Some survived the Great Depression into the new century, while others lasted only a few years.
Here are brief histories of some of the larger and more well-known American watch companies, including production totals, dates, facts and trivia, and the people who made it all happen.
The Aurora Watch Co was formed in Aurora, Illinois in 1883 with the unusual strategy of offering small-town jewelers a stake as investors. Production began in 1884, turning out a little over 100,000 watches during their 7-year run, including ladies sizes. The factory cleverly designed a single 18-size plate layout and simply added a 5th pinion for the seconds hand when used for open-face. Their highest grade was the two-tone snowflake pattern, marked 15 Ruby Jewels but containing seventeen in the open-face variant. Aurora went into receivership in 1889 and 200 workers were out of a job, so the company re-organized with different investors, failed again a year later, and the equipment was finally sold to the upstart Hamilton Watch Co in 1890.
Webster Clayton Ball, a successful jeweler and store owner in his own right, was given authority as Chief Time Inspector in 1891, overseeing thousands of miles of track after the deadly crash in Kipton, Ohio between locomotives from the Lake Shore and the Michigan Southern Railways. Existing American watch companies quickly adopted Ball's strict new guidelines, turning out watches under the Ball name and creating a list of approved models. Railroad workers were required to submit their watches for monthly inspection and carry cards showing service records, and the expression "on the ball" is attributed to those accuracy standards. The Ball Watch Co purchased movements from other companies, re-selling them under that name, along with the Brotherhood line. Ball himself became vice-president of the Hamilton Watch Co, dying in 1922.
27-year-old German-born Dietrich Gruen started the company in Columbus, Ohio in 1874, finishing Swiss-made movements for several years and receiving a patent for the invention of the safety pinion. Investors contributed fresh capital and a new factory was built in 1882, allowing the company to start making their own complete watches, including the first 16-size watch in America. Gruen left in 1894 to form the Gruen Watch Co with his son, and Columbus re-organized under new management as the New Columbus Co, introducing the 25-jewel Railway King as their highest grade. After making a little under a half-million watches in twenty years, the Studebaker brothers bought the factory and all the tooling in 1903 to form the South Bend Watch Co.
The National Watch Co was founded in 1864 as the Civil War raged by several prominent Chicago investors, including mayor Benjamin W Raymond. Production began as soon as the huge new factory in nearby Elgin, Illinois was completed, eventually manufacturing some 54 million watches, roughly equaling the total output of all other American brands combined. The company was officially re-named Elgin Watch Co in 1874 and dominated the market with low to mid-grade watches for the next half-century. The firm built the National Observatory in 1910 and survived the Great Depression and both World Wars, only to have the old factory demolished in 1966.
Hamilton was incorporated in 1892 from the remnants of the Aurora, Lancaster, Keystone, and Adams & Perry companies, named for the Scottish attorney who founded the Pennsylvania town of Lancaster, where the factory was located. Widely recognized as the benchmark for accuracy standards, Hamilton claimed over 50% of the market during the railroad era, producing some 4 million pocket watches, as well as chronometers for the US Navy. After purchasing the Illinois Watch Co in 1928 the company concentrated on the growing wristwatch trend, making their first battery-powered model in 1957. Hamilton paired with the Japanese firm of Ricoh in 1962 and then the Swiss Buren in 1966 before closing its US factory in 1969 and moving to Switzerland.
Combining the origins of both the Mozart Watch and New York Watch companies, Hampden was officially named in 1877 in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1886 case-maker John C Dueber bought a majority interest in the company, named his new venture the Hampden-Dueber Watch Co and moved it to Canton, Ohio. Turning out both cases and movements from adjoining buildings brought on one of the first anti-trust lawsuits in history, but Hampden was most famous for introducing the first 23-jewel watch in America. The firm was re-named Dueber-Hampden in 1925, with Dueber himself getting out two years later. The company produced roughly 3 million watches in all sizes before going bankrupt and selling everything to the Russians in 1930.
Edward Howard started as a clockmaker's apprentice and founded what would eventually become American Waltham in 1850, along with partners David Davis and Aaron Dennison. Using equipment and material from the failed Boston Watch Co, he started designing his own split-plate layouts in 1858 with financial backing from Charles Rice. He created his own Howard Watch and Clock Co in 1863 after splitting with Rice, and is given credit for introducing the "quick" gear train of 18,000 BPH and inventing the stem-wound mechanism on watches a decade later.
Howard himself retired in 1881, but the company continued as E Howard & Co before selling out in 1902 to the Keystone Case Co, which continued production with entirely different designs out of the defunct US Waltham factory as Keystone-Howard until 1930.
The company's first incarnation was the Springfield Watch Co, organized in 1870 by a group of local businessmen with a startup capital of $100,000. The venture was officially named the Illinois Watch Co in 1885 under Jacob Bunn Sr, and the firm grew steadily, employing some 1200 workers at its peak and turning out some 5 million watches in more named grades than any other brand. Illinois made the business decision to produce only higher-grade watches, including the popular Bunn Special and Sangamo lines, and also created the Sangamo Electric Co in 1899 to make electric utility meters. The death of Jacob Bunn Jr in 1926 led to the sale of the factory to the Hamilton Watch Co the following year, which kept making Illinois-brand watches until 1932.
