Early American Watchmaking Gallery

Pocket watches enabled people to tell time wherever they went, and the Early American Watchmaking Gallery features an extensive collection, including pieces from the Lancaster, PA, Hamilton Watch Company. The gallery also includes period factory machinery that still works.

The history of watchmaking goes back centuries. In the late 1400s, Italian clockmakers introduced the watch, a miniaturization of the small table clock. By the early 1500s, the Italians began producing clocks small enough to be worn. As watchmaking spread during the 1600s and 1700s, London, Paris, and Geneva flourished as manufacturing centers. Early watches were poor timekeepers and remained so until the introduction of the balance spring in 1675. Better escapements further improved watch performance, as did “jeweling,” the use of jeweled bearings to reduce friction.

Early watches may not have been successful timekeepers, but they were very successful ornaments. Cases and dials were handcrafted, reflecting the specialized skills of numerous craftspeople. French watches were especially decorative while English, German, and Dutch designs were simpler. Technical advances allowed the watch to become a serious timekeeper.

Early watches were assembled from handcrafted parts. Several craftsmen were involved in the fabrication of a watch. One artisan made the rough casting, others made the spring, case, dial and hands, and another “watchmaker”– who put his name on the final product – finished the parts and assembled them into a working watch. The labor involved made early watches costly. However, during the latter half of the 1800s, US developments in mechanized watch production made the watch more affordable. As Richard Watkins succinctly stated, “American watches can be divided into three types: pre-factory watches made before 1850, those made in the American watch factories, and special, post-1850 watches. The factory output can be subdivided into good quality, jeweled watches, and cheap dollar watches” (NAWCC Bulletin [December 2009], 665).

Hamilton Watch Company initially produced railroad-grade pocket watches as well as navigation watches. The company then began manufacturing wristwatches in the twentieth century. Did you know that Hamilton watches were the official timepieces used to time the first US airmail service flights in 1918? Learn more about this important American watchmaking company in the Museum’s exhibit.

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