"Purina's Checkerboard Design" by Richard White

(from the March 1999 KNIFE WORLD)

Purina knives
The company behind the famous checkerboard symbol, Purina Mills, recently celebrated its 100th year anniversary. Founded by William H. Danforth in 1894, the Purina Company (originally called the Robinson-Danforth Commission Company) was the result of a partnership which was formed to produce animal feed, and operate a retail feed store. Danforth’s energy proved to be the key in pushing the young company forward into the next generation.

The use of the very famous checkerboard design is a story unto itself. According to Purina history, the story dates back to the time when the founder was a young boy growing up in Charleston, Missouri. As a helper in his father’s general store, young Will watched various families come into town to purchase their weekly supplies. One large company stood apart from the rest. All of the members of this family wore clothing made of bright red and white checkerboard material. Supposedly, this brightly colored design would help the parents easily find their children as they played in the town square while their parents purchased supplies. Years later, Purina founder Danforth remembered this bright checkerboard pattern and chose it for his company’s trademark.

The checkerboard trademark has been well guarded for over 100 years. Although several other companies have, over the years, tried to use the checkerboard for their products, Purina has successfully blocked all attempts at having this famous symbol used by competitors.

The history of Purina includes several important milestones. First was the development of the word “Purina” in the early years. Literally, the word “purina” was an invented word, implying the pure state of the corn and oat mixture which went into Purina Feeds. Secondly was the Purina display at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair in St. Louis. At that fair, visitors were greeted with fifteen magnificent palaces which held treasures never seen by the American public and visitors from abroad. Ralston Purina’s exhibit included the now famous checkerboard, in a building which housed examples of Ralston’s cereal and feed products.

The third event was the use of the word “chow” in the Ralston feed line. The name “chow” was the name given to food by soldiers in World War I. Even today, we speak of the “chow line” when we refer to soldiers waiting outside of the mess hall. Danforth felt that his cattle and cereal grains were not just food, but should instead be called “chow”; an important product as hot food was to hungry soldiers. From that time on, the words Purina and Chow became constant companions.

During the Great Depression of the thirties, Purina looked to other sources to try to solve the sagging demand for its cereal products. They found their answer in a Hollywood hero, cowboy Tom Mix. Working with Purina, the western movie star helped to form the famous Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters Club. As a member of this special club, youngsters could send in box tops from Ralston Hot Cereal in exchange for Tom Mix’s life story, cowboy bandanna, and secret code ring. This advertising gimmick proved to be an overwhelming success with literally hundreds of thousands of kids sending in box tops. All of these advertising giveaways are collectible in their own right.

Purina Tom Mix
For the cutlery collector, this Straight Shooters Club provided a very significant cutlery collectible. Purina commissioned a special Tom Mix knife to be made for members of the Club. This two bladed swell end jack is handled in yellow cracked ice celluloid, with tip bolsters. At each end, there is a small red and white checkerboard shaped like a miniature feed bag; with the initials TM inscribed diagonally across the checkerboard. The initials “TM” (standing for Tom Mix) are joined together much like would be seen on a cattle brand. In the center of the knife between the two checkerboards is the word “Ralston”, below which are the words “Straight Shooter”. My first experience with these knives was at last summer’s Springfield Knife Show; held in Springfield, Missouri. One dealer had an example of this knife for sale, and I was given a chance to view one first hand. Although inexpensively made, these knives are quite rare, and sell in the $50.00 to $65.00 range. They are certainly an interesting advertising offshoot to the regular Purina knives.

As a supporter of the United States’ efforts in World War II, Purina challenged the farmers and ranchers of America to do their part in winning the war by producing food for the servicemen and women who were serving abroad. As a part of this effort, salesmen visited farms to develop “action sheets” designed to assist the farmer produce better products with less waste, spoilage, and waste.

Purina has grown significantly in the past 103 years; now producing over 5 million tons of Chow in 54 major plants all across these United States. In addition to cattle feed, Purina produces special feed products for hogs, calves, show steers, dairy cows, horses, birds, zoo animals, chicks and chickens, and other specialized animal needs. Purina supplied food for the sled dogs in the Robert Byrd 1933 expedition to Antarctica and is the primary food source for hundreds of champion race horses in Lexington, Kentucky. As an industry spread throughout the United States, Purina developed a comprehensive plan for training and educating the rural farmers and ranchers in the various methods of livestock feeding programs. Contests, conferences, visitation, publications, and rewards for achieving various goals were all a part of this public education program.

As a part of the massive advertising techniques designed to develop wholesale and retail accounts from feed stores, feed lots, farms and dairies, Purina commissioned numerous products which were given to salesmen, customers and owners of these feed companies, in return for new or enlarged accounts. Among the many products produced as incentives were: brass scales for weighing milk, baby chickens, rings, clothespin bags, posters and signs, brass animals, fine art animal paintings, ties, and well-made pocketknives with the famous Purina name and red and white checkerboard overlaid with clear celluloid on the sides of the handles.

