1865 was a year full of important events that marked the history of the United States of America. Some of them still resonate in the collective memory of the inhabitants of this nation.
Perhaps most importantly, on April 9 of that same year, Confederate General Robert E. Lee signed the surrender of his Virginia armies to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the site of Appomattox, thus taking the first and decisive step toward ending the terrible and bloody Civil War that had ravaged the American nation for four years.
On January 31, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been proposed, officially abolishing slavery throughout the country. This amendment also judicially reinforced and strengthened the Emancipation Proclamation promulgated by Lincoln in January 1863. The amendment was finally adopted on December 6, 1865, when the state of Georgia ratified it, the latter joining the necessary three-fourths of the states for it to become effective. As a curiosity, it was not until 2013 that the state of Mississippi officially ratified it.
On the night of April 14, 1865, one of the most charismatic presidents to ever lead the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated. Indeed, shortly after his second term in office had begun and with the Civil War almost over, Lincoln was assassinated while enjoying an evening at Ford’s Theatre by a sympathizer of the Southern cause. Under the cry of “Sic semper tyrannis!”, John Wilkes Booth fired an accurate shot to the head that ended the president’s life a few hours later.
The year 1865 is also when the protagonist of this article was manufactured, thereby becoming a timepiece that rightly evokes many of the events that have been mentioned in this brief introduction.
Let’s see it…
The Consolidation Of The American Watch Industry
As we can see from the image above, it is the Model 1857 grade “William Ellery” and from its serial number we can infer that it was manufactured in December 1865 by the American Watch Co., which years later would be renamed as the Waltham Watch Co. We already addressed the birth of the American watch industry in a prior article dedicated to E. Howard, but it is worth recalling some aspects of it.
During the first half of the 19th century, a “second industrial revolution” was taking place in the northeastern states of America. Production processes were gradually being mechanized thanks to the new steam engines. Factories were clustering in the cities and people were leaving rural areas in the hope of finding jobs and attaining a better standard of living. The new railroad lines grew steadily and became one of the main economic engines of the nation, transporting goods, people, and raw materials wherever they were needed, thus displacing the river transport so characteristic of the time.
It was during this time of economic growth and intensive industrial activity that four entrepreneurs (Aaron L. Dennison, Edward Howard, David P. Davis, and Samuel Curtis) came together in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1850 to build what in its own right could be called the world’s first watch factory and the first large-scale American watch manufacture: the Boston Watch Co.
The main idea of these industry pioneers was to automate and standardize, and thereby streamline, the manufacture of watches by bringing the production of all parts and movement assembly under one roof, while making all parts with sufficient precision to be interchangeable between movements. Interchangeability of parts, which was achieved in increments over half a century, both greatly expedited movement assembly and facilitated repairs. To pursue this visionary goal, the pioneers even designed their own highly innovative machinery. These same ideas already had been introduced in the manufacture of weapons at the Springfield Armory, but the Boston Watch Co. would attempt to apply them to a far more complicated product demanding far tighter manufacturing tolerances. The expected advantage of manufacturing watches in a standardized serial process, compared to artisanal production, would be products that would be cheaper to produce, which would make them affordable to more potential customers, and would enable a greater profit margin to be achieved on sales.
In these images we can see how the parts of the watch are numbered, making it easier to store, change or assemble them.
As we have already seen, the watch market in the new continent was dominated by English and especially Swiss watchmakers. Indeed, the Swiss exported watches in large quantities to the American domestic market (some 226,000 movements in 1865), as Dr. Geller indicates in his book citing Eduard Favre Perret’s report. However, English and Swiss watches were difficult for American watchmakers to repair due to the lack of spare parts. Furthermore, most of them were out of reach for most, and the “affordable” ones tended to perform rather poorly. This new production system (pioneered by Aaron L. Dennison) was intended to solve these problems.
