John Cairns

John Cairns Pocket Watch

John Cairns Pocket Watch

Few American makers manufactured watches during the 18th century. John Cairns was one of them. He advertised in the Providence Gazette in 1800 that he made verge watches for $25 that were warranted for two years. By some accounts, he "was the only man of his time who made watches entire" (Moore, 154). Cairns, like Thomas Harland, Luther Goddard and others, made watches similar in design to English makers. He died of accidental drowning in 1809 and his estate included a large inventory of watchmaking tools and supplies including an unfinished movement. Interestingly, Cairns may have been Luther Goddard's mentor; upon Cairns death, Goddard buys his tools and equipment and proceeds to capitalize on the Jefferson Embargo as war with England looms (until repealed in 1815) becoming the first to make watches of significant quantity in America.

Early American Watchmaking

Three surviving watches are known. John Cairns was the subject of an extensive article by David Cooper, John Cairns (1751-1809) and Other Early American Watchmakers that discusses Cairns' manufacture of watches in Providence, Rhode Island. Cooper wrote:

"..he more than likely engraved the plates, pierced the balance table, spoked out and mounted the wheels to arbors, which he made from pinion wire... He assembled the plates and pillars, had them gilded, planted the wheels, adjusted the escapement, and cased the watch. I do not think that he cut his wheels or fusee, but he did make the ratchet wheel spring and click mounting. The balance, staff, chain, and mainspring are English, as was the dial and most likely the hands, together with the rest of the materials used."

American Pocket Watch

Cairns Movement

John Cairns' supplier for materials and rough movements (also known as an ébauche) is unknown, but may have been Richard Salter (Colombian Centinel, October 31, 1798), or Caleb Wheaton (Cooper and Gleason, A Different Rhode Island Block-and-Shell Story: Providence Provenances and Pitch-Pediments, www.chipstone.org, 1999). Both were also located in Providence and imported and supplied watch materials to the trade.

Cairns' movements are signed but do not have serial numbers. Both have verge and fusee escapements, round pillars and are similarly finished with rather simple engraving and piercing on the balance table and back plate. The fusee assemblies have a unique ratchet system that appears to be Cairne's own design.

The watch analyzed in David Cooper's article is engraved "John Cairns Providence" and has Roman numerals on the enamel dial. There are no hallmarks on its silver pair cases and the silver alloy content is approximately 89%, basically coin silver, well below the 92.5% English sterling standard at the time. This watch is described in a number of publications, see references, and likely was made about 1800.

Sanders Pitman American Case

Rhode Island Pocket Watch
American Pocket Watch
Sanders Pitman Silversmith

Sanders Pitman Silversmith

The second watch is earlier, ca. 1795 - 1800. It is engraved "John Cairns" without a city name and has Arabic numerals on the enamel dial. Thankfully, there is a case maker's mark (the only mark) on the inner pair case for the silversmith Sanders Pitman (also spelled Saunders Pitman) who worked next door to Cairns in Providence, Rhode Island. Sanders Pitman was in Providence by 1755 and partnered briefly with Seril Dodge in 1793, the same man that apprenticed for the eminent clock and watchmaker Thomas Harland in Norwich, Connecticut. Pitman died in 1804. The silver alloy content is 92.01%, quite close to the sterling standard of 92.5%. The outer case is a replacement (it has London assay date marks for 1797 and unfortunately a rectangular warn-through hole where the makers' mark would have been).

Providence Gazette, May 30, 1801

John Cairns, Clock and Watchmaker, Next Door South of Mr. Sanders Pitman, takes this Method to inform his Customers, and the Public, that he has on Hand A Good Assortment of high and low priced English and French Watches. Likewise a few of his own Manufacture, together with a very handsome Assortment of clocks of different Prices. All of which he will sell on as reasonable Terms as can be purchased in New England. N.B. Clocks and Watches repaired

John Cairns Watchmaker

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 . See also Vox Teemporis, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 338, (June, 2002), p. 376.

  • Michael Harrold, "Why Boston During the 1850s? From Willard Clocks to Industrial Watches." Boston: Cradle of Industrial Watchmaking, Edited by Diana M. De Lucca, NAWCC, Columbia, PA, 2005, p. 23

  • J. Carter Harris, The Clock and Watch Makers American Advertiser, Sussex, UK, Antiquarian Horological Society, 2003, p.54

  • Hudson Moore, The Old Clock Book, Tudor Publishing, New York, 1936

  • Sara Steiner, Excerpts from Mechanics’ Festival, Rhode Island, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 227, 1983