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The Standard Watch in World War II

During World War II, the American watch industry was a valuable resource for the production of war matérial. Production for non-military needs was severely limited. Nevertheless, railroad standard watches were vitally needed for the safe movement of trains in North American and by the Military Railway Service in the various theaters of operations. Thus, arrangements were made for their continued, but limited production.


Prior To The U.S. Entry Into The War

As World War II approached, the pace of North American industry as a whole picked up and then massively accelerated as Great Briton and France placed larger and larger orders for war materiál. As rail traffic increased (especially to the eastern seaboard), the railroads began hiring, and each new railroader who came under railroad time service rules had to get a railroad watch - known to railroaders as a standard watch. Bill Kachler of Rochester, NY, signed on to the New York Central in 1941 and bought a 23-jewel Hamilton (The Snowflaker, Bill Kachler, WSK Pub. Co., 1992, page 26). Ralph Hodson, Brooklyn, NY, also signed on to the New York Central in 1941 and brought a Hamilton 992E (in a No. 10 case). Howie Walder signed on to the Long Island Rail Road in 1941, using his father's 16-size Elgin Father Time (which was allowed to enter back into service at that time). These stories (which were told to K. Singer in 1994) were repeated across the U.S. and Canada as thousands of men (and women) went to work upon the railroads and entered into jobs falling under time service rules. Thus, the demand for standard watches heavily increased.

The American watch manufacturers who built railroad standard watches in the late 1930s and during World War II were Elgin, Hamilton and Waltham. Before the war began, all three accepted orders and started building timepieces for military use, both foreign and domestic. These orders increased as the war began (for examples, see the message board thread: "Hamilton 992B marked US Gov't, US Navy, US Army") and then soared after the U.S. entered the conflict following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At the same time, many of the watch company employees left to join the armed services.

Meeting The Demand For Watches

For the first eight months of the U.S.'s involvement in the war, the watch companies struggled to keep up with the demand for their products. Elgin, Hamilton and perhaps Waltham placed ads explaining the situation. The shortage of new railroad standard watches became so acute that in June 1942 it prompted at least one railroad time service contractor (its not clear at this time how widespread this action was) to request that its client, the St. Louis - San Francisco Railway (Frisco Lines), permit used watches to be accepted into service during the "Emergency". The grades denoted had been dropped from the list of acceptable watches ten years previously, in 1932 (see the Railroad Time Service Watch Rules Encyclopedia article for the 1932 StL-SF rules). In lieu of the normal watch certificate issued to railroaders having watches meeting the 1932 rules (which were still in force), a special, red certificate (watch card) was to be issued for those watches permitted under the proposed plan. The watch card stated, 'If holder of this card is employed by the above named railroad after war emergency ends, this watch will be replaced by him with a "New Standard Watch" per original instructions issued by General Time Inspector prior to emergency.' This plan, or something similar, must have been put into place on railroads across the country since a later effort was made to obtain used standard watches, see below.

The War Production Board Acts

Then, on August 7 1942, the War Production Board (WPB) issued General Limitation Order L-175, a shortened form of which was reported in the trade press, restricting the sale and delivery of railroad standard watches. The effect was immediate. In order to buy a standard watch, a person had to have the properly signed "certificate of need" from a railroad, a fact that promptly appeared in railroad brotherhood journal advertising. The watch companies could only sell and deliver standard watches to the government or to replace inventory of watches sold to holders of "certificates of need." Interestingly, in addition to new watches, the order applied to watches that hadn't been built in the last ten or twenty years. Many of these were the makes and grades listed in the above-mentioned plan to accept the used, previously no longer accepted (except by grandfathering) watches into service again. In other words, watch inspectors and other retailers were prohibited from selling used railroad standard watches to anyone not having a "certificate of need." But apparently, these restrictions didn't free up enough watches, as the number of standard watches being built, and used watches being returned to service, were insufficient to meet the need. In February 1943, after earlier efforts by the railroads came up short, the call went out from the WPB to retirees, and others who had left railroad employment, to sell their standard watches to the watch inspectors.

In another effort to expedite the production of standard watches, in late February or early March 1943, the WPB ordered Hamilton to curtail the production of its 23-jewel grade No. 950B, so as to be able to concentrate its efforts on the grade No. 992B. Nevertheless, those watches in progress continued to work their way through the manufacturing cycle with some not being finished until February or March 1944.

Watch Company Advertising

As 1943 progressed, the railroad brotherhood journals carried Hamilton ads which continued to promote both its military products as well as its 992B. These ads continued into May 1944 and later. In the same publications, Ball, having relatively few standard watches (made by Hamilton at that time) to sell, chose to promote its inspection services and its Garland line of jewelry. Elgin and Waltham ads were not to be seen in these journals.

Elgin used large ads to tout its war effort in jewelry trade magazines (in which, if you look carefully enough, you'll see an "Elgin Railroad Watch"). These publications also carried institutional ads for Ball, Hamilton and Waltham.

The Watch Shortage Continues

Immediately following VE Day, the WPB revoked order L-175. This was communicated to the watch inspectors shortly thereafter. However, the lifting of restrictions and the ending of the war a few months later didn't immediately increase the availability of standard watches as conversion to civilian production was slow. William Miner, a post-war railroader reported (to K. Singer in November 1996) that in December 1945, he was still required to have a "certificate of need" and that when he went to the watch inspector to get a standard watch, there were only two available to choose from (not two makes or grades, only two actual watches in the shop), a Hamilton 992B and a Ball 999B - he got the Ball. The shortage of standard watches continued into March 1946 when the government sold 992Bs back to Hamilton to meet the demand for standard watches. In April 1946, this was reported in the general press (posted by Robert Sweet). Not only did the demand exceed supply a full year after the end of the war, but as late as July 1947, almost two years after WWII was over, Hamilton was still having a problem filling orders.

References



Articles

Back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin are available online to NAWCC members who are currently logged in.

"Railroaders' Corner - Standard Watches During World War II," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 311, December 1997, pp. 740-749.


Books

United States Military Railway Service - America's Soldier-Railroaders in WWII, Don DeNevi and Bob Hall, Boston Mills Press, Erin, Ontario, Canada, 1992 (no information about watches, but the book describes military railroad operations).

Military Timepieces, Marvin E. Whitney, American Watchmakers Institute Press, 1992.
Categories: Category Railroad watches

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