Swiss pocket watch for the american market circa 1860
The beginnings were not easy for these entrepreneurs; the machines they had invented themselves broke down, bringing production lines to a halt. They were on a constant quest to innovate in order to solve problems, both technical and economic (finding investors). During the years that the venture was in operation, the Boston Watch Co. produced 5,000 movements and 4,000 cases, but unfortunately it did not know how to manage its finances well nor was it able to ride-out the terrible financial panic of 1857, which affected many companies in the country. The company had no choice but to declare insolvency. A group of independent investors, led by Royal Elisha Robbins, acquired a large part of the assets. The factory, together with the Tracy Baker & Co. consortium, continued with the business, renaming it “Appleton, Tracy & Co.”. A year later, they merged with the Waltham Improvement Company to form the new American Watch Co.
A Movement For The History Books
As we already noted at the beginning the post, the watch equips a movement called Model 1857. As its name suggests, it was released that same year and was manufactured in different grades and configurations. Its design is obviously based on English full-plate watches, although it adds its own features such as a going barrel that replaced the typical English “fusee” which was more difficult and expensive to manufacture. We can say without any ambiguity that the 1857 model was the first watch movement made in an automated and serial production line to be successful. Anyone wishing to learn more about its history and the details of the different versions made should not miss this monumental work authored by Mr. Ron Price.
In 1861, before being dismissed from the company, Dennison promoted a project to create an economical watch, but of high quality, so as to reach the general public but especially targetting Union soldiers. While it is pure conjecture, the name given to the watch (“William Ellery”) does not seem purely coincidental. William Ellery was one of the founding fathers of the nation and one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. He is also well known as a pro-abolitionist and there are strong reasons to believe that Dennison was similarly drawn to the abolitionist cause.
The “Wm Ellery” was an economical grade with 7 to 11 rock crystal jewels, an unsigned dial without a separate seconds bit, and it was offered to the public without any warranty. Beating at 16,200 bph (2.25 Hz), it had an uncompensated solid steel balance wheel with three spokes. It was launched onto the market between May and August 1861 with a supposed price of $13. Its second production run came as early as January 1862. As a curiosity, it must be said that during the first years of production, AWC did not engrave the name “Waltham. Mass.” on these models, limiting itself to using the more ambiguous “Boston. Mass.”, either to avoid its provenance to wealthy customers or to differentiate it from the much better made and obviously more expensive PS Barlett grade models. We will see below how all this fit in with the company’s advertising at the time.
However, if we look at its production numbers, the Wm Ellery was unquestionable a sales phenomenon, representing almost 45% of the total number of units produced by the company in 1865, undoubtedly favoring its consolidation (in a war economy) as the first American watch company with remarkable success. Dennison’s dream had come true, but what were the factors that influenced it?
The Soldier’s Watch
The use of watches was becoming more and more relevant in society; although they were still a prestige accessory for their owners, controlling railroad arrivals, the opening and closing of factories or stores, etc., owning and wearing a timepiece became somewhat of an imperative for a segment of the population. In the army, and particularly during the war, they were mostly used to normalize life in the camp, to change time zones as the army advanced across the continent or to be able to synchronize attacks on the enemy.
However, it was not until the appearance of these less expensive but high-quality American-made watches manufactured in automated production lines (as we discussed above) that their use became popular among the less affluent classes, a segment of the population that included a very high percentage of the Union’s privates and also a large share of the NCOs and low-ranking officers.
From an advertisement that was inserted in the July 1863 Harper’s Weekly with a headline reading “American Watches for Soldiers,” we can read verbatim the following highlight:
“They beg to call special attention to their cheapest watch, the “WM ELLERY,” which they have designed expressly for the use of soldiers and others who desire a good watch at a moderate price. This watch is intended to displace the worthless cheap watches of English and Swiss make, with which the country is full, and which, being watches in appearance only, are used altogether for jockeying and swindling purposes.”
Undoubtedly, the lines in this advertismente represented a true statement of intent by the AWC, even giving a “patriotic sense” to their watches.