The Lancaster/Keystone/Hamilton trilogy began with the Adams & Perry Co and its construction of a new factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1874. Plagued with cash flow problems from the start, J C Adams split with partner E H Perry over a dispute the following year, and after producing only a few hundred watches the company re-organized in 1877 with new investors as the Lancaster Watch Co, using the same building. Over the next decade the factory turned out some 200,000 movements with jewel counts as high as twenty on their famous "dustproof" model, which had a mica window over the balance wheel. After re-structuring twice more, the bulk of the company stock was sold to shareholder Abram Bitner and re-named the Keystone Standard Watch Co, which continued production using the same designs. Four years later in 1892 the company went bankrupt, and the factory was sold to the newly-created Hamilton Watch Co.
The New York Standard Watch Co, organized in 1885 in Jersey City, New Jersey, turned out millions of low-grade watches under many different names, including Solar, Edgemere, Crown, New Era, Remington and others. Several models were equipped with an interesting straight-line worm-gear escapement, backed by the advertising slogan of a "Watch With A Worm In It". While their highest grade was arguably the 15-jewel flyback chronograph, the vast majority of their output were cheap 7-jewel movements with exceptionally poor fit and finish. The factory was bought by the Keystone Case Co in 1903, and the last NY Standard watches were made in 1929.
The Non-Magnetic Watch Co had offices in Geneva and New York, fitting Swiss movements with Charles-Auguste Paillard's patented alloy hairspring, which worked so well that it was endorsed by Thomas Edison himself. In early 1888 the Non-Magnetic Watch Co of America was formed with $500,000 and bought the American half of the Geneva operation, selling watches made by the Peoria Watch Co. The venture went bankrupt in 1890 and was re-organized several times in the next few years under Alfred Smith as the Paillard Co, Non-Magnetic Co, and A C Smith Co, selling watches now made by Elgin and Illinois through Chicago wholesaler A C Becken until 1910.
Rockford, Illinois was a natural choice to headquarter a watch company, since three rail lines converged on the town. Local investors put up $150,000 and production began in 1875, as workers in the new factory on the Rock River turned out watches using tooling from the failed Cornell Watch Co. The factory made a remarkable array of grades and models, including wind-indicators, eventually producing around 800,000 watches marketed almost exclusively to railroad personnel. After a financial re-structuring under new owners in 1896, the factory endured fire, lightning, and employee layoffs until the company finally closed its doors in 1915.
The Seth Thomas Clock Co, established in Connecticut in 1813, ventured into pocket watch production at the urging of founder Seth Thomas's grandson in 1885, constructing a giant 4-story factory for the new line. For the next 30 years the company produced roughly 2 million watches in all the popular sizes of the day, including 0-size movements that could be used for wristwatches. Their highest railroad grade was the 25-jewel Maiden Lane, and at their peak in the 1890s the factory made more two-tone pattern variants than any other American brand. Eventually, the cheap "dollar-watch" trend proved too much and the firm went back to making clocks in 1915.
When the Columbus Watch Co failed in 1903, the Studebaker brothers bought it and transferred all the tooling and most of the workers to a new factory in South Bend, Indiana. Famous for freezing their watches to demonstrate their accuracy, the factory produced roughly a million of them in sizes 6 through 18, including the popular 16-size Studebaker, which could be had via mail-order. The interruption of military contracts in WWI, selling watches on credit with little money down, backing them with a lifetime guarantee, and the failure to recognize the rising popularity of wristwatches all contributed to the company's decline, and the end came in 1929 with the Great Depression, though the factory continued to service watches well into the 1950s.
The United States Watch Co of Marion, New Jersey was organized by Giles & Wales, jewelers in New York City. Production began in 1867, making gilt 18-size movements with a distinctive butterfly-shaped cutout on the upper plate. They were the first American company to mill damaskeen patterns on their plates to improve their appearance, with a total output of fewer than 100,000 watches. Their highest grade was the 19-jewel US Watch, which was marketed at the astounding price of $425. Not surprisingly, the firm was beset by financial troubles, re-organizing as the Marion Co in 1874 and again in 1876 as the Empire Co before closing in 1877.
The Waltham Tool Co was created in 1879 as a subsidiary of American Waltham, and re-organized as the US Watch Co of Waltham in 1885 under the direction of patent-holder Charles Van Der Woerd, the man famous for inventing the automated screw-making machine. A new factory was constructed, and the first marketed design was the Dome watch, a 16-size model that was too wide to fit into a standard case, which didn't sell. The total production was roughly 800,000 in the four most popular sizes, including the 21-jewel President, which claimed an impossible accuracy of within 6 seconds a month. In 1899 legal suit was brought against the firm by the American Waltham Co for design similarity and for the use of the Waltham name on the rival movements. Bankruptcy eventually followed, and the factory was sold to the Philadelphia Case Co in 1901.
The American Watch Co traced its roots back to three Massachusetts businessmen in 1850 who had a new approach to the cottage industry of watchmaking. David Davis, Edward Howard, and Aaron Dennison founded the Warren Manufacturing Co in Roxbury with the novel concept of interchangeable parts, designing many of the production machines themselves. Work began in 1851 with financial backing from Samuel Curtis, although the first watches weren't offered to the public until 1853. After building a new factory on the Charles River in nearby Waltham and several inceptions, including Boston Watch Co and Appleton, Tracy & Co, the company emerged barely intact from the Civil War, re-naming itself American Waltham in 1885. The factory made some 30 million watches of all models and sizes, including repeating pocket watches, a rarity among American brands, before declaring bankruptcy and shutting down in the late 1950s.
Trace the histories of the smaller upstarts that failed for various reasons, were sold off, or got absorbed by the bigger factories.
Learn who made millions of cheap unjeweled "dollar watches", helping to contribute to the decline of the railroad timepiece.