These checkerboard knives were originally made by at least two companies: Remington and Kutmaster. In later years, knives by Utica, Buck and Camillus (with the CAMCO stamping), and even more recent knives stamped Bayles and CCC are found with the famous checkerboard pattern depicted on the sides. The original Purina knives were made during the 1930s by Remington, and into the 1940s and even into the 1950s by Kutmaster. Buck, Utica, Bayles, and the CCC stamped varieties are quite new, all made within the past few years.

As collector items, the Remington Purina knives, produced in three-blade and four-bladed cattle patterns as well as a few rarer varieties, have always retained their high value; in part due to the famous Remington stamping on the knife. These Remington Purina knives in both the three and four-bladed cattle patterns can cost the potential collector over $200.00 for examples in mint condition, and the more unusual knives can go higher still.

On the other hand, the Kutmaster knives have been overlooked for years, even though they have been made as far back as the early 1940s. In the opinion of some collectors, they are now coming into their own. These Kutmaster Purina knives can still be found priced in the $30.00 to $40.00 range in near mint condition, with prices for absolutely mint knives ranging upwards of $50.00; or higher with original checkerboard boxes. The Kutmaster Purina knives, made primarily in three-blade small stockman and two-blade serpentine jack patterns, are a good quality knives with bright clear advertising on both sides. In my opinion, they will continue to increase in value in the coming years, as they become one of the last advertising knives to promote a national company in existence well over 100 years.

One of the most recent Kutmaster Purina “finds” is the smaller two-bladed pen knife. With handles identical to its larger three-bladed variety, this smaller knife properly described as a “senator pen” may be the most rare Kutmaster variety. Like the three bladed model, this two bladed Purina has a long pull on the master blade. With this newest Purina find, the number of knives made with the colorful checkerboard material continues to climb.

Another interesting Purina stamped knife is causing some “scratching of the heads” of knife collectors. It is also a two bladed knife, with a strange blade configuration. the master blade has a pull at the extreme end of the blade where the swedge would normally be. This style of nail nick or pull is sometimes seen on Keen Kutter or Wards stamped stockman knives, but is rare otherwise.

In addition, the knife itself it not really well made. The center pin is absent; probably hidden under the plastic sides. This is not the construction normally found on well made knives. The handles themselves appear to be some sort of plastic, held on with silver colored pins, and these sides stick up above the bolsters. The knife itself appears to be constructed like some of the cheaper Imperials; with what appears to be press-on bolsters which have a tab at each end to hold the sides on.

Most interesting about the knife, however, is the tang stamping. In bold, deeply stamped letters is CCC, Canton 0. Now everyone who knows anything about knives knows that this stamping was used by the Canton Cutlery Company, Canton, Ohio. Canton Cutlery, as you may remember, was one of the four major companies known to have made “picture knives” with clear celluloid handles attached over various photographs and lithographs. The other three main companies to produce similar knives with clear celluloid sides and pictures were the Golden Rule, Novelty, and Aerial cutlery companies.

Canton Cutlery Company knives were of outstanding quality, with solid, nickel-silver bolsters, vivid pictures, and quality construction. Canton produced knives between the late 1870s and 1930s; long before this particular knife was produced. Given this background, how can this apparent anomaly be explained?

One possible is that someone purchased the rights to the Canton Cutlery Company stamping, and used this stamping on Purina knives. Another possibility is that someone produced these knives after looking to see what historical company produced a “picture” or “advertising” knife with clear handles; thinking that no one would notice the obvious date or quality differences.

An interesting question would be whether the Purina corporation actually authorized this particular knife to be produced as an advertising giveaway. With Purina’s insistence on producing a quality product, the answer might be surprising. We do know, however, that Purina authorized several different companies to produce giveaway knives with checkerboard handles.

Purina Buck
The most recent of these Purina commissioned knives was produced by Buck; a very famous cutlery company. Buck produced an interesting lockback, complete with the required red and white checkerboard handle material and bold lettering. One unique characteristic of this Buck knife is that the name engraved into the center of the checkerboard pattern is not the traditional “Purina” lettering, but instead “Purina Mills”. I have a feeling that this name change will provide just enough of a variation to develop some interest in the marketplace. Another characteristic of this knife is that it is a lockback; certainly a practical knife, and the first time that such a style was produced for Purina Mills. Although of recent vintage, this knife is well made.

According to a Purina salesman, this knife was made, like a lot of other advertising products, to be given out to loyal customers and larger feed lot contracts. Each salesman receives a catalog from Purina which contains various advertising products. Depending on his needs, salesmen order various products from this catalog depending on the number of customers he wants to give gifts to. Since these knives are given directly to customers, they will rarely appear on the open market for sale.

The wide variety of advertising knives produced for this famous ‘chow’ company serve as a wonderful example of the knife as an advertising tool. Once a giveaway item, Purina knives are now avidly sought out by collectors of both knives and advertising items. As more become aware of these unique collectables, interest is sure to continue to grow and flourish in the “knives with the checkerboard symbol.”

copyright 1999 Knife World Publications

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