Spiral Screwdrivers of Decatur, Illinois

Six Decatur Coffin Company screwdrivers. The first four handles from top to bottom are documented from advertising material as authentic. The remaining two the bottom are not documented but believed authentic.

Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 49, no. 1, March 1996

By Clifford D. Fales

The availability of better wood screws and the rise of the fac­tory system in the last quarter of the nineteenth century saw a pro­liferation of patents for more ef­ficient tools for driving screws. Isaac Allard’s spiral screwdriver patent of 1868 began a succes­sion of some fifty spiral screw­driver patents before 1900. Addi­tion al patents for ratchet screwdrivers and screw holding screwdrivers give an indication of the demand for this type of tool. Decatur, Illinois, was a lo­cation which was prominent in the development of these tools during this period of time.

The Decatur Coffin Com­pany spiral screwdrivers and the often-told story about undertak­ers needing only a clockwise screwdriver are both familiar to many tool collectors. However, there is more to the Decatur story than this one frequently-seen spi­ral screwdriver and the story commonly associated with it.

Christopher H. Olson
While only the patent date of October 7, 1884, is usually seen on the Decatur Coffin Company screwdrivers, C. H. Olson, the patent holder, actually held four patents for spiral screwdrivers.

The most prevalent model, marked DECATUR COFFIN COMPANY/DECATUR, ILL’S / PAT. OCT. 7, 1884, is actually based on the third of four spiral screwdriver patents granted to Christopher H. Olson of Decatur (Figure 1). It is most commonly seen in the 12″ size but also is seen in a smaller 8″ size. This model will also be seen with at least three different han­dle styles (Figures 2A, 2B, 3 & 4). Advertising and catalog illus­trations designated this screwdriver variously as the Olson Pat­ent, The Eureka Screwdriver or The Decatur Coffin Company Screwdriver. While it is known that C.H. Olson was a member of the Board of Directors of the De­catur Coffin Company (1), the fact that he invented and perfected this screwdriver would seem to indicate that he also was signifi­cantly involved in the production processes in the factory.

Figure 1. Patent illustration of the third C.H. Olson patent of October 7, 1884. This is the patent for the most commonly observed Decatur Coffin Company screwdriver.

A significant feature of the construction of this spiral screw­driver which sets it apart from all but a few other designs is the fact that the shaft derives its rotary motion from grooves cut on the inside of the tube into which the shaft telescopes, rather than ma­chined in the shaft as is the case with most spiral screwdrivers.

Olson’s October, 1884, pat­ent was only the fifth for a spiral screwdriver which provided a mechanical means to allow the bit to remain in a stationary posi­tion while the handle is with­drawn for the next driving stroke. Others – most notably the A.H. Reid patent number 268,938 of December 12, 1882 – had some provision for this purpose but it was not an automatic mechanical release and required an adjust­ment of hand position or release of a lock for the return stroke. The Allard/Howard, based on the Isaac Allard’s patent number 157,087 of November 24, 1874, and the Decatur Coffin, based on Olson’s October, 1884 patent, were apparently the first spiral screwdrivers using an automatic mechanical release to gain wide­spread acceptance.

A warning to collectors: Many handles seen on the Decatur Coffin Company screwdriv­ers are not original. A wide vari­ety of owner-made, retro-fitted handles will be found. Although three original Decatur Coffin Company handle styles are identified here, there are others which have strong indications of also being original. This is a subject which will benefit from further study.

Olson’s First Patent
The first spiral screwdriver patent of C. H. Olson was num­ber 278,261 granted on May 22, 1883 (Figure 5). The patent illus­tration shows a tool which would have been unusually long and un­wieldy to use. Judging by the re­lationship of the size of the slide handle and bit to the length of the entire tool, this tool would in all likelihood have been over thirty inches in length. The patent text indicates that one stroke nor­mally is sufficient to drive a screw with this tool. This model has not been observed and it is certainly doubtful if it was pro­duced commercially.

Figure 2A. Handle style believed to be the earliest of the Decatur Coffin Company handles. This example is marked only “PATENT ALLOWED.”

Figure 2B. Earliest Decatur Coffin Handle Style (Speyer Brothers catalog, 1892).

