Kane County History: From Elgin Watch Cases to 4.2 Mortar Shells And Back Again

Kane County History: From Elgin Watch Cases to 4.2 Mortar Shells And Back Again

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Elizabeth Marston of the Elgin History Museum.

When people buy a cell phone today, they buy the phone and then pick out the case for it separately. In the 1900s when people bought a pocket watch, they bought the case for it separately.

The Illinois Watch Case Company began making those cases in Elgin in 1890.

At the beginning of the 20th century, pocket watches were slowly being replaced with wristwatches. The watch case was not a vital component to all watches being sold.  The Illinois Watch Case Company recognized that they needed to change their business model to keep up the changes in watches.

Elgin American, a subsidiary of the Illinois Watch Case Company, began making compacts, powder jars and cigarette cases. Instead of making a case to fit a watch, they were making cases that fit a mirror, lipstick, face powder, or cigarettes.

When the United States entered World War II, many factories changed production and entered the war production effort, and by November 1943, the Illinois Watch Case Company was making military items.

One item was the 4.2-inch mortar shell. The 4.2 mortar could release 4.2 shells every three seconds. Gas shells were very common, but they also made explosive shells for use against tanks and pillboxes and troops. The shells had a range of two miles.

1 Million Shells

Screenshot of the July 1944 Cases and Faces newsletter. (Full front page image embedded below.)

By July 1944, the IWC was the first plant in the United States to make 1 million 4.2-inch shells.

This is how the moment was described in the IWC’s Cases and Faces newsletter of July 1944:

“(As shell number) 1,000,000 came rolling along the automatic conveyor line, it bore a bright yellow ribbon identifying it to the hundreds of IWC war workers. Mr. Gellman received the shell off the end of the line and presented it to Colonel Lebkicher.

“The employees of this Army-Navy ‘E’ plant since the time we turned from peacetime production of watch cases, compacts, and cigarette cases have produced an approximate volume of 34 million pounds of steel and over 267 miles of steel tubing in the production of the 4.2 mortar shell.

“(The) 4.2 mortar shell exceeds heavy artillery in many phases … the high angle of fire produced by this shell is especially successful in places such as Italy where high hills make ordinary artillery that use the flat trajectory inefficient.”

The mortar shell was important in the crossing of the Rhine River. Company A, 89th mortar Battalion “worked 36 hours without rest or sleep, it mortars lobbed 10,500 rounds across the water,” the Cases and Faces newsletter said in July 1945.

As World War II ended, the Illinois Watch Case Company and Elgin American returned to making compacts, cigarette cases, and lighters.

Information for this blog post is from the Illinois Watch Case Company newsletters “Cases and Faces” between November 1943 and December 1944. The newsletters can be seen on Illinois Digital Archives and the Elgin History Museum website. 

The Novelty Department of Elgin American, 1939.

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