Why Watches? Artistry, Workmanship & 18th Century High Tech!
The purpose of this website is to present early American watchmakers and their watches to facilitate discussion and research.
There is a rich watchmaking legacy in America; however, scholarly research on this important facet of American colonial history largely remains to be done.
Watches were the highest-tech and most expensive product one could buy. The vast majority of watches sold in America in the 18th century were imported from England and have the name and serial number of a watchmaker or retailer working in London. Numerous 18th century advertisements can be found in American colonial newspapers promoting the sale of watches that “just arrived” on the latest ship from England, and a fairly sophisticated distribution network comprised of fancy goods retailers, hardware stores and clock and watchmakers developed in America as the century progressed to retail and repair them.
Around 1750, as newspaper advertisements were becoming more prevalent, a few advertisements can be found by watchmakers promoting their locally made watches, as well as their ability to fabricate just about any watch part for the trade. American-signed watches no doubt appealed to the patriotic public and makers were able to price them less expensively or with longer warranties than the other English-signed imported watches that they also retailed. Apparently, many American watchmakers that attempted to sell their own line of watches, including those advantaged by the non-importation movement leading up to the Revolutionary War, could not compete with available imports on a sustained basis. At least that is the theory given the small number of surviving time pieces; however, the extent of 18th century watchmaking in America is unknown and needs to be further studied.
Clearly, toward the end of the 18th century when watches became more affordable to the middle class, more American clock and watchmakers with English (and Swiss) connections were able to retail their own line of watches that they imported with their name engraved on the back of the watch in a "ready-to-sell" state. This continued in the 19th century and examples spanning both centuries can be found on this website.
Who actually made the first watch in America? The late great James Gibbs authored an article over forty years ago on this topic, but the answer will likely never be known (Gibbs, 556-559). The oldest known American-signed watch is an amazing silver New York automation watch by John Wright. Wright was working in colonial New York by 1711. While it is evident that some watches were fabricated and/or finished in America, the first well researched example, a watch made by John Cairns of Providence, Rhode Island, was published relatively recently by David Cooper in 2002 (Cooper, 26-38). Since that time, other examples have been "rediscovered", including watches by Thomas Harland (CT), Josiah Wheelock & Moses Morse (MA), Robert Leslie (PA) and Henry Voight (PA).
The total number of early watchmakers working in America compared to English makers working in England was extremely small and surviving examples of American-signed watches are few; my rough guess is under 500. Repair records for Jedediah Baldwin, who was once an apprentice for the renowned maker Thomas Harland (Norwich, Connecticut), and then continued in the trade working in Connecticut and New Hampshire, survive from 1793 to 1810 (Oechsle). Two hundred years ago, only 35 of the 2,000 watches that he serviced, or approximately 1.5 percent, are signed by an American watchmaker.
American watches dating prior to the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that ended the Revolutionary War, true colonial examples, are rare. I've recorded 19 surviving watches. Four are shown on this website, John Wright (NY), Samuel Bagnall (MA), Joseph Ellicott (PA), and Thomas Parker (PA).
American Watch Papers - A tremendous amount of information has been learned by studying these miniature works of art. Learn more here:
Please help by sharing information. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
References - Essential general references used throughout this website (other references are listed at the bottom of each web page as appropriate):
Additional References and Recommended Reading:
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