Wartime effects on the Waltham Watch Factory (1850-1865).

By Amy Green, Ph.D.

Listed under the state and national registers of historic places in 1989, the Waltham Watch Company revolutionized modern manufacture, attracting visitors from all over the world.  Like its predecessors, the textile factories in New England, it mass produced all aspects of production under one roof.  But in comparison to textiles, this was nothing short of a miracle given that watches were made up of over 160 miniature, moving pieces.  Mass production supplanted the former cottage industry, hand assembling parts at different locations–an imprecise and time consuming process that produced a very expensive finished product.  The factory also introduced precision machines (heretofore used primarily in gun manufacture) to forge miniature parts for the watch movement.  They used fairly advanced assembly line methods to piece together the watch as a whole.   This investigation of watchmaking and modern manufacture will highlight the themes above, but especially it will discuss the economic vulnerability of this enterprise in the 1850s and its surprising reprieve during the Civil War.

In 1850, Aaron Dennison, a watchmaker from Boston, wanted to establish watchmaking on a large-scale. He envisioned a Boston-based factory with global leadership, one that abandoned traditional methods, maintained a standard of excellence, and produced a variety of watch types, at a lower cost.  First located in Roxbury Massachusetts, and operating under many different names, the factory finally found its home in 1854, purchasing vacant farmland by the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts.[1]  By 1885 the name of the factory was changed from the American Watch Factory to the American Waltham Watch Company, and was renamed the Waltham Watch Company in 1905.   Riddled with both successes and failures, the company struggled to maintain profitability throughout its existence, and was especially vulnerable to market volatility during the 1850 and 1860s. 

Still, its achievements made it a leader in the Industrial Revolution: a mass produced timepiece boasting a level of precision outshining all watchmaking world-wide.  This major innovation in watchmaking was made possible by the invention of automatic machines, designed to produce watch parts with great efficiency, eliminating, as mentioned earlier, the craft production of watches. Waltham’s greatest achievement to which other businesses and manufacturers aspired was standardization in all processes processes of production: 1) standardization of the actual watch parts, which I will discuss in more detail below, and 2) standardization of the actual assembly process, bringing efficiency into the movement and motions of each laborer, technically referred to as the division of labor—dividing labor into efficient units requiring only one or a few, repetitive tasks—anticipating the modern assembly line.  

The idea to adopt a process of manufacture, (whereby the miniaturized pieces for the watch could be produced by machinery), and where watches could then be mass produced was radical in its reach.   Dennison, youthful and idealistic, was the watch repairman who first put this idea into practice, and was joined in his efforts by three investors from Boston.  Dennison introduced and applied the concept of “standardized, interchangeable parts.”[2]  Of great inspiration to Dennison was the Springfield Armory, where he was a regular observer—here parts for rifles were so “identical in form and dimension” that they could be interchanged between any gun model.[3]  No longer having to specialize each part for each product,  interchangeability cut costs, increased efficiency, and overall precision of the final product. When applied to the machining of watches, unfortunately, the parts were not always interchangeable, and each watch had unique errors that had to be fixed.[4]

Notwithstanding the early shortcomings of interchangeable parts, the machining improved over time, and despite the obstacles mentioned above, machining led to a superior watch, for handwork could never match machine work in precision and quantity.  For example, Charles Vander Woerd’s Automatic Screw Machine, pictured here (and see video below), made highly refined, miniature screws.  One operator might attend over six of these machines, producing fifty to sixty thousand screws a day. By comparison, using older methods,  a watchmaker with the help of an assistant might make up to fifteen hundred screws in a day, maximum.

By 1884, the factory in Waltham had produced over two million five hundred watches!  Waltham employed as many as two thousand, four hundred laborers, a jump from their earliest figure of seventy five.   And, by 1890, Waltham Watch Factory delivered “nearly twenty-two hundred finished movements” per day.[5]  The American System of Manufacturing, whereby machines made machines, was taken to a new level at Waltham—so much so that legend has it that the Swiss, and automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, among other individuals and groups, came to view the miracle of the machined made watch.   Of interest to Ford was the streamlining of the workplace, generating more out of each worker than previously known, an inspiration to his famed assembly line process.   While the Swiss came to the factory to observe and learn about the making of precision watch movements.

