Incorporated in August 1864, the National Watch Company was founded in Chicago Illinois as a joint partnership consisting of Chicago’s Mayor and six other men.
A month later, the partners began recruiting master clockmakers from throughout the country to join the new venture. Seven watchmakers decided to join the newly founded company, all recruited from the Waltham Watch Company in Massachusetts.
Having established itself as a company, and acquired the necessary craftsmen and talent, now the company embarked on finding a location to build a factory.
Chicago was deemed unsuitable, so were other neighboring areas. Elgin Illinois was finally selected as the suitable place to build a manufactory, on the site of a struggling farm.
Construction for the company’s factory began around 1865 and the plant was completed in 1866. The next year, in 1867 the company’s first watch was ready for market.
The company quickly attained growing popularity and success. The U.S. market was rife with demand for timepieces which could accurately keep time, as well as be moderately affordable.
By 1874 the company’s products became synonymous with the town’s name of Elgin. That year, the partners officially changed the name of the company to the Elgin National Watch Company.
Key to any company’s success is establishing a trademark that, when seen by the public, immediately conveys the company and its product. This was no different for Elgin.
Shortly after the company’s founding, the firm adopted an iconic image of Father Time as their trademark logo. Consisting of a hybrid figure of the Roman god Saturn, merged with Greek gods Chronos, Cronus and Kairos, the effigy was quite remarkable — and by today’s standards, borderline creepy.
The figure itself harkens back to the early times of Christendom, before there existed both an allegorical representation of Time and Death.
Although Christianity was a monotheistic religion, such allegorical concepts of both time and death were often personified.
As Christianity evolved and such concepts began to become more succinctly defined and differentiated, separate iconography for the concepts emerged: Father Christmas and Father Time.
Most of the benevolent aspects of Saturn-Cronus were embodied in Father Christmas, and the majority of the malevolent aspects of Saturn-Cronus, including the scythe, death, and devilish appearance, was symbolized by Father Time.
Towards the end of the 15th century, personifications of both iconographies had for the most part matured. Father Time had retained Saturn-Cronus’ long beard and scythe, but had adopted Kairos’ single forelock atop his head. He had also acquired both Kairos’ winged back and feet.
His hourglass, which was the final attribute which wholly defined Father Time, is thought to have been derived from the works of Petrarch’s Triumphs. A symbol of finite time, it depicts man’s mortality and the limited duration of human life.
Evolution of Logo
Over the first 40 years of Elgin’s existence, its Father Time logo evolved. Where once it depicted a malevolent and creepy version of Father Time, by the beginning of the 20th century the logo began to be softened.
Rather than appearing as a devilish, evil looking being, Elgin’s version of Father Time slowly began to be accompanied with pictures of smiling babies, gleeful cherubs, and speeding train locomotives.
Elgin’s logo which had personified death, albeit unintentionally, had evolved, and was slowly being re-invented so that it was associated with birth and technological innovation.
By the mid 1920s, however, most advertisements for Elgin had dropped the Father Time logo altogether.
More often than not, a simple image of a stopwatch was depicted, oftentimes featuring a smartly dressed man or an elegantly dressed woman. Such a strategy made marketing sense, as no matter how nicely Father Time could be depicted, or pictured alongside cute babies, there was no getting around his scythe. The scythe was a symbol that could not be disassociated with the deity — as it was what symbolized the Father Time iconograph in the first place.
The 20th Century
In 1910 the company constructed its own Observatory so it could improve the accuracy of its timepieces.
For the next 50+ years the Elgin National Watch Company remained in business, with the first half of the 20th century being its most successful.
During WWII the company switched to war-time manufacturing, building fuses, timers, chronometers, altimeters, and watches for soldiers.
The Demise of the Company
In 1966 the old Elgin plant in Illinois was razed, including its iconic clock tower that graced the front of its nearly 100 year old factory.
Four years later, in 1968 all of Elgin’s U.S. manufacturing had ceased. Later that year the company sold the rights to its name.
During the 1870s the Elgin National Watch Company emitted multiple varieties of tokens. Most all featured Elgin’s iconic Father Time trademark on the obverses, while their reverses were stamped with the names of its various timepieces. A table of known Elgin emissions is below:
The following are four Elgin National Watch Company specimens. The first specimen is approximately Choice AU in grade, and is listed in Rulau as IL-EL-6.
The second specimen is approximately Mint State in grade, and is listed in Rulau as IL-EL-6D.
The third specimen, listed in Rulau as IL-EL-6L, is approximately AU in grade.
The fourth specimen, listed in Rulau as IL-EL-14, is a membership token rather than a trade token. It is Choice AU in grade. These tokens were issued by Elgin to those who were members of its promotional “Elgin Adventurers’ Club.”
To date the author has been unable to identify specific information about Elsa Libby; multiple individuals with this name existed during the era that the token was struck and issued.
Notes and Sources
- The Encyclopedia of Time, Samuel L. Macey, Garland Reference Library of Social Science (Vol. 810), ©1994, pg.209
- Standard Catalog of United States Tokens 1700-1900 Fourth Edition, Russell Rulau, Krause Publications, ©2004
- The Library of Congress Digital Archives