Lewis Hine Visits Lancaster, Pennsylvania circa 1936
Photo Essay: Inside the Hamilton Watch Factory, 1936
The great Swiss watch companies (or maisons) have a word for the building in which they craft timepieces: a manufacture. A normally dry verb becomes a colorful noun, lending an elegance to the sterile rooms that house benches and machinery — a place where magic is made. These manufactures are often quaint buildings where artisans once leaned over their work lit through south-facing windows. This was a cottage industry, rich in a tradition of craftsmanship. The watches were finely decorated by hand and often had stupendously innovative complications that pleased the noblemen who commissioned them.
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But in the late 19th and early 20th century on this side of the pond, America was a watchmaking powerhouse of a different sort, cranking out thousands of sturdy, reliable pocket- and wristwatches used at sea and on the rails and in the trenches. In true American fashion grown from a tradition pioneered by the likes of Henry Ford, the buildings where these timepieces were built were called factories, set up with a focus on repeatability, volume and quality that could respond to the timekeeping needs of a growing nation. These factories differed from the Swiss ones. They were large, with long tables seating many workers doing to repetitious tasks. Work was more mechanized; handwork, while desirable and still used, was less suited to the overall goal. While the watches produced in these factories were not haute horlogerie, they brought timekeeping to the masses, helped a nation grow and employed thousands of skilled workers.
Nowadays, the American watch industry is a far different landscape. Cheap quartz watches on one end of the spectrum and luxury Old World timepieces at the other squeezed out the Elgins and Hampdens and Ingersolls until nothing was left by the 1970s. Today, the once great Hamilton Watch Company factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is an apartment complex. But these photos from Depression-era photographer and social reformer Lewis Hine show the halcyon days at Hamilton, when even during our nation’s lowest days, American watchmaking kept people working and a country on time.