The Watches And Clocks That Powered A Nation: A Look At The State Of Watchmaking

The Watches And Clocks That Powered A Nation: A Look At The State Of Watchmaking In 1776

Before American watchmakers hit their stride, pocket watch and clock imports from Europe kept Washington’s contemporaries on time.

By Hyla Bauer
Contributor & Special Projects

When our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, they formally proclaimed the United States as a wholly independent country, splitting off governmental ties to the Kingdom of Great Britain. The Declaration, handwritten in ink, was formally signed at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, in a time before electricity and other modern conveniences.
 

Declaration of Independence

Timekeeping in the Early Era of Independence

At the time, the United States was on the brink of an Industrial Revolution with train travel and industrial advances firmly launching the country into a new, modern era. But, in terms of watchmaking, the US had a lot of catching up to do.
 

George Washington (©MET Museum)
George Washington's Mount Vernon Clock

So how did George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and their pro-independence contemporaries tell time? With imported clocks and pocket watches, the majority of which came from England at a hefty price. At the time, watches were the property of the upper class, wealthy landowners and tradesmen. Even our first president had a European-made clock. George Washington had a French Louis VII-style clock in his home in Mount Vernon that he purchased in the late 1780s after the US declared independence.
 

Official Presidential Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800

Pocket Watches Were Costly in 1776

In 1776, there were very few, if any, watch movements actually made in the US and therefore the vast majority were imported from England. According to Richard Newman, American watch historian and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC), 80-100 people typically worked on a watch at British manufacturers at the time.

“Only the very wealthy could afford a personal timekeeper and watches in particular throughout the first half of the 18th century, even in the major European cities, let alone in the comparatively primitive American colonies,” he says. “Watchmakers in the colonies primarily sold new and second-hand watches,” that came from England, and “cleaned and repaired clocks and watches.” But American watchmakers didn’t actually make watches.*
 

Parker pocket watch

Businessmen Lead the Watch Trade

Watchmakers in larger cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston established relationships with European suppliers to import clocks and watches as well as fine luxury goods to sell to their wealthy clients. They were businessmen, first and foremost, who did whatever they could to earn a living in America.
 

Wright watch movement

Some were even able to import watches with their names already engraved on the movement or dial, similar to practices that watchmakers and retailers were doing back in Europe. Newman shared that there is mounting evidence of “small-scale watchmaking [in the US] also taking place during colonial times, and patriotic sentiments after the war no doubt boosted demand.”
 

Bagnall pocket watch

Rough, unfinished movements were available from England throughout the century and American watchmakers had the tooling and skills, or hired skilled craftsmen arriving from Europe, who could make just about any watch part. “Support trades such as silversmiths making watch cases, movement gilding, and even main spring manufactures were advertising their services to the trade, however very few American-made watches actually survived from these times.”

European Watchmakers In the lead

While Americans were making strides, it was hard to compete with the know-how and skilled workers in European watchmaking. Swiss, British, and French watchmakers had the benefit of the knowledge of generations of watchmakers preceding them, along with teams of skilled craftsmen.

Abraham-Louis Breguet

The late 18th century was a time of major advances in watchmaking in Europe. Abraham-Louis Breguet established his business in 1775 and by 1780 he had fashioned a self-winding movement, and before the century was out, a constant force escapement. Jean-Antoine Lépine devised a movement requiring only one plate instead of two, allowing for thinner pocket watches.
 

Breguet's Marie-Antoinette pocket watch

The new movement eliminated the fusee and chain and rather incorporated a cylinder escapement. Swiss watchmakers Louis Moinet, Louis Benjamin Audemars, François Constantin burst onto the scene, and with them, an outpouring of inventions and innovations. It’s no wonder that it took a while for American watchmakers to catch up.

*Photos used with permission from Newman R. “Colonial and Early American Watchmakers,” Watch & Clock Bulletin, 22;389 (December 2010): 692–706. The Watch & Clock Bulletin is a journal of the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors, Inc. For more information about the Association and its membership benefits, please visit nawcc.org.

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