Watchmaking in America: A Very Brief History

Vibrating a hairspring at the Hamilton factory

The American Watchmaking Industry is one of the great stories of the American industrial revolution. The watches produced by American manufacturers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the finest in the world, exhibiting the highest levels of craftsmanship, precision engineering and manufacturing innovation.

Earliest Efforts at American Watchmaking

The earliest days of the watchmaking industry in the United States were hampered by a lack of metallurgical skills and raw materials; watches could hardly be made out of wood, as were some of the earliest American clocks. Many early American watchmakers imported movements or parts from England. These imports were disrupted by Jefferson's embargo of 1807, which gave rise to the first serious attempt at American watch manufacturing by Luther Goddard & Sons, in Shrewsbury, Mass.

Henry and James Pitkin became the first to attempt machine-based "mass-production" of pocket watches in 1838. Even though they used some imported parts in their watches, they are credited with being the first to use American machine-made parts to produce a watch.

American Watchmaking Hits Its Stride

By 1859, however, the American Watch Company (later to be known as the American Waltham Watch Company), with Aaron Dennison (considered by many to be the Father of American Watchmaking) as technical supervisor, was producing distinctly American watches using efficient machine-based metal-working methods inspired partly by Swiss models and partly by recent innovations in American small-arms manufacturing.  Several more major manufacturers, such as Elgin, Adams & Perry (later Hamilton), E. Howard, the Illinois and New York companies, and Cornell in far-off San Francisco, opened factories between 1858 and 1875, and American watch manufacturing was in full-swing.

 By 1900 the stringent timekeeping demands of the railroads were shaping the characteristics of the American railroad watch, and the largest firms were producing hundreds of thousands of watches annually. Elgin and Waltham produced a million watches per year in their heyday!

Aaron Dennison - The Father of American Watchmaking

American Watch Designs

Early American watch designs were not especially innovative; few completely new or unfamiliar mechanisms appeared in American watches, but American watchmakers took such refinements as overcoil hairsprings, compensated balances and the complete jewelling of train wheels from the realm of the exotic to the commonplace.

In appearance, watches of 18 size or larger were often full-plate until after 1900, when 3/4 plate watches (with recessed balance) became the norm. Smaller calibers often used a bar-bridge design with each bridge locating several wheels instead of only one — a pattern which became almost universal in the wrist-watch age.  

American watches traditionally used grade-names;  in addition to or instead of the manufacturer, a watch might be marked with the name of a company director or supporter ( e.g. Waltham's ‘P. S. Bartlett’, Elgin's ‘B. W. Raymond’), a descriptive or patriotic phrase (e.g. ‘Ladies' Stem Wind’, ‘Native Son’) or the name of a historical character (e.g. New York's ‘John Hancock’, Hampden's ‘Molly Stark’).   A single watch model might be produced over several years and different production "runs", and might come in several different grades or levels of finish each distinguished by an individual name.

American Watch Production

Total production of jeweled pocket watches by American watchmakers is estimated at about 114 million watches. This doesn't count the 500 million inexpensive "dollar-style" watches that were made by companies like Ingersoll and New Haven. Elgin and Waltham together accounted for nearly 80% of the total production of jeweled pocket watches. For a more complete summary of American watch production, please see this page.

Explore our Company Histories

We have compiled a lengthy list of companies manufacturing watches in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as brief histories of many of the more successful and influential American watch companies. We've also included a few of the more historically important Swiss manufacturers. Wherever possible, we have listed serial numbers and production dates to help in establishing the approximate age of your watch. We encourage you to use these histories (select from the menu at the left) as a starting point to learn about your watch and this rich and fascinating chapter in the industrial and technological history of the United States.