Multi-blade tool knives date back centuries, and beautiful sportsman’s models were offered by some of the best makers across Europe throughout the 19th century. But variations with a folding pliers or adjustable wrench first appeared in the late 1800s. The Barnett pliers-knife was not the first of its kind, but was the first to become a great success.
James C. Lewis from California applied for a patent for a fairly compact pocket knife with built in pliers on September 12, 1898. He was granted that patent, number 662005, on November 20, 1900. While the finished product was slightly different from the patent drawings, the general design concept remained quite close to the drawings. Although a bit heavier than a standard large-sized multi-blade pocket knife, the Barnett pliers knife, at 4-1/8 inches long, is so streamlined that it feels like a traditional folding knife in hand or pocket.
While James C. Lewis designed and patented the pliers-knife by 1900, it was the Oscar Barnett Foundry Company who manufactured it. That company was originally formed in 1845 by brothers, John and Stephen Barnett in Newark, New Jersey. Like many companies, Barnett struggled on for a time and various family members came and went. By the mid-1860s though, the business was doing well and was under the control of Oscar Barnett who was the son of Stephen Barnett. The American Civil War brought a great deal of trade to the company, which was called the Oscar Barnett Foundry at that time. The Barnett Company produced hardware and machinery and grew substantially when they purchased another foundry in 1872. A hardware publication from that time described the Barnett Company as a “Hardware and machine manufactory of malleable iron castings, various fastenings, and an extra quality of machinist tools.” They were said to have employed 150 men and had sales of $150,000.00 in 1872.
In the early 1890s, The company was still being run by Oscar Barnett along with his two younger brothers, Albert and Frank. Oscar passed away in 1894 and had such control over the company up to that time that no one else (including his brothers), could step in and fill his shoes. The company floundered for a short time, and in 1899, the controlling shares were sold to Thomas Hannah and Gerald Hannay. The business was then incorporated under the name of the Oscar Barnett Foundry Company. The company took off again and overall production was increased. The company purchased land in New Jersey and constructed a new foundry, machine shop, and pattern shop in 1910. A name change took place again in 1918 to the Barnett Foundry and Machine Company which was a better description for the company. The Barnett Company, in its original form, carried on past WWII, but seems to have closed its doors in the 1970s.
It’s unclear how James C. Lewis and the Barnett Company got together, especially since they were at opposite ends of the country. The merger of those two principals though certainly created a wonderful cutlery tool product. The pliers-knife were produced by the Barnett Company from around 1900 up until the early 1920s, with one advertisement from 1922 still selling them. All of the known models have a blade stamp which reads “O. Barnett Tool Co.” in an arch over “Newark N.J.” Most, but not all models, have the words “Trade H.H.H. Mark” on one side of the pliers lever, and “J.C. Lewis Pat.” Over “Nov. 20, 1900” on the other side of the lever. There are some slight variations in models produced over time such as bone handle jigging patterns and small dimensional parts differences, but the models remained nearly the same for decades. The Barnett pliers-knife was widely distributed through countless hardware and sporting catalogs. Large numbers were most certainly sold which is why they can still be commonly found over one hundred years later.
One notable difference is seen in a very unique variation which has aluminum handles. That particular model was meant as a premium or advertising knife and was probably given away to valued customers. That pliers-knife, as shown, has the words “Woodward & Co.” stamped on one side of the handle, and “Grain Commission Minneapolis Duluth” stamped on the other side. Woodward & Company was established by A. M. Woodward in 1879 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and dealt in grain consignment. They were a well-regarded and highly respected company throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Woodward merged with another partner in 1916 and became the Woodward-Newhouse Company. Mr. Woodward passed away one year later in 1917, but left a fine pliers-knife tool with his company name on the handle as a reminder of his legacy. Other than the aluminum handles, the rest of the Woodward marked Barnett pliers-knife is the same as the standard bone-handled models.
The Barnett pliers-knife is a quality tool from top to bottom with all the same features of the best pocket knives from that era. Since the pliers and pivot action sit at the large bolster end, there is a bit less room in length for the main blade as compared to a regular pocket knife. But the blade is still a good useable size with a 2-inch cutting surface. While some examples have been found with a clip-style blade, most models and all advertisements feature a spear-point blade. Next to the blade, and pivoting from the same direction, is a fluted punch blade for putting holes in soft wood or leather. It can also be used as a marlin spike for use with ropes and knots. Opposite from the blade and pivoting from the other end of the handle is a lever for the pliers. The lever folds perfectly alongside the handle and has a hook at the end which wraps around the rear bolster. The hook is primarily used for removing stones from a horse’s shoe, but can also be used for various mechanical and hunting tasks. The pliers themselves are thick and sturdy and have built-in cutters for cutting wire as heavy as livestock fence. A final tool is a flat blade screwdriver that is basically an extension of the center steel liner. It sticks out the back side of the handle and can be used once the lever for the pliers is pulled away from the handle. Nice brown jigged-bone handles sit on brass liners which are attached to the solid steel components of the knife-tool. Nickel silver bolsters dress up the package quite nicely and everything is held together with steel pins.
The only real mystery surrounding the Barnett pliers-knife has been just exactly what the “H.H.H.” trademark stands for. Some have suggested that the three H’s represented the House-Hasson Hardware Company as a possibility, but that is not the case. House-Hasson Hardware was established in 1906 and advertisements for the Barnett pliers-knife with the H.H.H. markings are shown in 1902 literature. In researching the history of the Barnett Company and the people involved, one conclusion for the three H’s is pretty obvious. The H.H.H. trademark must have represented the last names of the two new owners of the Oscar Barnett Foundry Company in 1899. Those two men were Thomas Hannah and Gerald Hannay. The third “H” would have stood for “Hardware” which the company had produced since the beginning. Therefore, H.H.H. should equate to “Hannah, Hannay, Hardware”
The past twenty years have seen a huge outpouring of folding tools knives such as the Leatherman. But the grandfather of all of them would certainly be the Barnett pliers-knife which was designed and patented by James C. Lewis on Nov. 20, 1900. The “H.H.H. Pocket Knife” as it was commonly referred to in advertisements, was stated to be “Invaluable to Farmers, Horsemen, Mechanics, Miners, Sailors, Soldiers, Sportsmen and All Working Men.” A statement that holds true to this day.