The 1864 list price of a basic Wm Ellery (like the one featured in this post) housed in a two-ounce silver box was $26. While the price was relatively modest, when compared to a private’s monthly salary ($13) or that of a sergeant ($17), we can see that the figure was not inconsiderable.
Watches were sold in stores in large cities such as Boston or New York, but possibly many watches were acquired by soldiers in their own camps from street vendors, or possibly from retail stores in smaller towns. For a private, the use of a watch obviously allowed him to know the time, which was not a trivial thing, since it made him feel “more comfortable” in his task. We must not forget that perhaps for many of them it was the first time they owned a watch and that also gave them a certain social status. Nor should we forget or underestimate the “patriotic issue” of wearing an American-made watch, entirely manufactured in the Union and also worn by colleagues or officers.
Wm Ellery model with an inscription that reads, “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 consideration and respect for his skill as a surgeon and his unwavering integrity as a man.”
This combination of values, commercial strategy and technological capacity catapulted sales of the Wm Ellery’s. Interestingly, in 1865, it reached one of its highest production peaks.
But it was not only soldiers who at one time or another enjoyed this watch.
President Lincoln’s Watch
“Eighty-seven years ago now, our fathers created on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and consecrated to the principle that all men are created equal.”
With these words began the famous “Gettysburg Address” delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863 in the cemetery that served to bury the Union combatants who died in the bloody Battle of Gettysburg.
We bring up the Gettysburg Address because Lincoln supposedly received a Wm Ellery model as a gift shortly after he delivered the speech. However, here we enter the realm of speculation. Its date of manufacture and the lack of any commemorative engraving relating to the event fail to offer clear evidence of this fact, as Mr. Nathan Moore points out in his article.
We already talked about Lincoln’s famous English watch and the incredible message found inside it in this post, but the story of the President’s more modest Wm Ellery is still a curious one.
We must go back to the events of March 28, 1864, known as the “Charleston Riot“, to follow the path of this particular timepiece. During this mutiny, several Union soldiers and republican representatives clashed with a group of local insurgent democrats, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries. Shortly after these events, Dennis F. Hanks, a cousin and childhood friend of the President, went to meet with him to intercede for some friends who were in prison because of the riot. After discussing the matter, Hanks told his cousin that his watch had been stolen during his trip to Washington. Lincoln unhesitatingly gave him a silver box watch and, according to Hanks’ testimony, said “Here’s my watch, Dennis, you can have it. I’m not allowed to have anything like that here. I must have one like this.”, and then showed him his famous English watch in a gold case that we have already mentioned.
Hanks stated in an affidavit, dated May 1891, that the watch was a Wm. Ellery 7j with serial number #67613 and with the initials “DFH” engraved on the case. A granddaughter of Hanks sold the watch to Charles F. Gunther, who proudly displayed it at the 1893 Columbia (Chicago) International Exposition.
After passing through the hands of different private collectors, it was acquired in the 1950’s by the Waltham Watch Co. (before its closure). The watch was kept in safekeeping at the Lincoln Savings & Loan until its theft in 1977, after which its track was lost.
Those of you who have followed my short career as a pocket watch collector will know that I have a deep respect and admiration for American horology and although I do not consider myself as a “serious collector” of American watches, I could not pass up the opportunity to incorporate a Wm Ellery to my small collection, enabling the intense dialogue that I have tried to reflect as best I can in this article.
I wish to publicly thank my friend Pedro Andrada for the great restoration and overhaul work carried out on the timepiece. he has also kindly provided many of the images shown here. You can follow his work on Instagram (@pedro_a_61) or through his blog (relojesdeayer.blogspot.com).
I would also like to thank Mr. Nathan Moore for his tremendous research work and the fabulous database (pocketwatchdatabase.com) that makes it so much easier for collectors to investigate these period timepieces.
And lastly, I would like to thank to Dr. Clint Geller for helping me authenticate the watch. Writing this article would have been much more difficult without access to his fabulous research and outreach work (clintgeller.com/) focused on American Civil War period timepieces.