About Us


Barnard Stamp Company  
140 Years Young in St. Louis, MO  


by Teri Venker

February, 2000

 

                What do bulky steamboats plying the Mississippi River in the mid 1800s have in common with rubber stamps in the technology-driven 21st century?

                  The modern, computerized rubber stamp firm of Barnard Stamp Company in St. Louis, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, has its origins in the marking devices of the 1800s: stencils.  Used to identify crates of merchandise that moved along the nation’s waterways and goods hauled by horse-drawn wagons, stencils were the business of the William Barnard and the J.S. Thomas companies, which became partners in February, 1860.

               The new partnership was economical since the businesses were located on the first and second floors of the same building at 310 Olive, 3 blocks from where the famous St. Louis Gateway Arch now keeps watch over that same Mississippi.  The merging of the two firms was a natural combination since the two businesses had the majority of their sales from the manufacture of stencils, and the employees, who knew each other, were familiar with each other’s products from a history of swapping labor during slow and busy periods.  At the time of the merger, Abraham Lincoln was president and the nation was on the brink of Civil War. 

                After the death of Mr. Thomas, Mr. Barnard offered Samuel Arnold an interest in the firm to carry on the business.  Shortly after, 14-year-old John Henry Venker came on board in 1874 as an errand boy, a position that would remain key to the firm’s delivery service for over a hundred more years.  John Henry worked his way through the various marking devices that the firm specialized in: stencil cutter, steel stamp maker, and seal die puncher.

                By 1883, the innovations John Henry had brought into the business were noticed and rewarded with a partial interest in the company, thus starting the First Generation of Venkers to become involved in the ownership and operation of  the business.  Ten years later the firm was incorporated under its current name: Barnard Stamp Company.  

Eventually William Barnard’s son sold his shares to Samuel Arnold and John Henry Venker, and at this time the company adopted the trademark “ARVEN” for products they manufactured with a patented press they sold.  The trademark “ARVEN” was derived from the first letters of Arnold and Venker and is still in use today.

John Henry became the sole owner after buying out Mr. Arnold’s heirs. John Henry’s five sons – Harry, Gerard, Bernard, Vincent and William – entered the business between 1895 and 1927 after doing part-time stints at the firm and after working in other fields.  Six-day, Monday-Saturday, work weeks were the norm at the time.  During the subsequent years, the “stamp works”, as the old timers called it, was credited with getting  the Venker brothers and their large Catholic families safely through the nation’s Depression.

During World War II, the Venker brothers were the only employees, and they all agreed to be paid the same regardless of their position, seniority, or the size of the family they had to support. In 1941 when their father, John Henry, passed away, the Venker brothers, like their father, bought out others - in this case their sisters - to retain ownership and control over how the business would be run.

After the end of the war and the death of brother Harry, the remaining Venker brothers decided it was time to bring in another generation.  Among the various sons and nephews who were given the opportunity to get involved, Vincent Venker’s son, Jim, emerged as a permanent employee.  He joined the firm in September, 1947, after serving in World War II, taking classes at St. Louis University and working as a cost accountant at Hussman Refrigerator.                                                                                               

In 1962, the city of St. Louis called upon the little three-story brick building at 310 Olive, which had faithfully housed the “stamp works” for over a hundred years, to make way for urban renewal, which included the development of the St. Louis riverfront and the Gateway Arch.  Twelve years later, Barnard Stamp would again be forced by eminent domain to vacate its premises at 912 N. Sixth St. for the development of the St. Louis Convention Center.  The site of the former Barnard Stamp Co. building is now the 20-yard line in the TWA Dome, home of the Super Bowl 2000 Champions, the St. Louis Rams. 

During those years, Jim Sr. became more involved in the business, became its president and eventually bought out his uncles and his father so that by 1974 he was the sole owner.  Besides rubber stamps, the company specialized in notary, corporate and engineering seals, and engraved nameplates and signs.  Jim periodically introduced new products, but rubber stamps remained the backbone of the business.

