Perhaps better known for its pocket watches than wristwatches, the Elgin National Watch Company began in August 1864 as the National Watch Company. The National Watch Company produced its first watch—the B.W. Raymond—in April 1867, and it was immediately successful. Its main manufacturing plant was located in Elgin, Illinois.
At a special stockholders’ meeting in May 1874, the company decided to change its name to the Elgin National Watch Company, and “Elgin” has stuck since. By the late 1880s, Elgin employed about 2,300 workers and produced about 1,200 movements per day.
The company released its first wristwatches—the Lord Elgin and the Lady Elgin—in 1910, years earlier than most other American watch companies. In 1912, Elgin produced a convertible wristwatch for women. Thanks to its removable straps, this popular design could be “converted” from a wristwatch to a pocket watch, or it could be worn on a necklace.
With World War I, Elgin received a government contract with the U.S. Army—the company trained 350 employees to make precision watch repairs on the battlefield. This contract helped keep Elgin fiscally sound during the war.
Elgin also helped with the war effort during World War II, this time producing military watches, chronometers for the Navy, instruments for planes, and more. These endeavors set Elgin on a path of diversification that continued after the war, as the company produced transistor radios, clocks, and other consumer products, including more wristwatches.
At the time, the most stringent test of a watch’s accuracy was whether or not railroad companies would allow their employees to wear it—inaccuracies of just a few seconds could cause a catastrophic collision. For decades, only pocket watches were accurate enough (trust and tradition were also factors) to be allowed on trains, but Elgin produced a wristwatch that met railroad standards in 1961: the B. W. Raymond Railroad Wrist Chronometer. Elgin was not the first wristwatch manufacturer to accomplish this feat—that honor belongs to Ball—but it was the first railroad wristwatch to be made in America with entirely American parts.
In 1951, Elgin produced its 50 millionth watch movement, a testament to the longevity and productivity of the company, but the firm’s days were numbered and production ceased in 1964.