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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The American Pocket Watch

Author: James W. Neilson

( Article orginally published June 1964 )

Ancient artifacts witness to a preoccupation with time and its measurement, and no doubt the invention of the mechanical clock, late in the middle ages, worked a veritable r e v o 1 u t i o n in timekeeping. Only slightly less momentous was the development of the watch in the sixteenth century, not long after Peter Henlein of Nurnberg developed the spring-driven timepiece. Jewelry and timekeeping were now inexorably fused, presumably for all time.

The first watches were inaccurate by any standards, but improvements came steadily from the fertile minds of the later Renaissance. The hairspring dates to the latter half of the seventeenth century, and shortly after the eighteenth dawned, watchmakers began to use jewels in their movements. By the time our Founding Fathers reached the New World, watches were common among the well-to-do, though not within economic reach of common men.

Mass production of a variety of durable goods blurred class lines in the twentieth century by providing the people with goods once the exclusive property of the wealthy.

Democratization of the pocket watch, in the nineteenth century, came about through Aaron Lufkin Dennison. Before this time, importers supplied the American market with Swiss or English watches, expensive, handmade items all. The success of the New England clock industry failed to extend to the manufacture of watches, and it seems doubtful if American watchmakers turned out more than a few thousand before the middle of the century.

Pioneer Producer

Dennison was born in Freeport, Maine, in 1812, the son of a cobbler. As a boy he showed strong interest in things mechanical, utterly none in his father's trade. Seeing this, the senior Dennison apprenticed him to a Brunswick watchmaker. Some three years later, the 21-year old Aaron found employment in Boston as a full-fledged journeyman in his craft, and after a time he established his own shop.

Dennison failed to find contentment in repairing watches made by others. He was appalled at the quality of some of the workmanship he encountered, and he pondered the waste in producing each watch by hand.

The operation of the Springfield Armory fascinated and intrigued him; he visited it frequently, noting the efficiency of producing standardized muskets by mass production techniques. Eventually his mind encompassed a scheme by which watches could be mass-produced with standard parts fabricated by machinery. That the machine tool industry of his day was incapable of producing instruments of the precision required seems not to have occurred to him. Once he did grasp that somber fact, he began perfecting the necessary machinery.

With financial backing from Bostonian Samuel Curtis, and gifted watchmaker Edward Howard, Dennison founded the American Horologue Company, and established it in a plant at Roxbury. The sponsors soon changed the pompous-sounding name to Boston Watch Company; and determined on expanding operations to a point where mechanized mass production could be more fully utilized. Much of the machinery had proven inadequate, and Dennison set about to improve it. At last a new plant was ready at Waltham.

Success eluded Dennison- The market seemed unable to absorb the plant's output, perhaps because Dennison knew more about creating mass production than about stimulating mass demand. He was more mechanic and inventor than salesman. His company failed in the black year 1857.

Purchased by New York interests, it became the American Watch Company in 1859, and later the Waltham Watch Company. Dennison remained as the company's superintendent until 1861. Eventually he moved to England and became an apparently successful manufacturer of watch cases in Birmingham. He died in 1895.

From such shay beginnings, the American watch industry developed rapidly along lines which were intensely competitive. By 1870 there were at least 37 companies devoted exclusively to watch production, while some 60 firms engaged in their manufacture. Operations tended to be small scale-the 37 firms of 1870 employed only about 1800 men. The industry was marked by new incorporations, bankruptcies, and re-organizations.

Major Manufacturers

Gradually certain firms separated themselves from the field of competition and gained a modicum of reputation and status. The pioneer producer which eventually became the Waltham Watch Company, was one.

Another was the producer generally referred to as "Elgin," the result of a union of three diversely talented men: John C. Adams, a watchmaker, Benjamin W. Raymond, a former Chicago mayor and businessman, and George B. Adams, a successful jeweler of Elgin, Illinois. The three joined forces in 1864 to organize the National Watch Company. It began to produce timepieces three years later, and in 1874 became the Elgin National Watch Company. It was, perhaps, the best managed of the watch companies; certainly it could boast it paid dividends from the beginning, and in its first six years had produced and sold 42,000 watches!

The Illinois Springfield Watch Company, organized in 1869, was the second producer of pocket watches in the Prairie State. After doubtful manoeuverings and two or three reorganizations, it became the Illinois Watch Company, and for years maintained the status of a major producer whose watches enjoyed high repute.

The Dueber-Hampden interests constituted another major producer. John C. Dueber founded a watch case business in Cincinnati in 1864, and in a few years his company held leading position in the industry. In 1886, it consolidated with the H a m p d e n Watch Company, a Massachusetts concern organized in 1877, and the business was moved to Canton, Ohio.

A late birth characterized the final giant of the industry. This was the Hamilton Watch Company which came into existence in 1892 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, primarily to manufacture railroad watches. Within a short time, its name was symbolic of extreme timepiece accuracy.

Watches For Everyone

While the major watch companies developed, competed, and produced high quality timekeepers, other firms tried to exploit a mass market. Despite generally declining prices, watches remained relatively expensive in an era when a dollar was a fair day's wage. The Waterbury Watch Company, organized in 1880, began to produce inexpensive watches some ten years after its founding. Success was immediate despite mechanical inconveniences associated with the watches, best known of which was the eight or nine foot mainspring that seemingly took forever to wind.

Probably the sales policies of the company, more than any other factor, led to eventual failure. The Waterbury Company sold large numbers of its watches at low wholesale prices, and they were often given away by merchants as premiums, usually with the sale of men's or boys' suits. An image of cheap merchandise, of shoddy goods at all-wool prices, came to adhere to the Waterbury; its popularity declined. The company reorganized in 1898 as the New England Watch Company, but its best efforts could not avert failure in 1912.

