The Elgin National Watch Company

     Jeff Sexton

The Elgin watch company was founded in 1864 in Elgin, Illinois as the National Watch Company. But right from the start folks referred to the new products as the watches from Elgin, or Elgin watches, so in 1874 the name was changed Elgin National Watch Company. Between 1864 and sometime in the 1960s, Elgin manufactured 10s of millions of pocket and wrist watches.  The Elgin National Watch Company was for a time, one of the largest industrial concerns in the world.

Elgin pocketwatches from the early years are particularly interesting because of the methods and philosophy of the Elgin company. Elgin used what were at the time quite advanced tools, techniques and labor practices to achieve a very high quality product, in high volumes, at a relatively affordable price. Elgin watches were created using mechanized, repeatable processes, organized quality control and standardized, interchangeable, parts. These things are all common practices in industry today, but not so at that time. The result was a product of high quality made in large quantities that dwarfed that of Elgin's competitors.

Prior to Elgin's time, watches were made completely by hand, frequently by a single craftsman, from start to finish. Repairs could only be completed on such watches by someone with sufficient skill to fabricate replacement parts, from scratch, from raw material. Elgin watches on the other hand, were mass manufactured and highly standardized. Spare parts parts were provided by Elgin that were drop-in replacements for the originals.

Elgin was extremely successful with this strategy. In fact, the company introduced more than half the watches made in America from 1920-1928. An Elgin advertisement in 1928 claimed that there were more than 14,418 retail jewelers in the United States and all but 12 carried Elgin watches.

Elgin recognized that craftsmanship and design were highly valued by the customer. A great deal of care and hand work went into these watches. The results were every bit as beautiful, elegant and as accurate as much more expensive competitors.

Elgin  watches are a product of a unique moment in industrialization and technological development. They were made on the cusp of mass manufacture, as we know it today, yet we would also say they were hand-made, and clearly by a labor force of significant skill. They are uniquely American, in every way.

The Elgin Watch Factory

Elgin's massive factory was built on 35 acres of land denoted by the city for the factory itself and housing for workers and staff. The initial construction was completed in 1866, although there were a number of additions over the years. At its peak it employed over 4500 people, more than half of which were women.

 Images from the Elgin Factory here

The factory complex was completely destroyed in 1966.  Today there is an unremarkable strip-mall at the site.

The Elgin Watchmakers' College

Elgin founded a watchmakers' college near its factory in 1920 in order to create a pool of watchmakers trained in the craft, and of course in Elgin watches specifically, and the Elgin parts system. Although the school operated independently from the Elgin company, the motivation was clear. Elgin's interchangeable, standardized parts system, together with a trained labor force of credentialed, commercial watchmakers was sure to promote Elgin's product line.  And it did.

The Watch Word, the Elgin factory magazine, printed an artical on the college on its 20th anniversary in 1940.

The school operated until 1960. The building has since been torn down.

 More about the Elgin Watchmaker's College
        From the Watch Word

My Grandfather, Everett Sexton, attended the Elgin Watchmakers' College after he graduated from high school. His instructors there were among the most renown watchmakers of the time. He is gone now, but Elgin pocketwatches remained favorites throughout his career.

Here's the watch school's students and and staff in a photo from a 1936 issue of The Watch Word. Everett Sexton is the second from the left in the first row.  Unfortunately, class photos like this were not a routine thing.  There are a few informal watch school photos taken in other years, but this one and one other of this '36 class that are the only images of this sort that I have seem.

The Elgin Observatory

The Elgin company was the only watch company of its day to construct an observatory, in 1910, dedicated to measuring time.  This was of course long before atomic clocks.

According to my Grandfather who toured the observatory in 1936, there was in use there a fixed telescope. An operator would lie on his back and observe the transit (meridian crossing) of stars.  Later images show a seated operator at the telescope, it may have been updated at some point. At the moment of the transit, the observer would press a button activating an electrical relay and setting two Riefler chronographs to exact time. 

The chronographs were kept in a separate room which only two people were allowed to enter at a time in order to avoid temperature shifts. The room was heated to a constant 81 degrees by dozens of light bulbs all around the room. Each light bulb had an individual thermastat turning it on and off as needed to maintain temperature. To control air pressure, each chronograph was sealed in a glass enclosure connected to an apparatus allowing air to be pumped in or out as needed..  Each clock was mounted on a concrete pier that extended down into the ground 60 feet. 

The exact time, within 10-hundredths of a second, was transmitted electrically from this facility to the factory.  Thus, using this facility, Elgin was able to accurately measure time to within hundredths of a seconds, and update clocks in the main building.

Elgin operated this system until 1958 when technology began providing better methods. The observatory structure still exists today at 312 Watch Street, Elgin, Il., just a block of National Street.  It is owned by the city and operated by the Elgin school distict as the Elgin U-46 Planetarium.

 Time of The Stars
A piece in Elgin's Watch Word company magazine

 The Time Observatory
Content at the ElginTime Watch Blog
Elgin Movement Serial Numbers

Elgin watch movements, completely American made over a one hundred year span, are all individually numbered between 101 and a bit over 50 million.  This serial number (engraved on the watch works itself, not on any part of the watch case) can be used to determine information about an Elgin watch including when it was made.   Check here for more information on Elgin serial numbers and production information.

Also, some later serial numbers begin with a single letter. If you have one of these, check here for more information. 

Pocketwatch Cases

For the most part, the Elgin National Watch Company never made pocket watch cases.  It should be noted though, that the Illinois Watch Case Company, of Elgin Illinois, was a major manufacturer of watch cases and their cases are often found marked "Elgin", "Elgin Giant" and other trade names containing the word Elgin.  These are not products of the Elgin National Watch Company.  Right up in the 1920s, the common practice was for customers to select watch movements and cases separately at the retail outlet.  The local watchmaker or jeweler would then fit the movement to the case at that time.

Case companies clearly used the word Elgin, the name of the city, to invoke an association with the quality reputation of the Elgin National Watch Co. Interestingly, the use of the name "Elgin" by the Illinois Case Company led to a lawsuit which went all the way to the US Supreme court.  The Elgin watch company lost that case, and to this day a previously used place name, such as the name of a city like "Elgin", may not be protected by US copyright.

Modern Elgin Watches, Quartz and Elgin Clocks

The Elgin National Watch Company went completely out of business and halted operation in 1968.  They never made a quartz product, and they never made clocks.  However it is a testament to the reputation of the original Elgins that the name continues to have value through association.  The Elgin name has passed through a number of hands over the decades. Today it is, as far as I know, owned by a company called MZ Berger, which offers a variety of modern watches and clocks, including quartz and mechanical movement.  These have no relation to the original Elgin company.

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