Some survived the 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 companies, including production totals, dates, facts and trivia, and the people who made it happen.
The Aurora Watch Company was formed in Illinois in 1883 with the clever strategy of offering small-town jewelers a stake as investors. Production of 18-size movements began in 1884, turning out a little over 100,000 units during their 7-year run, including a few thousand 6-size ladies watches. The factory went into receivership in 1889 and 200 workers were out of a job, so the company reorganized, failed again a year later using the same name, and the equipment was finally sold to the upstart Hamilton Watch Company.
Webb Ball, a successful jeweler and store owner in his own right, was given authority as Chief Time Inspector in 1891 after the deadly Kipton, Ohio crash, overseeing thousands of miles of track.
The Ball Watch Company in Cleveland, Ohio did not actually make watches, but Webb Ball's strict guidelines were quickly adopted by existing firms, turning out watches under the Ball name. Railroad workers were required to submit their watches for monthly inspection, and the expression "on the ball" is attributed to Webster C. Ball's new accuracy standards.
German-born Dietrich Gruen started the company in Columbus, Ohio in 1874, and is credited for the invention of the safety pinion. The factory started making their own complete watches in 1882 after finishing Swiss-made movements for years, adding several unique innovations to the design. After reorganizing as the New Columbus Co in 1894, the company introduced the the Railway King, their first 25-jewel 18-size watch. In 1903 the Studebaker brothers bought the factory to form the South Bend Watch Company.
The National Watch Company was founded by several prominent Chicago investors in 1864 as the Civil War raged. Production began as soon as the huge new factory in nearby Elgin was completed, eventually manufacturing some 54 million watches, roughly equaling the total output of all other companies combined. As one of only three American watch brands to make wind-indicators, Elgin survived the Great Depression and both World Wars only to have the factory demolished in 1966.
Hamilton was incorporated in 1892 from the remnants of the Aurora, Lancaster, Keystone, and Adams & Perry companies. Widely recognized as the benchmark for accuracy standards, Hamilton made some 4 million railroad pocket watches, as well as chronometers for the US Navy. After WWII the company supplied the growing wristwatch trend, making the first electric model in 1957. Pairing first with Ricoh in 1962 and then Buren in 1966, Hamilton closed its US factory in 1969 and moved to Switzerland.
Combining the origins of both the Mozart Watch and New York Watch companies, Hampden was officially named in 1877 in Massachusetts. In 1886 case-maker John C. Dueber bought a majority interest in the company 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 renamed Dueber-Hampden in 1925 before the company went bankrupt and sold everything in the factory to the Russians in 1930.
Edward Howard, one of the founders of Boston Watch Company, created his own Howard Watch and Clock Co in 1863 after failing with several previous partners. Designing his own unique plate layouts, he is given credit for inventing both the "quick" gear train and the stem-wound mechanism on watches. Howard retired in 1881, but the firm continued to make watches before selling out in 1903 to the Keystone Case Company, which continued production out of the defunct US Watch factory until 1930 as Keystone-Howard.
The company's first incarnation was the Springfield Watch Co, organized in 1870 by a group of local businessmen. The venture was officially named the Illinois Watch Company in 1885 under Jacob Bunn Sr, and the firm would go on to manufacture more named grades than any other company. Illinois created the Sangamo Electric Co in 1899 to make electricity meters as the company steadily grew in volume until Bunn's death in 1926. Hamilton Watch Co bought the factory in 1927, but continued to make Illinois-brand watches until 1932.
The NY Standard Watch Company, organized in 1885 in New Jersey, turned out millions of low-grade watches under many different names, such as Solar, Edgemere, Crown, New Era, and Remington. Their highest grade was arguably the 15-jewel flyback chronograph, while several other 18-size models were equipped with an interesting "worm gear" escapement, but the bulk of their watches were 7-jewel grades. The factory was bought by the Keystone Case Co in 1903, and the last NY Standard watches were made in 1929.
Rockford, Illinois was a natural choice to headquarter a watch company, since three rail lines converged on the town. 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. Given the relatively small total output of some 800,000 units, the company made a remarkable array of models and grades, marketed almost exclusively to railroad employees. After a reorganization in 1896, the firm went broke in 1915 as World War I began.
The Seth Thomas Clock Company, founded in Connecticut in 1813, ventured into pocket watch production at the urging of founder Seth Thomas's grandson in 1885, and for the next 30 years made a little under 2 million watches in all the sizes of the day. At their peak in the 1890s the factory made more two-tone pattern variants than any other American brand, with their highest production grade being the 25-jewel Maiden Lane. Eventually succumbing to the "dollar watch" trend, the firm turned its efforts back to clock-making in 1915.
When the Columbus Watch Company failed in 1903, the Studebaker brothers bought it and transferred all the tooling and most of the workers to South Bend, Indiana. Famous for freezing their watches to demonstrate their accuracy, the factory made nearly a million watches in sizes 6 through 18, including their best-selling 16-size Studebaker. Failing to recognize the rising popularity of wristwatches contributed to the decline of the company, and the end came in the winter of 1929 with the Great Depression.
The United States Watch Company of Marion was organized by the Giles and Wales Co jewelers of NY 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 watches and their highest grade was the 19-jewel US Watch, which commanded an incredible price of $425. Beset by financial troubles, the firm reorganized as the Marion Co in 1874 and again in 1876 as the Empire Co before finally closing in 1877.
The Waltham Tool Co, founded in 1879, was reorganized as the US Watch Company in 1885 under the direction of patent-holder Charles Van Der Woerd from American Waltham, the man famous for inventing the automated screw-making machine. Total production was roughly 700,000 in the four most popular sizes, including the 21-jewel President. In 1899 legal suit was brought against the firm by the Waltham Watch Co for design similarity and use of the Waltham name on their movements. Bankruptcy followed, and the factory was sold to the Philadelphia Case Co in 1901.
The American Watch Company traced its roots back to three Massachusetts businessmen in 1850 who had a new approach to the cottage industry of watchmaking. After several name changes, Waltham emerged intact from the Civil War to make some of the most elegant works of mechanical genius ever seen. They were the only large American firm to offer a repeating pocket watch, which didn't last long because of a fire in the factory. The company made some 30 million watches and chronometers of all models and sizes before shutting down in the late 1950s.