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Brief History: The "Dollar" Watch

The Evolution of the Low-Cost, High-Volume American Pocket Watch

Though the Ingersoll Watch Company is often credited with the creation of the "Dollar Watch," the efforts to produce a low-cost watch which could be sold in high volume had been underway for years prior to Ingersoll's debut of the $1.50 pocket watch at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Today we take it for granted that everyone owns a watch, but there was a time when watches were expensive and were simply not something the average person could afford. The average wage for skilled workers in the United States in 1880 was around 25-cents an hour*, so a $50 watch could represent more than a month's wages for the average worker! Not to mention some of the fine railroad-grade pocket watches which sold for the unbelievable sum of $100 or more! A fine pocket watch was truly an outlay that only a wealthy person could afford, so there was a pent-up market demand for an inexpensive, reliable watch that would be available and affordable for the common man.

The Auburndale Rotary

In the early 1870's, Jason R. Hopkins had plans to develop and market a watch which would sell for 50-cents, and was granted a patent for its design on July 20, 1875 (Pat. 161513). Hopkins entered into a partnership with financier William Fowle, and the Auberndale Watch Company was created to produce their new watch. The "Auberndale Rotary Watch" was introduced in about 1877. It was a 20-size, 2-jewel watch with detent escapement, and were priced at $10... far beyond Hopkins original goal of 50-cents! Company records indicate that about 1000 of these watches were produced, but few were sold and the venture was considered a failure.

Waterbury Watch Company

At about the same time, Edward Locke of Boston and George Merritt of Brooklyn were also making plans to produce an inexpensive watch for the common-man that would sell in the $3-$4 range, at a time when the cheapest watch in America sold for $10... a still-significant sum. Merritt had been an early investor in Hopkins "Rotary" watch, and worked with Locke and D.A.A. Buck to complete a model of their watch in the fall of 1877. The watch was a duplex escapement with rotary movement that turned in the case once per hour. The mainspring was 9-feet long! The first watches of this design were built under contract by the "Benedict & Burnham Mfg. Co" and were sold for $3.50. The watch achieved some commercial success, and in March 1880 the "Waterbury Watch Company" was created to supply these watches in sufficient volume to meet the increased demand.

In the following 10-year period, five "series" of this watch were produced... beginning with "The Waterbury" and then proceeding through Series A, B, C and E (I wonder why they skipped D?) All used the 9-foot mainspring. The watch was discontinued in 1891, but by that time thousands had been made and sold. The watch is now commonly known as the "Waterbury Long-wind" and is highly sought after by collectors of early horological novelties.

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Ingersoll Goes Mass-market

In about 1880, Robert Hawley Ingersoll and his brother Charles Henry, operating in New York as a mail-order business, recognized the need for an inexpensive watch that nearly anyone could afford, to be sold for around one-dollar. Both the New Haven Clock Company and the Waterbury Clock company had already produced relatively inexpensive "clock-watches" that could meet the need that the Ingersoll brothers anticipated, but those watches had achieved neither mass-market success nor widespread distribution.

In 1892, Ingersoll placed an initial order for 10,000 watches from the Waterbury Clock Company, at a cost of 85-cents apiece, to be offered in their 1892 Ingersoll mail-order catalog at a price of $1. The Ingersoll clock-watch was also offered at the 1892 Columbian Exposition for $1.50, where it is estimated they sold 85,000 watches! The positive response prompted Ingersoll to return to Chicago for the World's Fair in 1893, where a new clock-watch with the World's Fair emblem stamped into the case was a huge success. Ingersoll had 3 factories producing watches on contract, and the company implemented an efficient distribution system, backed their watches with a famous guarantee, and established uniform pricing wherever their watches were sold.

Other Makers of Dollar Watches

Following Ingersoll's success other watch manufacturers competed for a piece of the dollar-watch market. E.N. Welch in 1893, New York City Watch Co. in 1895, Western Clock Mfg. in 1899, International Watch Co. in 1902, Ansonia Clock Co. in 1904, Bannatyne Watch Co. in 1905, and Ingraham in 1913 all produced dollar-style watches.

It has been estimated that 70% of the watches produced in America were of the "dollar-watch" type. Approximately 500 MILLION of these low-cost, high-volume, dollar-style watches were made, and because they were never made with repairability in mind, they would often cost more to repair than a replacement watch. As a result, millions of these watches were thrown away or tossed into the back of a drawer. Dollar watches can frequently be found at flea-markets and swap-meets, but it can be quite difficult to find examples that are still in good working condition.

Workers at one of Ingersoll's watch factories

Workers at one of Ingersoll's watch factories

How to Recognize a "Dollar Watch"

Low-cost dollar-style watches usually share the following general characteristics:

  1. Pin-pallet or duplex escapements.
  2. Stamped or pressed-out plates, often riveted.
  3. Non-jeweled (or minimally-jeweled) movement.
  4. Dial made of printed paper or other inexpensive material.
  5. Watch case and movement sold as one complete unit.

Dollar Watches with Advertising Dials - Buyer Beware!

Fake black Americana dial on a Westclox alarm clock

Fake "Black Americana" Dial

Because dollar watches were inexpensive and frequently had paper dials, they were sometimes "customized" as advertising, promotional or political campaign pieces... often made in very limited quantities. These dials featured characters, political slogans, product logos, or other promotional images. As such, dollar watches with GENUINE ORIGINAL paper "advertising" dials can be very rare and collectible.

BUT... because there are so many examples of inexpensive dollar-style watches to be found, these items have become a popular target for counterfeiters. Unscrupulous individuals make old-looking fake paper dials on their ink-jet printer, using old advertising images to create watch dials that never really existed, or were made only in very limited production quantities.

This is done to artificially (and dishonestly) inflate the value of the watch by making it appear more rare or collectible than it really is. Unknowing buyers may pay inflated prices for a cheap watch or clock with a fake dial believing it is a rare turn-of-the-century advertising item. Early advertising images, political badges, and Black Americana (often derogatory in nature) seem to be particularly popular subject areas for these fake dials. So next time you see one of these offered on Ebay, check it out very carefully before making a purchase.

Repair of Dollar Watches

For the most part, dollar watches were never intended to be repaired. The stamped-out metal plates are often riveted together, and non-destructive disassembly is often nearly impossible. Even when new, the cost of repairs often exceeded the cost of replacement... they were literally throw-away watches. Because so many were tossed in the junk drawer when they quit working, it's difficult to find examples of dollar-watches in good working condition. There were also limited supplies of spare parts produced for these watches; it doesn't appear that the companies made any significant effort to create or support a repair market for these watches.. As such, we do not repair dollar-type watches.

References

The first compiled reference on dollar watches is the paperback booklet published by George E Townsend of Alma, Michigan in 1974. The horological community is indebted to Mr. Townsend for his recognition of dollar-style watches as an interesting sub-category of watch collecting, and for his work compiling much of what we know about the history and production of Dollar watches in America.

* Statistics on wages from: "Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-1890, Clarence D. Long, Princeton University Press, ISBN: 0-87014-066-3

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