Waltham Watch Company was the first watchmaker to mass-produce watch movements on an assembly line. This had the combined effects of increasing productivity and lowering the prices of Waltham’s watches to its customers. It should have given Waltham an immediate and early edge over the competition. Unfortunately, Waltham’s early decades were fraught with financial difficulties.
Founded in 1850 by watchmakers Aaron Dennison, Edward Howard, and David Davis as the American Watch Company, the firm’s earliest watch movements were stamped with the words "Howard, Davis, and Dennison – Boston," even though the company was actually based in nearby Roxbury. By 1851, their manufacturing processes perfected, the partners renamed their firm the American Horologe Company. All of these early pieces had key-wound movements, came in size 18 or 16, and were sold without cases—back then, it was common to take a movement to a jeweler to complete this final step.
In 1853, American Horologe became Boston Watch Company and moved to a new factory in Waltham, Massachusetts. But the partners were dogged by financial problems in the years following the move to Waltham—in 1857 the company was purchased, at auction, by Appleton Tracy & Co.
Appleton’s Model 1857 is generally considered the first production watch with completely standardized parts. These early Model 1857s are favorites among collectors of antique pocket watches. The majority of these size-18 watches were adorned with either roman or bold Arabic numerals, generally on a porcelain face. In 1859, the company merged with the Waltham Improvement Company and was renamed the American Watch Company, although Waltham Watches and American Waltham Watch Company were often used in advertisements from this period.
Waltham’s factory was almost as impressive as its products. By the end of the 1860s, the giant facility employed hundreds of men and women, numbers unheard of in the watch industry. But when the Civil War broke out, business dropped to almost nothing. Factory managers quickly downsized the plant by cutting hours, encouraging employees to join the military, and shuffling jobs to make sure everyone had something to do, even if it was only one task. Thankfully, soldiers needed watches, and Waltham survived the war by meeting this demand with its relatively cheap timepieces. Movements from this period are extremely rare today.
Like Hamilton and other watchmakers, Waltham made railroad watches. In order for a watch to qualify as railroad-grade it had to be large (size 16 or 18), have at least 17 jewels in its movement, feature easy-to-read Arabic numerals, and meet a number of other technical requirements.
Waltham manufactured movements in two basic styles: full and 3/4 plate. The works in a full-plate movement were completely covered, while the 3/4 plate featured cutaways to make ...
Some of the most famous Waltham models of the 19th century included the aforementioned 1857 line, the high-end Vanguard (it had 23 jewels in its movement), the Crescent Street, and the Wm. Ellery, which was reportedly carried in the pocket of Abraham Lincoln. Other Waltham lines included the Santa Fe, whose railroad-grade movement self-adjusted to maintain accuracy even in extreme temperatures, and the Lady Waltham, a smaller watch built specifically for women. The Lady Waltham was the first of its kind, and other companies like Elgin quickly jumped on the ladies’ pocket-watch bandwagon.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Waltham movements were considered so reliable that the Canadian Pacific Railway commissioned special, railroad-grade movements. Some of these pieces were marked on the movement with the railroad’s emblem (a shield and a beaver). Other movements bore the words "Canadian Railway Time Service." They’re difficult to find today, and are great examples of post-1900 pocket-watch movements.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Waltham didn’t embrace Art Deco as much as other watchmakers, focusing instead on railroad-grade chronometers. The venerable Vanguard brand was a notable exception, selling consistently throughout the 1930s, despite the drop in pocket-watch sales caused by the popularity of the wristwatch.
During World War II, Waltham was contracted by the U.S. Army to make speedometers, tachometers, chronographs, and other military equipment. After the war, pocket-watch production came to a virtual standstill in favor of wristwatches and other domestic items. Like other American watch companies, Waltham could not compete with cheaper imported movements, and the firm closed its doors in 1957.