of high quality goods, and were no longer in need of imported products from Europe.

In the May of 1900 after raising $25,000 in start up capital, the “George W. Korn Razor Manufacturing Company” was incorporated in Little Valley, NY.  The initial directors listed were James E. Norton of Salamanca and George W. Korn of Chicago.

In November that same year an expert machinist from England arrived to supervise the installation of the English made manufacturing machinery in the building. In a local newspaper, Korn is recorded as saying that he expected the factory to produce a staggering 90 dozen razors per day.

2 Little Valley Factories

2 Little Valley Factories

The new factory was established right next door to JBF Champlin’s Cattaraugus Cutlery, Factory No. 2.  The two factories not only shared a close proximity to each other but were soon to share key management personnel as well.   A. E. Darrow, E.E. Kelly, Tint Champlin and JBF Champlin all served as directors of both companies, and were also stockholders in each.  E.E. Kelly had been a key salesman for Cattaraugus for many years and eventually became the head of Korn Razor.

Photo courtesy of Cattaraugus County Museum

Photo courtesy of Cattaraugus County Museum

By the fall of 1900 George W. Korn was 54 years old and JBF Champlin 59. Both were seasoned veterans of the cutlery trade, each with many years of experience, plus they each held stock in the other’s corporation.  With so much in common it’s no big surprise to learn that they were also fast friends and had been for years.  Family history has it that they played cards together some evenings with their wives and that JBF considered George W. Korn to be a great help to his business and a personal ally.  So much so, that in Feb. of 1896 when his daughter was born, he named her Pauline, after George’s wife.

Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building 1901

Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building 1901

The massive Pan American Exposition was held in Buffalo, NY in 1901.  Exposition records show that Geo W. Korn Mfg Co. and Cattaraugus Cutlery shared the exact same booth address inside the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building.  Korn won a Bronze Medal in the Manufacturing division and Cattaraugus won a Silver Medal for their exhibit.

This was undoubtedly a heady and enjoyable time for these two fellows. The Exposition was huge, on the same scale as a World’s Fair.  It lasted 6 months and had eight million visitors. The Expo featured displays of the latest inventions and developments from the best companies from all over the country.  Our friends Korn and Champlin were right there in the middle of it.

Library of Congress

Pan Am Expo, Library of Congress

Ironically President William McKinley, who had championed the tariffs that had such a dramatic impact on both their lives, was assassinated during the Expo.  He was shot on Sept. 6th inside the Temple of Music building, just a few hundred yards from their own display.

The golden years of their friendship ended abruptly with the untimely death of JBF Champlin in 1903.  His passing was a blow to the entire village as well as friends and family.  The following partial clipping from The Randolph Register shows how closely JBF’s and Korn’s companies were working together at the time of his death.

The Korn Razor Manufacturing Company is another of the enterprising and interesting concerns of the village and while it is under a separate name and management its interests are so closely blended with those of the Cattaraugus Cutlery company as to make them practically identical.  The stockholders of the latter are among the principle share owners of the former company and the Cutlery concern, handles the larger part of the output of the razor factory”.

Tint Champlin, had been in charge of the day to day management of Cattaraugus Cutlery for several years prior to the time of his father’s passing.  As Tint assumed his father’s position of President, the transition within the company was relatively seamless.  Consequently Cattaraugus and Korn Mfg. continued to enjoy their close and prosperous working relationship for many years.

In their day, JBF Champlin and Geroge W. Korn had both been innovators.  They were also civically minded and very interested in seeing the standard of living for their entire community improve.  They were active Masons as well.   They were undoubtedly the good guys in the white hats.

In closing I have to admit that I have many more questions about these two fellows and their lives than I have answers.  They have only left us with a thin “bread crumb” trail of clues to decipher and sift through.  One of my favorite questions is did Korn ever show JBF any of those amazing switchblade knives and if so, why didn’t JBF manufacture any?

 

Acknowledgements:  The author would like to offer a special thank you to Faith Henry.  As young woman Faith spent many hours in the Little Valley home of Pauline Korn  (George Korn’s widow). Faith & her sister Shirley Allard have gone to great lengths to preserve the history of the Champlin family.  Faith’s accounts have been invaluable in putting this and other histories together.

Faith H. and Kimberly Champlin Hunter 2005

Faith Henry and her cousin, Kimberly Champlin Hunter 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Myron Tupa and Doug Growitz are also thanked and acknowledged for kindly sharing their understanding of Korn’s knives and history.

Bernard Levine also deserves recognition for suggesting that online genealogy and vintage newspaper sites might prove to be productive resources in this research.  He was right!

Derek smith is interested in corresponding with anyone who has additional information regarding the early careers of either of these men.  He can be reached at: ds@dereksmith.com

 

doll_photo1

German doll purchased by George W. Korn

 

 

Also worth mentioning,…

While visiting  Germany in 1906, Geroge W. Korn purchased this doll as a gift for JBF’s daughter Pauline.  The Champlin family had the doll restored in the early 1970’s.  The doll’s new dress was fashioned from one of Pauline Champlin’s favorite dresses that she wore as a  young woman. It is reported that Korn also brought home a doll for Pauline’s sister Hannah, but this is the only one to have survived.

 

 

Here are a few markings on Korn products that chronicle some of the companies that George W. Korn did business with in the course of his career.

Korn button hole scissors with Sears mark.

Korn button hole scissors with Sears mark.

 

This par of scissors could easily indicate that JBF and George Korn were doing business together before JBF added the “& Son” designation to his company name.  The number in the familiar parallelogram corresponds with the US patent number awarded to Korn in 1881 for his button hole scissors.

Korn button hole scissors with JBF Champlin mark.

Korn button hole scissors with JBF Champlin mark.

 

Korn button hole scissors marked H. CROMWELL CRITERION

Korn button hole scissors marked
H. CROMWELL CRITERION

 

Korn Cork puller marked Henry Sears & Son 1865

Korn Cork puller marked Henry Sears & Son 1865, knife courtesy Myron Tupa

 

Another cork puller, but this one is marked H.CROMWELL CRITERION, cork puller courtesy of Myron Tupa.

Korn cork puller marked H. CROMWELL over CRITERION

Korn cork puller marked
H. CROMWELL over CRITERION

 

Two of these knives are marked “CRITERION QUALITY” on the one side of the tang with “KORN’S PATENT” on the other.  The middle knife is marked “EDWARD ZINN over GERMANY”.

Korn tang stamps. Knife photos courtesy of Myron Tupa.

Korn tang stamps.
Knife photos courtesy of Myron Tupa.

 

Bottle shaped knife with blades open. Marked Henry Sears and Sons, Prussia.

Bottle shaped knife with blades open. Marked Henry Sears and Sons, Prussia.