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South Bend Watch Co.

nineteenthThe South Bend Watch Co. was created when a group of investors, including one of the Studebaker brothers, bought the Columbus Watch Co. and moved it to South Bend, IN. In the 1920s, the company's mail-order division gained precedence and the company became the Studebaker Watch Co. The firm became a victim of the Great Depression, closing its doors in 1930.

South Bend Watch Co.: A Thumbnail Description

In 1902, a group of investors including Clement Studebaker, one of the Studebaker brothers, a branch of the family not involved in the wagon and automobile company, organized the South Bend Watch Co. and then purchased the Columbus Watch Company. One of the stated reasons was to fight the 'Watch Trust' but of course the primary goal was, almost certainly, to make money. They then moved the firm to South Bend, Indiana. Over the next twenty-five years or so of its existence, the firm produced a little less than 900 thousand watches, about 80,000 of which met railroad time service requirements. Originally, South Bend marketed its watches directly to (and only to) retail dealers. Then, in the mid-1920’s, it formed the Studebaker Watch Co. to sell watches by mail order directly to the customers. These 12 and 16 size watches (and perhaps others in smaller sizes) had dials labeled “Studebaker” and carried an "8 Adjustm'ts" marking on the movement. South Bend was a victim of the depression, closing its doors on January 1, 1930. Mr. W.C. Shelton, formerly in charge of South Bend’s production, was hired by the creditors to finish watches from material on hand. He completed 38,000 movements by 1933. (According to “Jesse Elwood Coleman and the South Bend Story,” O.B. Frye - see References, below).

Basic Movement Information

Information about a South Bend watch may be obtained using the online references listed below.

The Studebaker

Perhaps the best known South Bend watches were "The Studebaker" grades, the open-face, 18-size of which (grades Nos. 323 and 329) were cataloged in 1909 and introduced by ads in 1910. "The Studebaker" was a railroad grade watch, widely accepted for railroad time service. It was available in five different configurations:

SizeJewelsTypeGradeQty Made
1817OFNo. 3233,400
1821OFNo. 3293,000
1821HCNo. 328200 Est.
1617OFNo. 2235,000
1621OFNo. 2296,000

The Five-Year Insurance Certificate

"The Studebaker" was introduced at the end of a general change in the requirements for railroad standard watches, a change towards tighter restrictions upon watches entering railroad time service. To promote these watches, South Bend advertised a free insurance certificate, a guarantee that the watches would pass any newly introduced railroad requirements for five years from the date of purchase. If not, the watch would be upgraded to pass, or would be replaced with a watch that would pass. This was especially significant to a large block of railroaders referred to as "boomers" - railroad workers who moved from railroad to railroad, following the seasonal peak work periods (the booms) as crops were harvested in various parts of the country. The five-year guarantee was described in a 1911 Railway Conductor Ad.

The fact is that the railroad time service requirements didn't change such that the South Bend railroad standard watches didn't pass until more than five years beyond the point that the watches were sold. The last of the 17-jewel watches were sold were sold during the teens, yet it was only during the 1920s that some railroads stopped accepting 17-jewel watches. Only a few hunting-case grade No. 328 were built and it is hazy how long hunting-case watches continued to be accepted into time service, but none of the time service rules that have come to light prohibit hunting-case watches until the 1930s. Regarding the open-face, 21-jewel watches, they continued to be accepted until long after South Bend went out of business. Thus, to date, there is no known instance in which South Bend had to upgrade or replace a standard watch.

Imaginative Advertising

Most watch collectors are aware of South Bend's famous "Block of Ice" trade mark and ads, commemorating the freezing a South Bend watch in a block of ice (having a cylindrical hole through which to wind the crown). However, not that many collectors realize that this wasn't just done at South Bend, but by individual jewelers across the nation. Newhouse Bros. in Red Cloud, NE and Geo. T. Baker & Co. of Bemidji, MN are two who participated in the promotion.

