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). 

A Slave Owners Watch - Check out this recently discovered colonial watch signed by the Charleston, South Carolina clock and watchmaker, Joshua Lockwood. It is the only surviving gold example known and was almost certainly bought by a very wealthy plantation landowner in Charleston in 1763, one-hundred years before the Civil War! 

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 colonialwatches@gmail.com.

References - Essential general references used throughout this website (other references are listed at the bottom of each web page as appropriate):
  • J. Carter Harris, The Clock and Watch Makers American Advertiser, Sussex, UK, Antiquarian Horological Society, 2003
  • Philip Priestley, Early Watch Case Makers of England 1631– 1720, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin Special Order Supplement No. 3 (2000), and Watch Case Makers of England, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin Supplement No. 20 (1994)
  • Spittler and Bailey, Clockmakers and Watchmakers of America by Name and by Place, Columbia, PA., National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, 2011
Additional References and Recommended Reading:
  • David Cooper, John Cairns (1751-1809) and Other Early American Watchmakers, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 336 (February, 2002), pp. 26-38
  • Theodore Crom, Horological Shop Tools 1700 to 1900, Gainesville, Florida, Storter Printing, 1980
  • James Gibbs, Who Was America's First WatchmakerNAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 185 (December, 1976), pp. 556-565
  • R.J. Griffiths, The Early Watchmakers of Toxteth Park Near Liverpool, Antiquarian Horology, Vol. 27 (2002), pp. 163-178
  • J. R. Harris, Liverpool and Merseyside, Frank Cass & Co. LTD, 1969
  • Michael Harrold, Why Boston During the 1850's? - From Willard clocks to Industrial Watches, Boston: Cradle of American Watchmaking, NAWCC Special Supplement No.5, NAWCC, Columbia, PA, 2002, pp. 30-35
  • Frank Hohmann III, Timeless, Masterpiece American Brass Dial Clocks, Hohmann Holdings LLC, New York, 2009
  • Catherine Hollan, Philadelphia Silversmiths and Related Artisans to 1861, Hollan Press, Missouri, 2013
  • Catherine Hollan, Virginia Silversmiths, Jewelers, Clock- and Watchmakers, 1607-1860, Their Lives and Marks, Hollan Press, Missouri, 2010
  • Penrose Hoopes, Shop Records of Daniel Burnap Clockmaker, Connecticut Historical Society, 1958
  • Dr. Robert Kemp, Watch Movement Making in Prescot, Antiquarian Horology, Vol. 13 (1981), pp. 77-81
  • Richard Newman, Colonial and Early American Watchmakers, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 389 (December, 2010), pp. 692-706 (Note other articles on this site can be found here)
  • Richard Newman, The Anglo-American Watch Trade, CLOCKS Magazine, February 2011, Edinburgh, UK
  • Richard Newman, New York Colonial Watchmaker John Wright and the Discovery of America's Oldest Watch, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 408 (March/April, 2014), pp. 115-126
  • Russ Oechsle, North American Watches Repaired by Jedediah Baldwin 1793-1804, NAWCC Bulletin, No. 245 (December 1986), pp. 488-489 and No. 261 (August 1989), pp. 346-347
  • Abraham Reese, Rees’s Clocks Watches and Chronometers (1819-20), Rutland, VT, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1970, p. 281
  • Alan Smith, An Early 18th Century Watchmaker’s Notebook, Richard Wright of Cronton and the Lancashire-London Connection, Antiquarian Horology Vol. 15/6, 1985, pp. 605-625; this article discusses a rare surviving day book for an early 18th century English supplier of watches and rough movements
  • A. A. Treherne, The Contribution of South-West Lancashire to Horology, Antiquarian Horology, Vol. 31 (2011), pp. 457-476
  • Frank Tyrer, Richard Blundell in Virginia and Maryland, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 68 (October, 1960), pp 429-447; this article analyzes a rare collection of letters that describes the importation of a wide range of English goods to America (including a single watch) by a Liverpool merchant
  • William Erik Voss, http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~silversmiths/makers/silversmiths
  • Leonard Weiss, Watch-Making In England 1760-1820, London, Robert Hale, 1982
  • John Wyke, A Catalogue of Tools for Watch and Clock Makers by John Wyke, Winterthur Museum Library publication in 1978; this is a reprint of an 18th century catalog with modern commentary

© 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Richard Newman, All rights reserved worldwide. May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission. Please contact me if you desire to link to this site or would like to use any of the material.