Kane County History: 'Elgin Watches, The World’s Standard'

Kane County History: ‘Elgin Watches, The World’s Standard’

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Jennifer Fukala, executive director of the Downtown Neighbors Association, reprinted by Bravo Magazine and the Elgin History Museum.

The following is a history of the Elgin Watch brand, via the advertising that told the world about watches made in the Fox River Valley for 100 years, 1866-1966.

The Value of Time

In Elgin, most of us today know that in the beginning there was a watch factory. Our parents or grandparents told us stories about it from their youth.

Perhaps we read about it somewhere. Or caught sight of an image floating around Facebook of the factory’s clock tower exploding when the building was demolished.

Time has marched on, and as we look back at times we find ourselves trying to interpret the evolution of Elgin since that time.

“Time and tide wait for no man…. Elgin Watches, the World’s Standard”
– McClure Magazine, 1899

In the early days, four Elgin businessmen had a vision for the future: to bring a watch manufacturer to their town. Their vision came to life when a business opened in 1865 — a  company was named after the city.

So good was their plan that the Elgin National Watch Company would, in a few short decades, not only lead the American-made watch industry but through embracing the talents of their artisan craftspeople and pursuit of the most innovative technology, the company would grow to become the largest manufacturer of fine jeweled timepieces worldwide.

“Nine million Elgin Watches- the greatest number ever made in one factory -regulate the business and pleasure of the greater part of the world.”
— Unknown Newspaper, 1901

“Two astronomers watch the heavens every night at the Elgin Observatory.”
— National Geographic, approx 1910

“For half a century, Father Time has stood for the finest railroad timepieces that money, brains, and skill can produce. – Elgin’s!”
— Saturday Evening Post, May 13, 1922

“Your jeweler, an Elgineer, will endorse it.”
— National Geographic, approx. 1910

Such was the craftmanship of the Elgin watch that the name Elgin came to be used as an adjective for quality. Unrelated companies claimed their automobiles were “Built like a watch” or came out with luxury “Elgin” product lines to showcase their very best.

In 1917, when the U.S. entered World War 1, Elgin did, too.

“Elgin’s! … the official chronometer of our destroyers and torpedo boats.”
— Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 21, 1918

“Thousands of Elgin’s are used by the Government in our Navy – tens of thousands by our Signal Corps – and along that surging battle line in France hundreds of thousands of Elgin’s are in hourly use by the fighting men of America and her gallant Allies”
— Literary Digest, Oct. 19, 1918

“The Elgin Strap Watch, the Armistices releases them for civilian use.”
— Saturday Evening Post, March 8, 1919

Elgin had an early interest in the arts, as well, hiring the finest French fashion designers of 1920s Art Deco Paris to create their iconic “Parisenne” series of women’s watches. A product line made nearly 100 years ago has held its value, still highly collectable today.

“Elgin, sensing your demand for style in all your personal accessories, engaged the most illustrious of French modistes to design your watches.”
— Ladies Home Journal, Nov. 1928

Watches so artistically designed that …

“Under the personal guidance of these internationally famous women … Never before has such an exquisite watch, such a chic and stylish watch (been created)”  been created.”
— Cosmopolitan, 1928

Such was their success that …

“The first Elgin Parisennes were introduced a mere year ago … and today over 150,000 women are timing their comings and goings with Parisienne flair and ELGIN Accuracy.”
— Saturday Evening Post, 1929

The Elgin brand became interlaced with family tradition and the milestones of people’s lives.

“An Elgin watch should be part of the life-estate of every man and woman.”
– unknown magazine, 1920s

“Elgin is a gift that is a life-long expression of love and affection.”
— The Saturday Evening post, Jan. 1, 1927 

Two Important “Elgin events” … Graduation for College and First Flight in a U.S. Bomber”
– Time Magazine, April 13, 1942

“It was a memorable day when I received my Elgin.”
— unknown magazine, 1940s

This advertising was the message that Elgin was telling the world about itself — about the products they produced but also about the talents of the people who lived here. About the values and vision of the city they were building, the city whose future we are entrusted with today.

As we write the next chapters of our history here in Elgin, let us use the gifts within each of us to contribute to the story.

 “Reaffirming the ELGIN Tradition of Leadership … Lord and Lady Elgin.”
— The National Weekly, 1937

Learn More at The Elgin History Museum

The Elgin History Museum has an extensive collection of Elgin watches and Elgin National Watch Company archives, plus a fascinating exhibit on the evolution of the company. The Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There are also many Sunday programs with open hours.

Check the Museum’s website at www.elginhistory.org. The museum offers Elgin watch research services if you are interested in the manufacturing history of an Elgin watch, https://elginhistory.org/research/elgin-watches/

Read The Kane County History Series!