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Vintage Snap-on Tools -- How It All Got Started

Jun 21, 2008
It's hard to imagine that it's only been a little over 100 years since the first cars rolled off the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company. As we look around today at the dealerships, used car lots, gas stations, highways and automotive repair shops, it's not easy to imagine a time when the automobile was a novelty. In today's world should your car or break down it might be an expensive inconvenience but you would not have a problem finding a mechanic with the right tools to fix it. It has not always been that way.

The money in automobiles around 1910 was in making them, not in keeping them running. After all at this point in our nation's history there were only about 450,000 car owners in the country, so finding a qualified automobile mechanic was sometimes not an easy undertaking. There were many new manufacturers of cars and many different schools were required to repair them all. If a different wrench size was required for the nuts and bolts on many different automobiles this required a large investment in the tools necessary to repair the cars.

The history of the early years of the Snap-on Tool Company is one that is unique and interesting. Two young men had a great idea and were willing to put in the hard work necessary to build the company that produced items which are now highly sought after antique Snap-on tool collectibles.

In the year 1919 there were only about 8 million cars driving the roads in the US. Joseph Johnson was an employee of the American Grinder Manufacturing Co. and his job was to manage the tool and wrench division for the company. He was not trained in in this because he had a background as an expediter and cost clerk. But he was smart, innovative, and must have been thinking "there must be a better way" as he did his job. He observed that every time a mechanic bought a wrench that they were essentially purchasing another handle.

William Seidemann was a young manager who also worked at American grinder. He and Joe Johnson soon became good friends, and they enjoyed talking about the best way to create a new set of tools for the mechanics. They finally decided that the best way to do it was to have 10 different socket sizes and pair them with five distinct handles. In this way they could offer the mechanics 50 wrenches which were each different.

What happened next must surely make any businessman cringe. Johnson discussed his idea with the management at American Grinder. Management felt like his concept of ten sockets and five handles would actually hurt their individual sales. They turned him down. Johnson had given a American Grinder the opportunity to take his idea and capitalize on it and since they decided it not to do it, Johnson and Seidemann could now move forward on their own.

After hours, Johnson worked on his concept. A few weeks later he had created the original set of five handles and Seidemann agreed to help him fabricate a set of sockets which could be snapped on. Thus was born the name Snap-on Tools and the first company motto "Five can do the work of 50".

Johnson and Seidemann's biggest problem was that they had very little money. They pooled their last few dollars and printed 2,000 promotional brochures which would be used to advertise their "snap-on" tool set. Everything was being done by hand because there were no production facilities, including the milling of the sockets from bar steel and the stamping of the stock numbers.

For their sales force, Johnson and Seidemann found a lone tire salesman who traveled throughout the state of Wisconsin. They sent him off with the one and only set of tools they had fabricated and started to work on a second set. The tactic used by the salesman was to show the set of tools to the mechanics, and give them a brochure. Because there was no physical product to sell, he collected COD orders. Johnson and Seidemann surely must have been shocked and surprised when the salesman returned with 500 orders for toolsets that did not yet exist.

Another salesman hit the road with the second newly fabricated tool set. His results were similar to those of the first salesman. Mechanics saw the value of the Snap-on tool concept and wanted it for themselves. Now Johnson and Seidemann had a problem that most young entrepreneurs would love to have -- demonstrated and proven heavy demand for a brand new invention. Unfortunately they had no company, no money, and most importantly, no tools they could use to fulfill all the COD orders they had in hand.

They contacted an attorney who in turn found some local businessmen willing to invest in the new company. The Snap-On Wrench Company was incorporated on April 10, 1920. Johnson and Seidemann had to borrow $500 each so they could purchase stock in their own business. They rented a 2500 square-foot shop, leased machinery and began production. The tools they created and which sold for only a few dollars back then are now considered to be vintage Snap-on tools and are highly prized as collectibles.
About the Author
Sara Bondia has fun researching details on vintage Snap-on Tools and she loves buying and selling on eBay. Get more details on collecting antique Snap-on Tools and see some great deals at her Vintage Snap-on Tools website. Click over now and see what she has!
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