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Turning back the hands of time

ElgNational Watch Company 1914

Elgin National Watch Company 1914

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Updated: April 14, 2013 6:23AM

ELGIN — How important was the Elgin National Watch Co. in the growth and health of Elgin?

In 1927, the company had 4,000 employees in its sprawling plant along National Street at the foot of South Grove Avenue. The Illinois Watch Case Co., a separately owned firm based on Elgin’s north side, had 1,200. A few dozen other manufacturers employed no more than 400 people each.

An hour before the factory’s work shift began at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday, a 3-foot-high steam whistle would send its piercing shriek all over town. That would be followed by another blast five minutes before 7 and finally a blast to start the work day.

The downtown stores stayed open late only one night a week — the day the watch factory employees got their pay envelopes.

Through much of the century between the Civil War and the demolition of Elgin National Watch’s giant clock tower in 1967, it could be argued that Elgin was a “factory town,” and the factory that made it go was the watch factory.

To mark that, Elgin Area Historical Society will kick off its 2013 season on Sunday by unveiling a beefed-up version of its second-floor exhibit about the watch factory.

The program will last from noon to 4 at the society’s “Old Main” museum, at 360 Park St. Executive Director Liz Marston said that from 1 to 3 p.m., the Sunday activities also will include a seminar about “Art Deco in Elgin.”

Jennifer Fritz of Elgin will speak about Art Deco-style local buildings such as the Elgin Tower Building and the former Salvation Army citadel at Franklin and Spring streets. Rich Renner of Elgin will speak about the Art Deco products made by the watch case company, such as its “Elgin American”-brand ladies’ compacts and cigarette cases, while Chicago collector Howard Melton will display his collection of Elgin American products.

Participants also will see a video about Art Deco in Elgin made by Phil Broxham of Grindstone Productions, and society member Bill Briska will speak about the use of that type of design in Elgin watches.

Putting in order

“This room always was about the watch factory. But we wanted to reorganize it, add some things and put it into a chronological format, with texts explaining the various stages of the company,” Marston said as museum volunteers put final touches on the new displays this week.

Printed texts, made with money willed to the society by Elgin hardware-store owner Gregg Ziegler, now explain what was going on at the plant in its various periods.

Briska, whom Marston described as “our Elgin Watch expert,” wrote the new text cards.

Briska said the downside of the factory being so important to the city’s economy was that when it fell on hard times, so did all of Elgin.

“Because watches then were an expensive luxury item, demand for them was very elastic,” Briska said. “Whenever there was a recession or depression nationwide, sales plummeted and so did Elgin’s employment.”

Big layoffs hit in 1873, 1893, 1905 and 1929. In the Panic of 1873, for example, the whole factory closed down for nine weeks. In the Depression of 1893, half the employees were laid off, and the others had their pay cut by 10 to 30 percent.

Briska said the demand for Elgin’s kind of watches — high-end, hand-wound, with jeweled movements — never did really come back after the Great Depression. But he said the company’s demise also could be blamed on a group of ruthless creditors who took over the company in the mid-20th century and stripped it of its resources, including employee pension money.

“What had been a family company, run by descendants of the founders, became more corporate, run by people out of New York,” Marston said.

The exhibit also has added see-through window banners made by Fabric Images of Elgin; a display of “keys” used to wind watches; pictures of three of the “Four Immortals” who helped set up the company and bring it to Elgin in the 1860s; and a display about the use of time by railroads.

The railroads had pushed for uniform national time zones after being frustrated by each city they passed through having a different “natural time,” and later each railroad company having a different set of “standard time zones.”

“This was the first major watchmaker outside the New England area,” Marston said. An early advertisement took advantage this by calling the Elgin “a Western watch for Western men.”

But a map shows how former Elgin employees then left with their expertise and started less-successful competing companies all over Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Lance Lagoni, Jeff White and Charles Bell loaned their own unusual watches for the new displays.

Inside big clock

One major physical item still on display is the massive steel innards that ran the 14.5-foot-diameter clock faces on the four sides of the factory’s clock tower.

Ironically, Briska notes, the clock faces said “Elgin” on them, but the machinery was made by the Seth-Thomas company. “Elgin made watches. It didn’t make clocks,” he noted.

Briska said the clock tower was operated by slowly-falling weights, like a grandfather clock. But when the weights reached bottom, a switch activated an electric motor that pulled the weights back to the top.

Also on display is that piercing brass steam whistle that called workers to work and sent them home at night between 1905 and 1950.

Briska said the watch factory was unusual for its time by employing women for half its work force, partly because they had smaller hands. That attracted many unmarried women to the city. Until the 1930s, 150 of those lived in the “National House” rooming house along National Street east of Grove until they could find a husband.

After a strike by highly skilled — and hard-to-replace — “finishers” in 1898, the company also followed some progressive labor policies, Briska said, going to a five-day work week and offering benefits such as health insurance.

Not many left

Forty-five years after the factory closed, Briska said, there are fewer and fewer people left alive who worked there. But many thousands of antique Elgin watches are still working all over the world and have become a popular collector’s item. In fact, the historical society operates a “watch research service” that will answer a request for information about specific types and models of Elgin watches, for $15.

“We get about 50 requests a year for information,” said Briska, who does the research for free, with the $15 fees helping to cover the museum’s expenses. “Most of the requests now come when people are clearing out their late parents’ possessions and they come across some old watches.”

Briska said he never worked at the factory, nor had any special expertise when he started volunteering with the museum and the board of directors asked him to become their Elgin National Watch expert.

“They just said, ‘Do you know anything about watches?’ I said, ‘I know how to tell time.’ They said, ‘Read these six books here.’

“I read those six and about 60 other books about the American watch industry,” Briska said. With Courier-News history columnist E.C. “Mike” Alft, he also co-authored a history of the watch company and interviewed aging ex-workers for a video documentary.

Unfriendly hands

Unable to make ends meet in a world where cheap, mass-produced foreign-made watches dominated, in the 1960s the company tried to move its manufacturing to the low-wage state of South Carolina and then to the almost-foreign American Virgin Islands. But that didn’t help.

Briska said a few remnants of Elgin National Watch still survive.

“Elgin Watch still has an office, in Naperville,” he said. “But they don’t make anything anymore. The office is just there to license use of the ‘Elgin’ brand name to other manufacturers, mostly in the Far East. The name ‘Elgin’ still has some brand recognition value.”

Closer to home, the Elgiloy manufacturing company on Elgin’s south side is a corporate spinoff of the watch company.

But beyond that, Briska said, “in a sense, the watch company built much of Elgin. If you look at the city directory listings for neighborhoods like Raymond Street and Arlington Avenue, over half of the houses were occupied by employees of the watch factory when they were built.”

And streets such as Raymond Street, Sherman Avenue and Wilcox Avenue were named after the company’s early executives.

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