The Elgin National Watch Co. was the largest American watch company in terms of jeweled movements produced, over 50,000,000 in its approximately 100 years of building watches from 1866 to the 1960s. Following its 1864 start, in which J.C. Adams had a hand, the National Watch Company reorganized, effective Feburary 15, 1865. This was just after the completion of a factory building in Elgin, Illinois. Two years later, the first movements (starting at serial number 101) were ready for sale. These first movements were 18-size, keywind, keyset, full-plate, gilt movements marked "B.W. Raymond" (after a former mayor of Chicago who was one of the initial directors of the company). These were later assigned to be grade No. 69. They were high grade watches, suitable for railroad time service and promoted for such use in early advertising. In fact, the "B.W. Raymond" name was used continously on the firm's railroad watches, right up to the 1960s when it was applied to the company's last railroad watch, the 23-Jewel B.W. Raymond Railroad Wrist Chronometer. Other members of the first board of directors included Joseph T. Ryerson, Howard Z. Culver and George M. Wheeler, all of whose names were given to grades of watches.
The watch grades of Elgin movements, like those from other manufacturers, are the identification of the level of quality to which they are finished. This can get confusing because Elgin assigned a grade number to a movement of a specific size, jeweling and finish. If the same basic movement design underwent a change, such as replacing a conventional, bimetalic balance with a monometalic, temperature immune balance, a different grade number would be assigned.
Then, Elgin assigned a name to a whole range of movements (and grade numbers) of various sizes and jeweling, but finished to the same level of quality. Thus, there were B.W. Raymond grade movements of different watch models in 16-size having 17, 19, 21 and 23 jewels and in 18-size, full-plate 15 or 17 jewel, or 3/4-plate 17, 19 or 21 jewel. Each size and jewelling combination was built in a group of movements, having different grade numbers, as changes were made over the years.
To confuse the matter further, movements of the same grade number, and even from the same run, might be given a different grade name, such as Father Time or Veritas, or not given a name at all, just being marked with the grade number; or not even that, only being marked "Elgin Nat'l Watch Co." All of this only makes sense to marketing people. Just how different were the different grades of what seemed like the same movement? Well, a study of the available information would help, especially in examining the descriptions and pricing in the ads and catalogs. For example, comparing the description of the 18-size, 21-jewel Veritas grade No. 239 with that of the 18-size, 21-jewel Father Time grade No. 367 on page 2E of the 1917 Oskamp-Nolting Catalog (a jobbers' catalog) and especially the $10.00 difference in the list prices, there seems like there should be a significant difference. However, this may be misleading, as is shown by a look at the Elgin Master Records, "Grade 367 Notes." The first three items mentioned, which differentiate the No. 367 from the No. 239, are:
Same as 239 except lettered "Father Time" instead of "Veritas"
Change style of damaskeening & exposed wheels from 239
That's the whole difference! Eight years earlier than that 1917 catalog, the difference in pricing of a factory-cased watch between the two in this 1909 Ad is $5.00. This was more than a day's pay for the average factory worker in 1914.
The grade number and other details of an Elgin watch may be determined from the movement serial number using some of the items listed in the References section, below.
In 1877, Elgin introduced its plan of not marking the grade number of its un-named watches, referring to them as "Nameless" watches. These watches were only identified by the company name "Elgin Nat'l Watch Co.". This practice, followed by other manufacturers, obscured the grade of any given movement since it could only be determined by the use of a (strictly confidential) serial number vs. grade list. The purpose of this was to protect retail jewelers from discounters insofar as the customer could never be certain that the grade of watch being offered by the discounter was the same as the higher-priced, watch at the retail jeweler's shop. Among the Elgin grades existing in this obscurity were a series of 18-size, 21-jewel, nickel damaskeened, full-plate movements produced in the mid-to-late 1890s and slightly into the early 1900s.
No. 149 & No. 150
The first of these watches were the hunting and open-face grades No. 149 and No. 150, respectively. They were originally introduced as 20-jewel watches in 1894. However, the competition, hitting the market at the same time or only slightly later, had focused upon, and promoted, 21-jewel movements, such as the Illinois Bunn Special, the Waltham Vanguard, and the Seth Thomas Maiden Lane. Within a couple of years, Elgin had to add a lower center jewel to the grades No. 149 and No. 150, making them 21-jewel watches also. As a rule of thumb, the 21-jewel versions are marked as such and those lacking a jewel marking (and a lower center jewel) are 20-jewel movements. However, this isn't 100% certain and each of these movements lacking a jewel marking needs to be inspected to see if it has the lower center jewel.
The grade No. 149 was a lever-set watch, while the No. 150 was described as being a pendant-set watch. When lever-set versions of the grade No. 150 movements were needed, they were created by converting the pendant-set movements already in inventory. Eventually, Elgin started withdrawing the serial numbers of the pendant-set movements which were pulled from inventory and converted from those assigned to the grade No. 150 and assigned them to be grade No. 277, a grade consisting only of pendant-set movements that had been pulled from inventory and converted to be lever-setting. These are shown in the Elgin Master Records for both the grade No. 150 and for the grade No. 277. However these records are not all inclusive, lacking serial numbers of earlier lever-set versions of the No. 150. These were apparently converted prior to the decision to reassign the serial numbers to a different grade number. It is not clear, and it is probably irrelevant, if Elgin considered these earlier conversions to be lever-set grade No. 150 watches or unrecorded grade No. 277 watches. There is a detailed discussion of these open-face, 18-size, movements and their variations in a 2009-2011 message board thread. Nevertheless, in any combination of hunting or open-face; lever or pendant setting; 20-jewel or 21-jewel; these were railroad grade movements, positioned at the top of the company's line of 18-size watches in the 1894 - 1901 era.