Olson’s Bi-Directional Patent
Probably the most interesting part of this story is that Olson’s second patent-number 301,915, granted on July 15, 1884-was for a bi-directional, reversible model (Figure 6). As far as I have been able to deter­mine, this is the earliest patent for a bi-directional spiral screw­driver with the capability of both driving and removing screws by utilizing the reciprocating mo­tion of the handle. Some earlier models did permit counter-clock­wise rotation for removal of screws. This was done either by withdrawing the handle with a pulling motion or by means of locking the shaft to the handle and using a rotary motion, as with a standard non-spiral screw­driver. Reasons why this bi-di­rectional model, which would have had much more usefulness than a right-hand-only model, was not put into production and marketed are open for specula­tion. Surprisingly, Olson’s Octo­ber 1884 patent for the popular, heavily-advertised model came only three months after this patent for the reversible model. I have seen no examples of this model. My supposition is that Mr. Olson did not have sufficient confidence in the design of the bi-directional model and moved ahead to production and market­ing of the better designed uni-di­rectional model.

Figure 3. [Incorrect caption in original article. Possibly the second style of Decatur Coffin Company spiral screwdriver.]

Olson’s 1889 Patent
Olson’s final patent (Figure 7) shows a right-hand-only model with a square twisted shaft and with a removable, inter­changeable bit. Several features of this design seem to be for pur­poses of reducing manufacturing costs, i.e. substitution of a twisted shaft for a machined shaft and substitution of a combined wood handle/tube for the usual metal body tube. This model has not been observed.

Figure 4. Handle style believed to be the third style of Decatur Coffin Company (T. B. Rayl, 1905).

Even though the Decatur Coffin Company was an under­takers’ supply house, it is obvi­ous they marketed their screw­driver to the mechanic and carpenter trade. There were nu­merous advertisements in build­ers publications and listings in general tool catalogs for this tool during the 1890-1905 era. This brings up the question for tool collectors: did a manufacturer of undertakers’ supplies make any tools other than this screwdriver?

Figure 5. Patent illustration of C. H. Olson patent of May 22, 1883-0lson ‘s earliest spiral screwdriver patent.

O.Z. Greene
O.Z. Greene, president of The Decatur Coffin Company (2) also held a spiral screwdriver pat­ent (Figure 8), but it apparently was never marketed.

H. Mueller Manufacturing Company
The Decatur Coffin Com­pany, C.H. Olson and O.Z. Greene, however, were not the only players in town. Decatur, Illinois, was also represented by at least one other manufacturer of spiral screwdrivers at the turn of the century. The H. Mueller Manufacturing Company of De­catur produced at least two mod­els from the 1890s to at least 1913 (3).

Anton Schuermann Patent and the H. Mueller Screwdrivers
Anton Schuermann, an em­ployee of H. Mueller Manufac­turing Company, was granted a patent for a “Tool Driver” (Fig­ure 9) on July 30, 1889. It is illustrated in H. Mueller catalogs from 1899-1913 with a drill chuck (Figure 10) (4) and in the October 1892 Carpentry & Building with screwdriver chuck and bit (5) (Figure 11A). I have ob­served only one actual example of the this model of the Schuer­mann patent (Figure 11B). It is marked: H. Mueller Mfg. Co. / Decatur, Ill. I PAT. JULY 30, 1889. Another Mueller product, designated as the “Mueller Rapid” (Figure 12) shows little visual relationship to the above patent, but is based on the same patent. Examples are marked with the 1889 patent date and the catalog illustrations are marked with the date and labeled as “Schuermann Patent.” The Mueller Rapid is frequently seen.

Figure 10. 1899 catalog illustration of Anton Schuermann ‘s “MECHANICS COMBINED SCREWDRIVER AND DRILL “(1899 H. Muel­ler catalog).

The Mueller Company, now a subsidiary of the Grinnell Com­pany, is still in business in Deca­tur. An officer has reported that there was no known relationship between the H. Mueller Manu­facturing Company and the De­catur Coffin Company. (6) How­ever, there is some evidence in the patents to indicate that there may have been some connection between the two firms. Not only did Olson and Schuermann en­gage the same attorney for the patent application process, but they used some of the same per­sons to witness their patent appli­cations.