Furthermore, few are aware that it was just one part in an advertising campaign, promoting the adjusting of South Bend watches to heat and cold. In addition to showing a watch in a block of ice, South Bend capitalized on the use of the watches in a North Pole expedition to exhibit their ability to keep time in cold temperatures. More startling was an ad showing a South Bend watch being boiled in water. The truth be told, South Bend watches were no better at operating in extreme temperatures than those of the other major American pocket watch manufacturers of the era. However, South Bend's ads were far and away the best at demonstrating this capability to the general public.

Imaginative Marketing - Watch Clubs

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, watch clubs appeared. These were semi-formal groups, cooperatives, that formed to provide its members with watches. Or perhaps more likely, they were commercial operations sometimes run by the watch companies, that made a profit selling watches to the members. Basically, thirty or forty people would band together with each pledging to pay a dollar or so a month until everybody in the group received a watch. They would draw lots (or use some other system) that placed them in numerical order. The money collected the first month would be used to buy a watch for the first person, the collection the second month would pay for the second person's watch and so on until everybody in the club received a watch.

In the early-to-mid teens, South Bend dealers began to announce "watch clubs" in their local newspapers. Their functioning, as a group, wasn't clearly defined, but they seem to have been simply a means of selling watches on an installment plan with a down-payment followed by weekly payments (the watch was received immediately). The club "feature" of the plan was that the watches were purchased by the jeweler as a lot with a corresponding discount, some portion of which was passed on to the customer. At first pass, these appear to have originated locally. But viewing the local newspaper ads as a whole makes it obvious, by their identical appearance (except for the jeweler's name), that the clubs were orchestrated by South Bend.

Two examples of an earlier South Bend watch club ad are exhibited by:
Dixon - North Platte, NE, April 1914
Kelley-Vawter - Marshall, MO, May 1914

A slightly later South Bend watch club common ad was used by:
W.H. Hawkins & Son - Hendersonville, NC, June 1914
Geo. T. Baker & Co. - Bemidji, MN, October 1914
L. Roy Fuller - Yale, MI, November 1914

These watch club ads are a little later and may have been created locally:
H.G. Nasburg - Pullman, WA, March 1915
Van Rie - South Bend, IN, April, 1915

References

Online Information

Henry Burgell's Interactive South Bend Serial Number Lookup Table provides basic information about South Bend watches using the serial number on the movement.

TimeAntiquarian's Pocket Watch Database provides the grade, size, jeweling and other data for the South Bend movements whose serial numbers are entered (use dropdown menu to select "South Bend").


Books
The following books and back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin are available to members on loan by mail from the NAWCC Lending Library, using the Lending Library Form.

The South Bend Watch Co. - South Bend, Indiana - A Complete Listing of Serial / Grade Numbers from Beginning to End, Lyle & Donna Stratton, Longmont, CO, 1999.

How and Why Own a South Bend Watch, South Bend Watch Co., South Bend, IN, 1914, reprinted by Arlington Horology & Book Co., Arlington, VA, undated, but probably early 1980s..


Articles
Back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin are available online to NAWCC members who are currently logged in at http://nawcc.org/index.php/nawcc-bulletin/past-issues-.

“The Studebakers and the South Bend Watch Co.,” by Paul Berg, NAWCC Bulletin, No. 153, August 1971, pp. 1184-1193.

“South Bend Watches,” by O.B. Frye, NAWCC Bulletin, No. 239, December1985, pp. 643-655.

“Jesse Elwood Coleman and the South Bend Story,” by O.B. Frye, NAWCC Bulletin, No. 252, February 1988, pp. 16-36.

"Railroaders' Corner - South Bend's Standard Watches Part 1," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 329, December 2000, pp. 813-821.

"Railroaders' Corner - South Bend's Standard Watches Part 2," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 330, February 2001, pp. 89-96.


American watch makers

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