Jim’s philosophy, handed down by the previous generations, was simple.  You pay your employees first, your vendors second, and you pay yourself last.  Don’t produce or attempt to sell anything you wouldn’t buy with your own hard-earned wages. Treat your employees right.  The customer is always right. Trust and honesty are everything to everybody. 

In addition to the regular five-day work week, Jim worked every Saturday until noon.  He brought home stamp pads and rubber stamps for his children to play with, and it was a treat when a child – daughter or son - was allowed to accompany Dad to work on Saturday for the all important tasks of opening mail, sweeping floors or gluing dies to stamp mounts.  Snow days in a Barnard Stamp family meant the alarms were set an hour early to allow plenty of time to shovel the driveway AND get to work on time to open the business promptly, as always, at 8 a.m.  Over the years, Jim gave jobs to nieces, nephews and neighborhood kids and his wife, Mary, came in every Friday for 14 years to produce the payroll.  In time each of his five children was given the opportunity to come into the business.  He encouraged them all to also work for others, partly to realize how good it was to work with family, and partly to realize their goals.

The torch started to pass to the fourth generation of Venkers in 1983, when Jim’s son, Jim Jr., also known as Jay, started full-time in the business after graduating from the University of Dayton.  Like his predecessors, his basic knowledge was acquired by working part-time while in high school and college. 

When Jim Sr. passed away from lung cancer in 1988, his son, Jim Jr., and his wife, Mary, each owned part of the business.  Shortly after, Jim Jr. decided he wanted another trusted family member to help run the business.  With all of his siblings settled in other professions, Jim turned to his cousin, Mark Ryan. A former seminarian and former waiter in St. Louis’ only five-star restaurant, he could be trusted and knew the importance of quality and customer service.  The last of the Venker brothers, Great Uncle Bill, passed away in 1991, days short of 90.  His philosophies, which had influenced Barnard Stamp, were also simple: Be nice to everyone because you never know when that errand boy will move up to the presidency. Embrace the good.  Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it.

The family joke was when the widow Mary, part owner of Barnard Stamp, had a second date with the same man, it would be time for Jim Jr. to buy her out.  She did have a second date with Walter Mayer, whom she eventually married, and Jim Jr. made sure to buy her out before the wedding.  Jim Venker Jr. then became the fourth generation to own and operate Barnard Stamp Company in May 1991.  Eventually Jim Jr’s involvement in the national Marking Device Association would lead him to be District 3 Governor, and over time he bought out the marking device and rubber stamp portion of the Caribee Stamp and Sign Company.

In a company whose tagline for many years was “Oldest Stamp House West of the Mississippi”, Jim Jr. knows and cares about tradition.  He believes his car should be the first to arrive and the last to leave.  Treat employees like you want to be treated.  He’ll come in Saturdays until noon if he hasn’t caught up at night, only starting on evening “homework” after the kids are in bed.  Balance everything with balance.  Sail on an even keel.  It’s OK to be a generous conservative.  By the time a son realizes his father was right, he has a son who thinks he’s wrong.                                                                          

Nothing for Jim Jr. is more gratifying than remembering the Schmidt family from COSCO being present for his grandfather Vince’s or his father Jim’s funerals.  He loves to be pulled aside at a convention when others see his nametag and remember his parents, Jim and Mary.  The Taylors, Griffiths, Gondelas, Gibbons and individuals like Elsie Southwell and Jean Campbell remain an important part of the industry and the extended Barnard Stamp family.

Barnard Stamp Company, employing simple, sound business philosophies and fairness in how the business turns over each generation, has survived 140 years of business, over 25 U.S. Presidents, a Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and more than one Depression.  It’s seen the best customers start, grow, expand, be consumed, move, merge, bankrupt, foreclose and close. It has had great, good, bad and indifferent vendors.  It’s had employees who lasted hours on the job and more than one who stuck around for over 50 years.  The current average employee has worked there 13 years and the last new hire was in 1993. 

Besides “survive”, Barnard Stamp has evolved to change with its times.  With a new website,  www.barnardstamp.com and its newest policy of  no smoking enacted Jan. 1, 2000, it continues to evolve and looks forward to the next 140 years!