Figure 11 A. Illustration from an 1899 announcement of the Schuer­mann/Mueller “Mechanic’s Screw and Tool Driver” shown with a screwdriver bit (Carpentry & Building, January 1892).

Figure 11 B. Schuermann/Mueller screwdriver marked: H. Mueller Mfg. Co I Decatur, Ill. I PAT. JULY 30, 1889 (Photo courtesy Martin J Donnelly).

The Popular Story
This seems an appropriate time to refute the tale, popular among tool collectors, of the De­catur Coffin Company screw­driver being manufactured only in a right-hand clockwise version for driving screws because the undertaker only needed to drive screws and had no need to re­move them.

This does make a whimsical story; but, in truth, there was not a bi-directional spiral screw­driver available in the 1880’s. (7) The first bi-directional models, which did not appear in advertis­ing and catalogs until the 1890s, were the Jones Reversible Spiral Screwdriver (1892 patent) ap­pearing in 1897, the Forest City Spiral Screwdriver (1895 patent) in 1896, (8) and the Goodell Pratt No. 22 (1897 patent) in the same year. (9)

Figure 12. Two slightly different catalog illustrations of the Mueller “Rapid” spiral screwdriver _ based on Schuermann s 1889 patent. Note
that chuck of later model does not use free-turning collar (1899 & 1907 H. Mueller catalogs).

Further explanation for the development of this screwdriver might be that it came about as a production tool within the Deca­tur Coffin Company because of the need for driving wood screws in the manufacture of wooden caskets. Did the Decatur Coffin Company possibly enter the tool manufacturing business and offer their spiral screwdriver to the trade after finding they had a good thing in what they had developed for in-house use? This is known to have been the case with at least one other spiral screw­driver – a model manufactured by the S.F. Bowser Company of Ft. Wayne, Indiana. (10)

The author is continuing re­search on screwdrivers and will welcome related information about screwdrivers in members’ collections, advertising material, catalog references or patents.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following individu­als and organizations who sup­plied information used in the preparation of this article: Harold Barker; Decatur (Illinois) Public Library; Martin J. Donnelly; Carl E. Floren, Corporate Directory of Quality Improvement, Mueller Company; Paul B. Kebabian; Macon County (Illinois) Histori­cal Society; Alvin Sellens, and William T. Wilkins.

1. Decatur City Directory (1889).
2. Past & Present of the City of Decatur and Macon County,
Illinois (Chicago, 1903) p. 9; 0. T. Bainton, ed., History of Macon County (Decatur: Macon County Historical So­ciety, 1976) p. 122.
3. Catalog B, H. Mueller Manufac­turing Company (Decatur, 1899) p. 111; ibid., Catalog C (1903), p. 49; ibid., Cata­log D, (1907), p. 66; ibid., Catalog D, (1913), p. 67.
4. Catalog B, H. Mueller Manufac­turing Company (Decatur, 1899), p. 111; ibid., Catalog C, (1903), p. 49; ibid., Cata­log D, (1907) p. 66; bid, Catalog D, (1913), p. 67.
5. “Mechanic’s Screw and Tool Driver,” Carpentry & Build­ing, (October 1892).
6. Carl E. Floren, letter to the author, July 25, 1994.
7. A Book of Tools (Detroit, Char­les A. Strelinger& Company, 1895), p. 504.
8. Tools For All Trades, (New York: Hammacher, Schlem­mer & Company, 1896), p. 155.
9. Woodworkers’ Tools, (Detroit: Chas. A. Strelinger & Com­pany, 1897), p. 715.
10. M. Ramsey, “A Bowser Screwdriver, The Gristmill, 6,4 (1986), p.23.

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1 Response

  1. Stephen Baisden says:

    I have a spiral screwdriver that I bought at a yard sale in Massachusetts some years ago. It has tow shafts one inside the other that can be extended separately. One on the outside makes the driver turn counter-clockwise, the other, smaller one, turns clockwise. It has a collar that is free rotating. The handle has a ferrule that is stamped like this:
    Goodell Brothers Company
    Greenfield, Mass. U.S.A.
    Pat. Oct.5, 1897
    When either of the shafts are extended from the handle the driver is about 15 inches long. It looks and works much like a more modern “Yankee” driver except for the separate shafts which are machined on the outside. Thought you might be interested.

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