Colonial & Early American Watches
The purpose of this website is to present early American watchmakers and their watches to facilitate discussion and research.

 
Bagnall Watch Paper
Perhaps the oldest surviving watch paper, circa 1740, found in the Samuel Bagnall, Boston watch.
There is a rich watchmaking legacy in America; however, scholarly research on this important facet of American colonial history largely remains to be done. 

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. 
 
 Article 
Early American 
watchmaking article
(Other articles by the author)
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 lack 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 nearly forty years ago on this topic, but the answer will likely never be known (Gibbs, 556-559). 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, circa 1795, was published by David Cooper only about 20 years ago (Cooper, 26-38). Since that time, other examples have been "rediscovered", including watches by Thomas Harland (CT), Josiah Wheelock & Moses Morse (MA), and a truly amazing example by Henry Voight (private collection, unpublished). Perhaps the first was John Wright who was working in colonial New York by 1711 and maker of an amazing New York silver automation watch.

  
America's oldest
surviving watch

 https://sites.google.com/site/americancolonialwatches/408_115_126.pdf?attredirects=0
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, were signed by North American watchmakers. 

American watches dating prior to the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that ended the Revolutionary War, true colonial examples, are rare. 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 early works of art. Learn more here:
  

American Watch Paper Article (left)

A George Washington Watch Paper Article (right)

 
American Watch Paper Article
 
George Washington Watch Paper



!!! UPDATE !!!   An American watch with a rare escapement and going-barrel design has been added to this site. New research indicates that Morse & Wheelock may have been the first to make watches in America of their own design in the late 1790's.

RESEARCH REQUEST   I'm currently performing research on Robert Leslie who
 operated in Philadelphia under the name 
"Leslie & Price", 
in Baltimore under the name "Robert Leslie & Company" and "Patton, Jones & Company", and in London likely signing clocks and watches "Robert Leslie, London". Please email me with any surviving timepieces or ephemera (trade cards, watch papers, etc.) you may know of. Thanks! 

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
!! Website updates - 2015 !!
  • Watch added: A second John Cairns example, Providence, Rhode Island
  • Watch added: Nathaniel Hawxhurst of New York
  • Watch added: Moses Morse, Keene, N.H.

© 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 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.