The period between the late 1860s through the 1890s witnessed the greatest demand for the Waltham watch, and profits greatly increased.  Yet it took the Civil War to ignite this demand and rescue the company from financial ruin. The 1857 financial panic spelled bankruptcy for the company, which was still struggling to establish itself.  At auction, Royal E. Robbins bought the factory for fifty-six thousand dollars, and also set out to help Waltham watch get back on its feet.  With workers willing to take pay cuts, as much as fifty percent, the factory began to slowly recover[6]

While the war brought another ominous stop to production-, and while some historians claim that the Waltham Watch Factory continued to struggle throughout the 1860s, they would be wrong, however.  From an unexpected source, there arose a great demand for Waltham Watches: Civil War soldiers.[7]  In Robbins’ narrative of the watch company, he dramatically refers to the Civil War's boost to production: “But the calamity of war, from which so much feared, became the occasion of great prosperity; for the soldiers in the army wanted watches and the watch company exerted itself to meet the demand.”[8]

Not only did this demand breathe new life into the factory, it compelled Dennison to design cheaper watches “for use of the volunteer soldiers.”[9]  In 1861, a watch movement, named the William Ellery, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, became known as the “soldiers watch.”[10]   The Ellery watch, without the case, could be purchased for thirteen dollars.  In this respect, the war forced Waltham watch to produce and reproduce more affordable timepieces, including the Bartlett watch that sold for sixteen dollars.  The soldiers’ demand and purchase of Waltham watches, one might argue, saved the factory in the moment and over time. The Bartlett watch, for example, remained their most popular timepiece, produced during the full course of the factory’s life span (1850-1954).[11]

Many sources testify to the popularity of the William Ellery Watch, also known as the Model 1857, during the mid nineteenth century.  That is, there remain many Ellery watches from this time period that can be found at museum sites and at online merchandise sites such as the lot in the photo below, from an eBay seller, of eight antique William Ellery timepieces.

Even Abraham Lincoln was presented with a gift of a William Ellery watch, housed now at the Smithsonian. One Smithsonian curator, Carlene Stephens, has also delved into the history of a watch owned by G. D. O’Farrell, a Civil War battlefield surgeon, who served in two Pennsylvania regiments, between 1863 and 1865. 

She conjectures, given the wear and tear,  that the watch may have been used to take a patient's pulse, to catch a local train on time, etc.  The inscription inside certainly ties the watch to the war:  “White Hall USA Gen’l Hospital, Feb. 15, 1865 Presented to Dr. G. D. O’Farrell, USA, by the patients of Ward C as a token of regard & respect for his ability as a surgeon and unswerving integrity as a man.”  A Pinterest site, also displays (for sale) a William Ellery watch and conjectures that it may have been a soldier's watch.  According to this site:  “The Waltham Watch Company Model 1857 is known as the first successful industrialized watch in America, and the ones from the Civil War period are greatly sought after by collectors.”  Other sites offer the same model, from the same time period, ranging in price from nine hundred and fifty dollars, to over one thousand dollars.

According to a Smithsonian article, these two watches, Ellery and Bartlett, were in such demand that “roving merchants” went from encampment to encampment hawking them!  But why were soldiers demanding these watches?  Well just as the industrial revolution produced precision run factories according to clock-time, so it was thought that the battlefield could be organized like a seamless, clockwork machine.  Afterall, watches were no longer just expensive keepsakes, they were integral to the organization of society and work during the mid nineteenth century.  Who could afford these watches is not entirely clear—the salary for a volunteer soldier was on average thirteen dollars a month, and for an officer as much two hundred and twelve dollars a month. 

With the general affordability and widespread availability of watches, officers hoped to use these timepieces to coordinate efforts on the battlefield.[12]  But it was not to be.  This was a period before standardized time zones, so each officer’s watch was coordinated to local time, so the variation of local times, among other things, plagued the soldier. That Albany was one minute and 1 second ahead of New York City, and Baltimore 10 minutes, 27 second behind mattered little before Civil War as individuals would simply adjust their watches indicated by local railroad schedules or a public clock.  On the field, theses differences of seconds or minutes could be disastrous as individuals consulted their own watches, timed to their own localities, or homes.   Time on the battlefield was then determined by nature’s rhythms (dusk and dawn), and the specific orders of the commanders and generals. 

During the Civil War, watches did often fail to coordinate attacks but they were relied upon by the North and South in the field despite their deficiencies.  Also they were in demand for other reasons as well.  During this period of increased nationalism, union soldiers wanted an American watch, undercutting the bias in the States towards European timepieces.  Finally, according to a Smithsonian exhibit, On Time: How America has learned to live by the Clock,  “as watches became part of the dress of ordinary men and women, people increasingly saw time in terms of the watch dial.”[13]   So, the soldiers’ demand for watches was also driven by modernity, as our country shifted from the rhythms of the sun to the insistence of the clock.

[1] E. A. Marsh, History of Waltham Watch Company.

[2]https://www.eliwhitney.org/7/museum/about-eli-whitney/factory .

[3] Marsh, p 8.

[4] Marsh, http://www.pocketwatchrepair.com/histories/waltham.html

[5] Marsh, 62.

[6] Marsh, 23-25.

[7] Marsh, 27; http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2011/08/a-closer-look-at-a-civil-war-watch.html; Cheryl A. Wells, Civil War Time: Temporality and Identity in America, 1861-1865, The University of Georgia Press, Athens and London, 2005, p. 7.

[8] Marsh,

[9] Marsh, 27.

[10] http://www.oldwatch.com/waltham.html

[11] Marsh, 27.

[12] Civil War Watches,p. 7.

[13] http://americanhistory.si.edu/ontime/mechanizing/machine.html