The Golden AGE
of american watchmaking...
Lets rewind 100 years...
wristwatch brands that are a household name today sounded like a foreign language to most hard working Americans. We were emerging from the industrial revolution as a powerful nation, and people wanted things to show off for the hard work that they did everyday. Both fashionable and utilitarian, An early symbol was the pocket watch.
Owning a pocket watch before the turn of the century was a symbol of your success. Pocket watches in the 19th century were still made primarily by lots of workers hand fitting parts together. It was laborious, required a large amount of manpower, and was not very cost effective. with the engine of the industrial revolution roaring to life in north-america in the late 1800's the industry began to change. small parts could be made in factories in mass quantities and the labor it took to create them was very cheap. a watch company went from making 1,000 movements a year to 100,000. Swiss companies who were still making movements by hand were being hammered by emerging companies in america producing watches of better quality for less. So after the american civil war, some watchmaking magic happened all across the country.
Groups of watchmakers and businessmen all over the industrial north began the formation of some of the largest companies to produce watches in the world. Names like Waltham, Elgin, Illinois, Ball, howard, Ingersoll and hamilton popped up across the continent, and the american watchmaking industry was born. for the brief stint (less than 150 years) that these companies were creating american made timepieces, some of the most legendary watches were created.
Thousands of people were put to work in these factories. Someone who was making virtually nothing as a general laborer could make as much as a dollar a week in the factory. Entire towns were built around these factories, Elgin illinois gets its namesake from the factory that started there. It was a magnificent time for watchmaking. Better an more reliable watches were being created, like most obstacles being tackled in the early part of the twentieth century, time became something you could harness in your pocket.
By the 1920's the pocket or the emerging wristwatch market was booming, wearing a watch on your wrist was commonplace. This generous time came to a screeching halt in 1929. The Financial depression of the early 1930's wiped out a greater majority of the abundant companies, mergers and buyouts were rampant. It seemed as though the entire industry was collapsing until government contracts in the beginning stages of another terrible world war started showing a comeback for the few companies that were left.
Unlike the first war, wristwatches were now a standard issued tool to each gi. Millions of watches poured back into the engine of americas military machine and for a short time things stabilized. Unfortunately, by the late 1950's overseas manufacturers were making watches much cheaper than stateside, and by the 60's with the soon to be quartz revolution on the horizon the last of the american companies closed their doors forever. Most were sold off to the highest bidder, or their names have been traded back and forth over the years.
Below is a brief history of the major manufacturers that were in the united states:
The Hamilton Watch Company:
Hamilton, like most American watch manufacturers started out as a group of watchmakers with the idea of creating their own watch company. A small company branded as the lancaster watch company sprung up outside of the rural village of lancaster pa. . Due to poor financial decisions and a mismanaged senior leadership, the company merged with the Keystone Watch Company which was also not doing too well itself. Re-branding with a new name in 1893 when they settled outside of Lancaster. they named the company in honor of the owner of the land they had been granted permission to build their factory on: James Hamilton.
This time around the watchmakers got it right and created an American powerhouse in Horology that would be the last holdout in the 1960's. They have too many notable models to list, but owning a Hamilton at the turn of the century was the equivalent of owning the finest quality watch today.
Unfortunately, like all the rest they met their demise due to poor marketing and not being able to keep up with a modern market streaming out of the east. Luckily they were purchased by the Swatch group in 1984 and kept alive, although they stopped making watches in America. The last of the Ameican Companies, Hamilton is still a familiar name that you can still purchase today in the mid grade watches of swatch group.
The Elgin National Watch Company:
Robert Johnson Included this brand in his iconic song "Walking Blues", a Motown band that ended up being called the Supreme's were originally going to call themselves the Elgins. This watch company was legendary for its presence in American Culture...
The Elgin National Watch Company was created in 1864 in Chicago Illinois. They started our like the rest of the groups of watchmakers wanting to start a company. What they didn't realize in 1864 is that within 50 years, they would be the largest watch manufacturer in the world. Elgin became so big that instead of moving into a larger factory space, they just decided to start a whole town. They stuffed an Elgin movement into almost anything that needed to keep time. Most early automobiles, aircraft, and anything else that moved could be found with an elgin movement keeping its time for the operator. Its incredible that half of the watches ever made in the United States came out of their factories. Elgin's most notable watches were named after one of its founders: B.W. Raymond. These were incredible railroad grade movements, although there are many other notable models that were made in their factory as well. in 1968 when they closed their doors for good Due to a more competitive overseas market...
The American Waltham Watch Company:
The apollo space capsules were designed with technology from the waltham factory.
Abraham Lincoln's watch was a Waltham...
David Scott, commander of the Apollo 15 mission used a Waltham on the Moon when his Omega broke.
Waltham was one of Americas earliest watch companies starting in 1850. a young henry ford based his factory production line off of how watches were created. The concept was simple, instead of having one person do every task to create a watch, have the watch built by many people that specialized in one last. additionally, make all of the parts in the watch exactly the same so that they can be interchanged when they fail. The geniuses over in the baked bean state revolutionized the idea of making parts interchangeable for their production models. Like Elgin, they created an entire town that was proudly called Waltham, today it is a National Historic Landmark. Through the turn of the century and into the 20th century, Waltham was a celebrated American brand. In the late 1920's, Waltham branched off into the scientific instrument industry, lending a little help from Their scientists by landing an American on the moon using gyroscopes they made. Their scientific instrument company lived on, but they closed their watchmaking doors in 1957...
The Illinois Watch Company:
The little watch company that could, until they went broke...
in my personal opinion, The Illinois Watch Company created some of the most beautiful watches ever made in America. In 1870, they got their start in Springfield. Encountering financial difficulties from the start, the company finally got its act together when John and Jacob Bunn took the reigns. Illinois made some very impressive watches during its tenure, most notably their "Bunn Special" which was a very reliable watch still sought highly after today. Illinois watches seem to have that little extra attention given to them that other companies did not look into. For instance, their cases are more ornate, their movements are beautifully constructed, and most notably their dials were stunning. All of this couldn't help the company through its continued financial problems. When Jacob Bunn Jr passed in the late 1920's, it sounded the deathbell for the company. It quickly fell into disarray and was scooped up by Hamilton in 1928 ,in 1932 due to Hamilton's own problems during the depression Illinois disappeared forever.