Here at Ellicott & Co. we get a bit nostalgic sometimes. We love history and we love the romance of history even more. And, you know, there’s probably nothing more romantic than train travel during the American railroad boom. Let’s take a quick journey.
Throughout the late 19th and into the 20th century, railroads were expanding all over America, linking major cities from sea to shining sea. You can picture it, even now. The smoke rising from the engine car, the towns passing in the distance, city at your back. The train rolling up slowly to one of those small country stations located on the outside of a midwestern town. The conductor yells “All aboard!” as you grab the handle on the side of the passenger car and hoist yourself inside. The conductor climbs up behind you and as you pull your trunk along, you notice the light glint off the pocket watch that keeps everything on schedule. The conductor tucks it back into his vest pocket as the train begins rolling toward the next town. That watch you see, is probably a Hamilton.
The Hamilton Watch Company is responsible for some of finest American watches ever made. Founded in Lancaster, PA in 1892 on land that was originally owned by James Hamilton, the son of founding father Andrew Hamilton, they made a name for themselves early on as makers of finely-crafted, jeweled pocket watches.
Eventually the company began making watches with extremely accurate, specialized movements for use on the railroads. This resulted in a period of rapid growth and the popularization of the Hamilton brand. Hamilton almost single-handedly setting the bar for accurate timekeeping for the entire railroad industry. During this period of expansion, they maintained over 56% of the industry’s market share, with railroad companies purchasing nearly all of the watches Hamilton produced. The numbers are staggering. Hamilton made over 80,000 “926 movement” pocket watches from 1895 to 1926, over 200,000 of the “940 movement” from 1900 to 1928, and more than a million of the “992 movement” from 1912-1957, making it the 992 the most popular Hamilton timepiece ever.
As fashions changed in the 1920’s after WWI, Hamilton began to produce a variety of wristwatches in addition to the classic pocket watch models, seamlessly adapting to modern times while maintaining their tradition of quality.
By the early 1940’s, Hamilton produced several different products that were vital to the Allied cause during WWII, including a “987A movement” standard issue wristwatch for the Army, the semi-waterproof (and very rare) Frogman Watch used by Navy divers, as well as the Model 21 Marine chronometers. The chronometers were used for manually calculating longitude, location, and direction, providing the Navy with an alternative to radio time positioning. This was especially useful for maintaining covert navigation, since radio time signals could be intercepted and falsified by the Germans. Over the course of the war, Hamilton was the only company fit to handle production demands, which they fulfilled in under a year’s time. They produced nearly 11,000 marine chronometers that met the toughest demands for accuracy and reliability.
After the war, Hamilton returned to producing stylish, timeless American made timepieces that quickly became known for their sleek, modern style. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, the company also began to innovate with digital and battery technologies. The Ventura released in 1957 was a particularly popular, distinctive model during this era, and to this day it is iconic of Hamilton’s mid twentieth century caché. The Ventura’s radical styling—which features an asymmetrical case, pointed and extended lugs, and curved crystal—created opportunities for more creative design that would shake up the American watch industry. The Hamilton Watch Company remained American owned until the company was purchased by the Swatch Group of Switzerland in 1974, arguably the premier watchmaker in the world.
When we realized how epic the Hamilton Watch Company’s legacy was, and that the company had its start right here in our own backyard, we began searching for some of these vintage, American-made beauties. So far we’ve been able to track down more than a handful—some pocket watches and some wristwatches—and we are working with a local watchmaker to repair and restore these gentlemanly essentials back to their original glory. Our goal is to have several on hand at all times, but with the interest we’ve gotten so far, we’re starting to think it might be difficult to keep them in stock and on the shelves.
With a vintage Hamilton watch from Ellicott & Co., it's not only time that’s on your side—history is too.