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.
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Recent News: Waltham Pocket Watches
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The bravest woman in GarsonThe Sudbury Star, February 5th
Miraculously almost, Carroll's bedroom was relatively untouched so she was able to retrieve one of her most precious items, a Waltham pocket watch that belonged to her father. Everything in the home was smoke damaged and even items that didn't burn...Read more
Author tells story of Waltham Watch Company "trench watches"Wicked Local Waltham, December 31st
When American, British and Canadian forces stormed out of the trenches in World War I, they had to do it perfectly in sync. To do so, many wore wristwatches known as trench watches made by the Waltham Watch Company. In his new book, “Waltham Trench ...Read more
50 Cent on women: 'I've got options — but with options come confusion'New York Post, December 9th
In a photo studio on Manhattan's West Side, Curtis Jackson III — better known to the world as 50 Cent — is tugging on a crisp white shirt and sumptuous velvet blazer for our Alexa cover shoot. In his state of undress, the handsome rap king-turned...Read more
Artist creates Waltham coloring bookWicked Local Waltham, November 13th
Kids across the city have the chance to add to Waltham's colorful history in the new City of Waltham Activity and Coloring Book. The free book features 10 uncolored drawings of historical buildings and monuments across the city, including the Waltham...Read more
Spend a Sunday in WalthamWCVB Boston, October 14th
YOU WILL GLIDE INTO HISTORY WHEN PASSING THE MILL, ONCE HOME TO THE WALTHAM WATCH COMPANY. BEGINNERS CAN CHOOSE TO TAKE A CLASS BEFORE SETTING SAIL, BUT IT IS NOT A REQUIREMENT TO RENT. WE WILL GIVE ...Read more
Monday Morning Find: A Rare Naval Dive Watch With Big Deal HistoryBloomberg, August 3rd
The history of Waltham Watch is confusing. The company was founded in 1850 under a different name in Massachusetts, then a big watchmaking and clockmaking hub. The name changed a few times over the years as the company continued to make nice, ...Read more
Waltham's WATCH celebrates anniversary, community workWicked Local Waltham, May 12th
On a warm, spring evening at the end of April, WATCH Community Development Corporation celebrated its 27th anniversary with a gathering of over 120 people. email print. Comment. Wicked Local Waltham. Writer. Posted May. 12, 2015 at 1:00 PM...Read more
Waltham's Watch City Brewing Closes for GoodBoston.com, July 28th
Watch City Brewing appears to be closing down permanently, The Waltham News Tribune reports. The Moody Street brewery closed in June, saying it needed repairs. But a restaurant equipment company now says it will auction off the brewery's equipment...Read more