With European watchmaking having a well established history, it was only a matter of time that European immigrants would bring their skills to the New World. In the 19th century—with the United States in its early stages—there was plenty of new opportunity for industrious immigrants to empower their ideas via an increasingly industrialized market. As the 1800s were moving forward, new ideas in standardized parts manufacture, typically in the firearms industry, introduced the trend of crafting interchangeable parts for mass production. In terms of watches, no one in the world had applied this concept to watch manufacture—until 1850. It was in 1850 that Aaron Dennsion, David Davis, and Edward Howard set out to start the first fully American watch company—with watches built to have interchangeable parts. Indeed, what would later come to be known as the Waltham Watch Company broke ground on a style of watchmaking that would carry on through the 20th century until today. Although what’s left of their old manufacturing facility is now a National Historic Site (as of 1989), their history is a story of New World innovation—and part of the greater history of the United States.
Waltham and the 1850s:
It’s a bit of an irony that the first mass-produced watches in the world were designed and built in a state abbreviated “Mass.”. As it were, Waltham didn’t actually begin in Waltham Mass.—where their manufacturing facilities would ultimately end up. This pioneering brand’s original inception began in Roxbury Mass.—well Southeast of their eventual home on the Charles River.
After initially partnering up—and attaining the backing of investor Samuel Curtis (a highly successful firearms manufacturer)—Dennis, Davis, and Howard set up their first manufacturing facility in 1851. In that year, production on their first watches began. By 1852, their first batch of watches was complete. These first watches were specifically designed for officials in the company. As it were, the first of these timepieces belonged to co-founder Edward Howard (this watch is currently housed in the Smithsonian). Each of these original timepieces had a special engraving for a founding member of the brand, but their key investor had his name stamped on the bulk of them. In a grand gesture, 800 of the first mass produced Waltham watches had Samuel Curtis’s name inscribed on them. An incredible feat, the sheer amount of watches that were built in this initial manufacture had not been seen before in the watch world. Although the manufacturing had begun in 1852, it wasn’t until 1853 that these watches began to go public.
It was in 1853 that Waltham settled on its first public name: Boston Watch Co.. Before this, it was rumoured that the founders had thought of calling their project the American Horologe Company—but this was later disproved in an 1886 interview with co-founder Aaron Dennison.
After moving manufacturing up to Waltham Mass., Boston Watch Co. began selling their watches with some initial success. However, as the company moved through its fledgling years it began to run into financial trouble. This caused co-founder Edward Howard to leave and begin a different business elsewhere. As well, the financial troubles eventually led Boston Watch Co. to file for bankruptcy. Upon this bankruptcy, the Boston Watch Co. was sold at an auction to a gentleman named Royal E. Robbins in 1857. From this point, the name of the brand would stand as Appleton, Tracy & Co. until 1859—when AT&C Co. merged with Waltham Improvement Company. This merger saw Waltham watches being mass produced under the name American Watch Company.
Civil War Woes and New Successes
As the American Watch Company moved into the 1860s, the U.S. Civil War halted their production. Unfortunately, this led them to a massive downsizing effort. Despite the full halt of production in 1861, this downsizing helped keep their gears turning through the rest of the Civil War years. During this time, Waltham watches (under American Watch Co.) met a particularly powerful ally. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was presented with one of their “Wm. Ellery” model watches—upon giving his famed Gettysburg Address. Much like Waltham co-founder Edward Howard’s original Waltham, President Lincoln’s watch is also currently housed in the Smithsonian Museum.
Continued success of the American Watch Co. saw a steady stream of mass production into the 20th century. As they moved forward, they had great success designing both pocket watches and railroad chronometers. By 1907, American Watch Co. finally changed its name to Waltham Watch Co. Under this brand, Waltham also manufactured wall and mantel clocks. This led to a brief name change in 1923 to the Waltham Watch and Clock Co. This name didn’t stick, though, and was changed back to Waltham Watch Company in 1925. With this name in tow, Waltham built a successful line of Canadian Railway watches that are considered collector’s items today.
The Final Years and Current State of Waltham
Although Waltham had some success in both watch and clock manufacturing in the early 20th century, their fortune did not hold. It was in 1949 that the Waltham Watch Company filed for bankruptcy once more—almost a century after its beginning. By 1957 the company was purchased by a Chicago company named Hallmark Watch Company. A year later, the original Waltham company had fully consolidated its assets and put the fate of their name in the hands of others. With Waltham watches coming out from Hallmark Watch Company, the Hallmark brand came under scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission—in the 1960s. As it went, they were trying to co-opt the name as if Waltham were still in business. Because of this, Hallmark had to change its marketing strategy—but was still in charge of repair and manufacture of original Walthams, as well as Waltham by Hallmark styles.
Nowadays, watch buyers can attain a Waltham quartz watch. Although the Waltham name is featured on these pieces, the original manufacturers are no longer in charge of the brand—and haven’t been for over 60 years. Despite this, their legacy lives on through the continued mass production of watches around the world. As a silver lining, as well, Waltham’s European brand Waltham International SA has remained successful since its start in 1954—during Waltham’s death knells. After all of its successes and failures, the company started by Dennison, David, and Howard has left an incredible mark on American and global watch manufacturing. If you find yourself coming across an original, some of them can be very valuable—like their more tailor made Canadian Railway watches (for example). With so many made, their continued circulation appears to be taking on a history of its own. Because so many Americans have owned Walthams, it could be very likely that your father’s father’s father had one to pass down from generation to generation. So, keep an eye out for these classic monuments to the power of modern mass production. It was by no small feat of innovation that they reached their mass appeal.
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