In the current day and age, we no longer think of the places where watches are made as being factories. Instead, we tend to call them by the name the Swiss industry uses – manufacture. Just the simple change to this non-English (yet still recognizable) word calls to mind a much different image than you likely have when you think of a plant or factory (especially for those of us who have worked in such facilities).
Of course, some of that could be due to the fact that the American watch industry more or less died off some time ago. To be sure, we do have a resurgence happening now, with folks like RGM leading the charge, but they are still very small shops. Back in the early part of the 20th century, though, it was a completely different story.
Companies like Elgin, Waltham, and Hamilton were powerhouses in their own right, and they went about watchmaking in a different way. Following in the footsteps of other industries, these watch companies setup their factories with the focus on repeatability, efficiency, quality, and volume. Sure, some work was still done by hand in the “old way”, but it wasn’t as desirable, as it slowed down the overall process.
No, they were building watches in the American way, creating accurate pocket and wrist watches that ended up in the hands of the general public, bringing timekeeping to the masses, and employing greater numbers of skilled workmen. If you were to track down these old factories, you’d likely find them missing, in disrepair, or repurposed for new uses.
In the case of the Hamilton factory in Lancaster, PA, it’s an apartment building today. Jason Heaton over at Gear Patrol uncovered a trove of photographs inside the factory in 1936 done by a Lewis Hine. These give a glimpse into what things were like inside these factories that gave people at work (remember, this wasn’t exactly a robust time in our economy) and kept the nation ticking. source
Images courtesy of Gear Patrol