The next "nameless" movement to built as an 18-size, 21-jewel, full-plate watch was the grade No. 181. Built in the late 1890s as an open-face watch, apparently without a hunting version equivalent, it appears similar to the grade No. 150-277. However, Elgin descriptive literature for this grade has yet to surface and we can only work from visual comparisons. Most likely, it is a continuation the lever-set version of the grade No. 150 quality watch. Production of the grade No. 181 was probably planned from the start, as opposed to the earlier grade No. 277 movements (which were converted from pendant-set grade No. 150 movements).
Also in the late 1890s, a small number of grade No. 252 18-size, 21-jewel, lever-set movements were produced as "nameless" watches, simply signed "Elgin Nat'l Watch Co." The vast majority of the production of this grade were signed "Father Time." Although the "nameless" movements are not particularly valued at more than the much more common "Father Time" movements, they're an interesting addition to a collection.
No. 348 & No. 349
The last two grades, Nos. 348 and 349, hunting and open-face respectively, are debatable as to whether they can be considered to be "nameless" or not, insofar as they are clearly marked "No. 348" and "No. 349." These were built after the introduction of the 18-size, 3/4-plate models (which now topped Elgin's line of 18-size watches) and the full-plate, "Father Time" named grade No. 252. Under these circumstances, they were the lowest grade of Elgin's 18-size, 21-jewel watches, but in the overall scheme, this was still a fairly high grade, within the top 10% of quality of Elgin's production. Earlier production was simply marked "Adjusted" (to temperature and positions) while "Adjusted 5 Positions" appeared on those produced after 1906-1908. Occasionally, Elgin would pull some movements of the 3/4-plate, grade No. 390 from its production and finish them as No. 349 grade movments.
Some of Elgin's war production is shown in this 1943 Ad. A picture of their B. W. Raymond Railroad Watch can be seen on the left end of the second row. The Master Navigation Watch towards the right side of the bottom row is probably one of the gold-flashed grade No. 581 movements. For more information on railroad watches produced during WWII, see "Railroaders' Corner - Standard Watches of WWII," listed in the References section, below.
During World War II, Elgin produced a number of gold-flashed movements. Some say that it was done to conserve the nickel normally used for the plates, but nothing definitive appears in Elgin's literature. A number of grade No. 581 movements, made for the military, were finished this way. Other, civilian grades were also gold-flashed, such as the Grade No. 478 B.W. Raymond. The following runs of railroad grade No. 478 B.W. Raymond movements were finished this way, too:
Elgin followed the practice of just about all of the watch manufacturers, marking all practically all adjusted watches "Adjusted" regardless of the level of watch adjustment until the 1906-1908 era. Thereafter, if watches were adjusted to position, the number of positions to which they were adjusted were marked on the movements
Decades later, Elgin applied the term "8 Adjustments" to their No. 571 B.W. Raymond grade. This created some uncertainty whether watches so marked were adjusted to six positions or to five positions. Elgin literature didn't help with some sources stating "... eight adjustments - six to position and two to temperature." while other sources claimed, "... 8 adjustments, five to position." After a few years, perhaps to clear up confusion as to whether it meant adjustment to heat, cold, isochronism and five positions; or temperature, isochronism and six positions; or perhaps as a marketing ploy to claim a greater number of adjustments; Elgin changed the No. 571's marking to "9 Adjustments." This was understood to mean 6 adjustments to position.
Jeff Sexton's Elgin Watch Serial Numbers webpage provides the grade, size jeweling and other data for the Elgin watches whose serial numbers are entered in the "Movement Serial Number:" field.
Also, TimeAntiquarian's Pocket Watch Database provides the grade, size, jeweling and other data for the Elgin watches whose serial numbers are entered.
Wayne Schlitt has a great Web Site Devoted to Elgin Watches upon which, data can be obtained from specific movement serial numbers. It had not been available for quite a while but is now active again.
Oldwatch.com's Elgin Production Date Table, or the Pocket Watch Site's Elgin Date Table provide a means for determining the approximate production date. In general, we think of serial number vs. date lists - created by using the average number of watches produced over a period of years - to only be accurate within a year or two at best, and recognize that there are numerous exceptions wherein which the dates may be off as much as 3 years or more. This is not just for Elgin, but for other watch manufacturers as well.
Elgin Time: A History of the Elgin National Watch Company 1864-1968, E.C. Alft & William H. Briska, Elgin Historical Society, Elgin, IL, 2003.
Elgin Watch Company - Identification and Price Guide, Roy Ehrhardt, Heart of America Press, Kansas City, MO, 1976.
The Complete History of Watch Making in America - Reprinted from the Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review 1885-1887, Charles S. Crossman, Adams Brown Co., Exeter, NH, undated, but probably late 1980's.