It was Robert H. Ingersoll who made the "dollar watch" famous. Ingersoll was a Michigan farm boy who arrived in New York City in 1879. He established a mail order business, engaged in manufacturing gadgets he invented, and dealt in bicycles and parts. About 1893 he entered the watch business, selling the cheap watches that bore his name, first for $1.50, later for one dollar. He bought the bankrupt New England Watch Company in 1914 and utilized its facilities to produce dollar watches. Over-expansion during World War I turned out to be disasterous, and the Ingersoll company was forced to admit insolvency in the '20s.

By that date the American watch industry had been rationalized into a few major firms. The halcyon years of the pocket watch were over.

Watch Cases

Watch cases could be plain, engineturned, or engraved. For those engraved there were several favorite motifs. One was the locomotive, the monster of the steam age, generally found on cheaper watches, appealing to youths for whom the locomotive held romance and fascination.

Another, often found on the better gold-filled cases, depicted the noble woodland stag; he appeared time and again in different scenes and poses, often on the cover of hunting cases. Birds were less frequently used on watches intended for men than on ladies' timepieces where they hovered over honeysuckle, touched beaks over nests, or bore streamers of ribbons.

Most of all, engravers delighted in portraying romantic cottages in dreamy, bucolic settings. Italianate villas with towers, or sharply gabled Gothic cottages were depicted in country glades reminiscent of the work of the Hudson River artists.

The amount and quality of engraving on watch cases varied with price and material. A coin silver case was plain, or ornamented with a relatively simple picture. The technique of producing the gold-filled case limited the art which could be practised on it. Lines had to be broad and shallow; delicate engraving utilizing many fine lines was impossible.

It was on the solid gold caseusually a hunting case-that the engraver's true talent could be expended. Elaborate scroll designs could be executed, fine lines cut to produce effects of most delicate shading. Many were custom made-and a solid gold presentation piece could be truly a work of art.

The Watches Men Carried

Jewelers and mail order houses were quick to realize that different styles and price ranges appealed to various segments of watch-toters.

A farmer or workman liked a heavy, thick watch of coin silver, or silver plated with brass to resemble gold. He referred to it as a "turnip." In the earlier period, before 1890, it was usually wound with a key rather than by a stem, and might be either open face or closed. In general. it was severely plain or engine turned, orwith a minimum of engraving. It was designed to sell at a low price and give years of service; often it kept quite accurate time.

Railroad men needed a dependable timepiece, accurate beyond the capacity of most watches, and the industry provided them "Guaranteed to pass railroad inspection." Their cases were usually gold-filled. and normally, open face. They were expensivefrom $75 up, in a day when even an engineer made no more than $100 a month-and jewellers sold them on credit, so much down, so much a month.

Office workers and small business men chose watches in gold-filled cases, albeit less accurate and less costly than those carried by the railroaders. Dudes and fancy dressers preferred hunting cases on elaborate chains or fobs.

For the man of wealth, taste alone dictated the limits of elegance in a timepiece. The elder J. Pierpont Morgan is remembered to have worn a truly monumental example of the watchmaker's art. which he combined with a cable-like chain and huge bloodstone pendant.

Watches were heavy and massive not because of technological limitations, but because the market preferred them that way. Women's watches indicated very well that the industry was capable of producing small, thin watches which kept accurate time.

Watch Chains

Up to the turn of the century, most watch chains were thick and heavy. Links, either gold or gold-filled, were made in a variety of designs from relatively simple to wondrously complex. Engraved gold fittings capped either end of the chain, and some sort of pendant was suspended from the chain proper, depending from a point near the crossbar which fitted through a vest buttonhole. For key wind watches, the pendant was likely the key itself. Legend has it that college sports first had watch keys made bearing the Greek letters of their fraternal brotherhoods.

For stem wind watches, only imagination limited what could be attached to a chain. Greek letter keys and emblems of fraternal organizations and lodges were popular. So were lockets, in a variety of shapes, engraved with the owner's initials, small compasses, plain or fancy charms from small gold amulets to carved cameos, large semi-precious stones, or of diamond-studded gold.

The dude who demanded something stunning to set off his fancy waistcoat often settled on a multi-strand chain woven from a lock of his sweetheart's hair. Properly adorned with gold or silver fittings, this "vestguard" type of chain was high style. Other snappy dressers favored fobs rather than chains. These might be as much as six inches long, and an inch and a half wide, of gold, or spangled with semi-precious stones.

Restraint in Style

But "good taste" worked a revolution in watch accessories, too. Charms became less heavy and ornate, less likely. to draw attention to themselves. Some men forgot, after the turn of the century, to wear pendants at all, though occasionally a gold-plated cigar clipper was hung inconspicuously from a narrow chain. Chains now stretched entirely across a vest from pocket to pocket, and bore a small penknife at one end.

Even the fob grew genteel. It shrunk to perhaps four inches in length and three-quarters of an inch in width; it was now plain gold or of cloth, entirely unobstrusive. The whole vest front display bespoke culture and gentility. The vigorous self-assertion of the 19th century was passe. Some men even left their vests entirely unadorned, and carried their watches in small pockets in their trousers, usually on plain cloth fobs.

Watch-carrying habits of the American male were changed by World War I, when the wrist watch became increasingly popular. The young men of the '20s adopted the wrist watch as their own, and by the time of the second World War, the wrist watch had triumphed almost completely. Only a few antiquarians and men of the railroad fraternity continue to carry pocket watches now. Even the railroads, one by one, are permitting their operating employees to use wrist watches. With the pocket watch, something of the picturesque passes from the American scene.

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