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Luis Casillas

Elgin Watches, 1867-1879, Part 4: the first stem winders and setters

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Previous installments

  1. Part 1, introduction and list of references
  2. Part 2, the Great Named Grade Purge and the first 17 size watches
  3. Part 3, the dial name change

What the sources say


I'll just quote Crossman verbatim here:

The first stem wind watches issued by the company were delivered June 28, 1873, the model watch having been made by Mr. C. S. Moseley. Between that date and May 6, 1875, stem winding attachments were applied to the "Raymond," "Culver," "Taylor," "Wheeler," "Laflin" and "Ogden" grades.
I still haven't figured out whether the "model watch" mentioned in the quote is related to Moseley's US Patent 161,262 (1875).


Abbot makes similar statements as Crossman; he omits the May 6, 1875 date, but adds that the first stem-winder "placed on the market" was a B.W. Raymond movement:

On June 28, 1873, the first stem-wind movement was placed on the market. It was a Raymond movement made over, and was shortly followed by the Culver, Taylor, Wheeler, Laflin and Ogden.
The Elgin Almanacs

The Almanacs give us a timeline that is entirely compatible with Crossman and Abbott's accounts, but in addition also more detailed. Stem winders, which by Crossman and Abbott's accounts were introduced June 28, 1873, are first mentioned in the 1874 edition of the Almanac. However, this Almanac adds that the watches in question had stem winding but not stem setting:

I've cut off the Almanac's bragging about how Elgin watches are so good that you only need to set them once every six months.

The 1875 Almanac then mentions the introduction of stem setting watches:

The text highlights that the mechanism used is one of the company's own invention. This appears to be George Hunter's US Patent 152,113, which we will see below. (The excerpt also talks about things that are either errors or just hard to interpretó"14 size" ladies' watches, and ladies' stem winders that were either not made on schedule or just never made.)

The 1876 Almanac simply says (again) that stem winding and setting is "now" available for the Raymond, Culver, Taylor, Wheeler, Laflin and Ogden grades:

George Hunter's 1874 patent ("slide lever set")

The stem setting mechanism mentioned in the 1875 Almanac is almost certainly George Hunter's US Patent 152,113 (available from Google). The drawings from the patent are worth reproducing here:

Charles Moseley's 1875 patent (stem winding)

I don't have much to say about this one at the moment, or how it fits into the picture. I'll reproduce the drawings here:

Google has a scan of the patent.

Jacques David (1876)

The one thing Jacques David has to say about Elgin stem winders is a rough estimate of relative production compared to key winders:

The proportion of pendant wound watches produced by Elgin compared to the number of key wound watches is 10%. (p. 28)
Elgin's records and Wayne Schlitt's database

In Elgin's serial number records (e.g., from the 1915 Material Guide), key wind/key set 18 size watches are usually classified as 18 Size Model 1, while the 18 size hunting stem winders are classified as 18 Size Models 2, 3 and 4. It appears that the motive for distinguishing between Models 2, 3 and 4 was forgotten at some point before 1915, so a lot of materials about Elgin refer to "Models 2-4" indistinctly as the equivalent of one model.

Elgin's records also assign different grade numbers to key wind and stem wind movements of the same grade name. However, we will see that the grade numbering of stem wind movements was far from consistent; for these watches, more so than others, same grade number does not mean same movement.

Wayne Schlitt's database is based on Elgin's records, and is the most convenient way of doing research on them. A simple search reveals that Elgin's records are somewhat crazy when it comes to the early stem winders. Here are the relevant recorded runs for serial numbers under 300,000 (search for "l l=16"):

Start #Run sizeGrade nameGrade number
155,001100H.Z. Culver61
155,1014,900H.H. Taylor20
235,0013,000H.Z. Culver61
246,50112National Watch Co.70
246,51388B.W. Raymond70
246,601100H.Z. Culver61
246,701100H.H. Taylor20
246,801100G.M. Wheeler63
255,001410Mat. Laflin68
255,41190G.M. Wheeler63
255,501100Mat. Laflin68
255,601300G.M. Wheeler63
256,0011,000G.M. Wheeler63
257,0011,700M.D. Ogden8
258,701300G.M. Wheeler63

For most of Elgin's records, watch runs were assigned serial numbers in multiples of 1,000, but in this case we have lots of small runs. Stem winders clearly were low-volume items at first; if Jacques David's estimate is right, in 1876 only 10% of Elgin's watches were stem winding, and 1873-1876 were lean years because of the financial crisis of 1873.

Schlitt's database also has this interesting comment about the strange 12-watch run recorded at 246,501:

4th stem-wind but key set! only case of this, typo in 1896 MC?
("1896 MC" refers to Elgin's 1896 Material Catalog.) Although I haven't seen a watch from this range, I think that Schlitt's guess that this is a typo appears to be unjustified. We already saw above that according to the 1874 Almanac, Elgin's first stem winders did not have a stem setting mechanism. And as I will discuss below, I actually do have a stem wind/key set Elgin that confirms that such watches were made.

The watches

I have the following Elgin stem wind watches ≤300,000:

Serial #Grade nameSettingWinding
155,399H.H. TaylorKeyStem and key
155,743H.H. TaylorSlide leverStem and key
237,604H.Z. CulverPull-out leverStem and key
255,344Mat. LaflinSlide leverStem and key

I only just got started on my database of watches I've seen online, but I have recorded this one:

Serial #NameSettingWindingNotes
263,206RaymondPull-outStem and keySerial # recorded as grade 69 key wind; looks funny, maybe hand engraved?

"Stem and key wind" means that these are so-called "transitional" watches that have both the stem winding mechanism and a key winding post in the movement. "Slide lever" refers to George Hunter's 1874 patent lever set mechanism, while "pull-out lever" refers to a more conventional lever-set mechanism.

This data, although minimal, does yield several interesting observations:
  1. The stem wind/key set movements implied by the 1874 Elgin Almanac certainly do exist. Such watches are likely to be the earliest Elgin stemwinders.
  2. Elgin's serial number records are, unsurprisingly, fallible; there exist stem winders ≤300,000 that were not recorded as so.
  3. There is an extra piece to the puzzle that the materials above do not mention, which is the existence of two distinct lever setting mechanisms: George Hunter's 1874 slide lever set, and a more conventional pull-out lever set.
  4. The serial numbers may turn out to be a poor predictor of the mechanism in the watch. #155,399 and #155,743 are recorded as part of the same run, and only 344 serial numbers apart, yet one has lever setting and the other doesn't.

The most interesting of these questions is probably #3. Here I am hampered by the fact that I haven't learned to work on watches just yet (I really need to at this point), and my lack of knowledge of lever setting mechanisms; but as I best understand so far, the "pull out" lever set mechanism in these watches is more or less the same as what became the industry standard among American companies. This means that for all that Elgin's 1874 Almanac boasted of their proprietary lever set mechanism, they abandoned it very quickly in favor of the conventional design.

Updated 10-02-2013 at 12:23 AM by Luis Casillas

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