The rich history of the Elgin National Watch Company (originally the National Watch Co.) began in August 1864 when a group of investors traveled to Waltham, Massachusetts, home of the Waltham Watch Company. Hoping to give their new company a jump start, the investors promised seven of Waltham Watch Company’s best watchmakers and machinists $5,000 per year, plus bonuses. The company began operation two years later in 1866 in Elgin, Illinois, with Waltham-transplant Charles Moseley as factory superintendent.
National’s first watch, its original workhorse, was introduced in 1867. The B.W. Raymond, as it was called, was a relatively large-numeral, 18-size pocket watch that cost $117, a high price for the era. Like all National watches, the movement was sold without a case—customers would have a jeweler or watch repairman complete that task. Known for their accuracy, the timepieces were in such high demand they were marketed as railroad grade.
While other watches of the era were affected by changes in temperature, the B.W. Raymond was accurate in varying climates, a vital feature for a person working on traveling trains. It was also isochronous, which meant it kept time accurately down to the last minutes before another wind was needed.
More affordable models soon followed, each named for different directors or investors in the company. The J.T. Ryerson, the G.W. Wheeler, and the H. H. Taylor were all released in 1867—the Matthew Laflin appeared in early 1868. All of these early models were key-wound and most came in the railroad-standard 18-size. Following the success of Waltham Watches ladies’ model, the "Lady Elgin" was released in 1869. The 10-size watch was a hit, and helped put Elgin into competition with Waltham for the middle-priced watch market. National’s rate of production grew tremendously through the 1870s.
In the 1880s, Elgin moved into stem-winding mechanisms, a novelty compared to its key-wind mechanisms of the 1860s and ’70s. This new feature, along with affordable interchangeable movements, helped Elgin give Waltham a run for its money in the mid-range market. Elgin thrived through the turn of the century. In an experimental move, in 1909, it even built an observatory at the main plant to set its watches by celestial movement.
Many watch companies felt the strain of wartime thriftiness during the World War I. Not Elgin. Thanks to a contract with the U.S. Army, Elgin trained employees to make quick, precise watch repairs in the field. After the war, wristwatches became the norm, but some consumers still wanted famous pocket watch lines like Elgin’s Father Time, which was popular during both World Wars; the Veritas, made with as many as 23 jewels; and the Lord Elgin, a high-end model produced through the ’50s and featuring gold backplates and 21-jewel movements.
Like many other designs in the 1920s and early ’30s, Elgin watches embraced Art Deco. Roman numerals were exchanged for stylized Arabic-type, and the numerals were dropped altogether in favor of geometric shapes. During World War II, Elgin shut down regular production and signed another military contract. Their production facilities were temporarily busy making military watches, speedometers, altimeters, and chronometers...
After the war, the company shifted from pocket watches to wristwatches, decorative clocks, wedding rings, and transistor radios. In the 1950s, foreign and less-expensive domestic watches dominated the market, forcing Elgin to depend less on watches for its income. The company eventually gave up the watchmaking side of its business entirely, ceasing production in 1970.