Elgin National Watch Co Factory

By Davis, Jack

"Elgin National Watch Company"
"The Worlds Largest Watch Factory"
Oil on Canvass, unsigned.
Size:92 1/2in by 46 1/2in
Courtesy of Jon Hanson.

Elgin National Watch Company post cards Courtesy of Jon Hanson.

      The Elgin National Watch Company was organized in August of 1864 as the National Watch Company and later reorganized in February 1865 under a special charter granted by the General Assembly of the State of Illinois. A Board of Directors was selected with Benjamin W. Raymond as President, Benjamin F. Lawrence as Vice President and George M. Wheeler as Secretary. Elgin was selected shortly thereafter as the site for the plant with the town donating 35 acres of land for the factory and homes for selected personnel. Key personnel from the Waltham Watch Factory were lured to Elgin with promises of increased salaries, stock dividends and half-acre plots of land for homestead. By June, 1866, construction of the factory and installation of machinery for the manufacture of parts was completed that included a foundry and gas works for illumination as there was no gas company in Elgin at that time.

      The first movement was completed and put upon the market in April, 1867. It was a B.W. Raymond, 18s, full plate watch, key wound and set from the back with a quick train and straight line escapement, serial #101. That watch is now on display at the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin. Over the next several years the company not only expanded the product line to include several new grades and sizes, but also added to the factory to accommodate demand and increase productivity. By 1882 the floor space had grown from about 23,000 feet to 175,000 feet not counting out buildings. This expansion was fueled to a great degree by the Panic of '73 when wages were cut by 20% and dividends ceased to be paid for several years. In 1876 Elgin responded by reducing prices on all grades to below cost. Although losses were initially realized, the "popular price" policy eventually led to an increase in sales that made Elgin a major competitor in the American watch industry. By 1888 the company was turning out 1600 movements per day.

      By 1900, the company was beginning to recover from the economic downturn and labor unrest of the 1890's and, despite reduced hours, in 1901 Elgin manufactured and sold more than 600,000 movements of the 1,875,759 produced by all thirteen watchmaking firms in the United States in that year. By 1905, with the completion of a new plant, the company erected a structure that would dominate the Elgin landscape for the next 60 years. A 144 foot tall clock tower was constructed featuring a Seth Thomas clock that was the first self winding tower clock in operation. The visible part of the four dials was 14 feet across, automatically lighted and the 3 foot tall numerals could be distinguished from more than a half mile away. In 1910, in response to the increasing demand for accurate timekeepers, Elgin completed construction of and became the only company to maintain an observatory that observed and broadcasted time from the stars accurate to the hundredths of a second. The observations were converted into current time using a chronograph and stored in two Riefler Clocks, considered the most accurate timekeepers at that time. The observatory was eventually donated to local School District U-46 and is still in operation today.

      For several years following the expansion of the first decade of the 20th century, Elgin once again fell on hard economic times and it was not until the advent of World War One that the factory resumed full time operation. More importantly, the popularization of wrist watches worn by soldiers in the trenches propelled the Elgin National Watch Company into the forefront of watch manufacturers in the '20's. Elgin adapted quickly to this new demand manufacturing more than 9,000,000 movements in the 1920ís and making $22,000,000. A new expansion of the factory was begun and completed that included the establishment of the Watch College in 1921 and monthly publication of The Watch Word, a magazine that detailed news and events surrounding the lives of the Company employees. By 1929, however, with the Stock Market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, Elgin once again suffered severe decline. Although a small business recovery in 1936-1937 began to reverse the economic downturn, it was not until the outbreak of war in Europe and increased expenditures for national defense that the company returned to normal operation.

      Although the Elgin National Watch Company enjoyed some return to prosperity during WWII, there were indicators at the time that signaled the end for Elgin and the American watchmaking industry. From 1941-1945 more than 30 million Swiss jeweled movements entered the United States and from 1946-1950 imports averaged about 7.4 million per year or about 75% of domestic consumption. By 1953 only Elgin, Bulova and Hamilton remained among the major American watch manufacturers. Despite attempts to diversify and lower labor costs, over the next decade the company continued to decline. In 1955 the Observatory was shut down, the Watch Word stopped publication in 1956, the last dividend was paid in 1957 and in 1958 the Lincoln, Nebraska plant, opened in 1945, was closed. The Watch College was closed in 1960 and in an attempt to lower labor costs, a plant was opened in South Carolina in 1963 with the Elgin plant supplying parts for that operation. Ironically, shortly after celebrating the Centennial anniversary of the company, the main plant was declared obsolete and sold. By the summer of 1966 crews began razing the main plant until only the landmark clock tower remained. On October 3rd of that year dynamite charges brought down the remaining physical legacy of the Elgin National Watch Company factory. By 1967 the South Carolina plant was closed and the last remnants of the company were sold to a unit of Societe des Gard-Temps of Switzerland. Today, a shopping center occupies the site of the original factory. The entrance is flanked by the two concrete posts that marked the entrance to the factory and a bit of iron fence.

A Complete History of Watch and Clock Making in America by Charles S. Crossman
Elgin: An American History by E. C. Alft
Elgin Watch Time

Elgin National Watch Company entrance gate (2003) Courtesy of Jack Davis.


Submitted by: Samuel Kirk (2006-07-04 14:45:16)