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Rockford Watch Company

The idea for the Rockford Watch Company began in 1850 when a man who already was a specialist in the organization of watch companies, John C. Adams, who resided in Chicago, thought that he could duplicate the success of the Waltham Watch Company of Waltham, Massachusetts, which was  the largest watch company at that time. Adams came to Rockford in 1866 to start a watch factory because he believed the city with its concentration of three railroads and the interurban that ran through town was an ideal source of customers for his watch. The local citizens did not embrace the idea and Adams left town frustrated. However some businessmen thought the concept just might take hold and be a success.


A campaign was started in 1873 in favor of starting a watch company here. By January 1874 several thousands of dollars were pledged by local business men and other locals. Organization of the Rockford Watch Company occurred on March 4, 1874 once $150,000 had been pledged pledged by 400 citizens in an attempt to bring more manufacturing jobs to the area. After the failure of the Cornell Watch Company of Grand Crossings, Illinois in 1873, former employee's George D. Clark and a P. H. Wheeler were responsible for overseeing production of the machines for the new watch works from 1874 to 1876. The company secured space in the water power district and commenced to make the precision machines needed for the watch making process, all the machinery was built in Rockford. They also started searching for a suitable site for their new building which they intended to construct. Once the Rockford Watch Company was established, Clark left town in December 1876.

The company found a suitable location and started the process of constructing a three-story Italianate style structure in 1874 on the East bank of the Rock River at 319-325 South Madison Street. In November 1875 the Rockford Watch Company began business in the new factory under Levi Rhoades as its first president, and a director, until his death in 1891. At first, production was about ten watches per day selling directly to retailers, who had an exclusive in their locale. Rockford watches had always been marketed to railroad men. Rockford was an ideal source of watch customers due to concentration of the railroad industry in the area. In fact, an 1882 the Rockford Watch catalog was entitled "Railroad Time Keepers". America's railroads and military industries relied on Rockford Watches and the precision they afforded them in time keeping.

Interior view of the Rockford Watch Company factory. Here they would make five grades of watches in full plate. The highest grade was deemed The Rockford. The company just made the works of the watch, at the time people would buy the watch movements and the case of their choice separately from a jeweler. Their first watch, a key-wind, 18-size, full plate with expansion balance was placed on the market on May 1, 1876. By 1877, the company was producing its own 3/4 plate nickel movements that fit standard size cases. The highest grades of early Rockford watches were signed "Ruby" or "Ruby Jewels" which later became a stylized letter "R" engraved next to the jewel-count.


In early 1876 the factory had 57 employees that could produce 10 movements per day in 5 different grades. Rockford watches were a hot commodity throughout the country between the 1870’s through the 1880’s. Even the U. S. Naval Observatory was using Rockford watches as well as being recommended by the commander of the unit.

The Rockford Watch Company attained status of Rockford's largest employer in 1891 and at one point was producing 150 to 200 precision watches a day but with the collapse of the National Association of Jobbers in 1891 and price cutting by other watch manufacturers in 1893 the Rockford Watch Company had to reduce production and briefly suspend operations. In 1896 the stock holders voted to declare insolvency and H. W. Price was assigned all assets, liabilities, proceeds, etc. and power of attorney to Mr. Irwin French who headed a group of Chicagoans that made the purchase. In 1901 Mr. French disposed of the Rockford Watch Company's assets to pay off debt and then distribute the remaining proceeds to stock holders. The company was sold and reorganized as Rockford Watch Company, Ltd. in 1901 and assigned as a subsidiary of the Illinois Watch Case Company of Elgin, Illinois.

The Rockford Watch Company was one of the early members of the Rockford Industrial Athletic League with a baseball team sponsored by the company and made up of some of their employees.

A comprehensive nationwide advertising campaign had been launched by the Rockford watch company, advertising the Rockford Watch, in November 1909. The campaign was quite unique and original and consisted of a series of most artistic post cards drawn by Richard F. Outcault, the famous New York cartoonist who created Buster Brown, Poor Little Mose, and the Yellow Kid and other noted comic strip favorites. Mr. Outcault had been working on the cards for some time and there was a card for each month in 1910 with the calendar for the month and a timely saying and a colored picture.

The November 1909 post card was sent out on October 2, 1909 to members of their jewelry co-op   as an advance card for the series of twelve postcards to follow, and as such the 1909 and 1910 November cards were identical except for the calendar. In the card the waning sun is represented as a watch dial, with an elks head brought in and made to appear much like the Elks badge, and there's also the hunter and the Thanksgiving turkey. This month the hunter takes his gun and goes out hunting just for fun. He lies in wait to trap his game. The Rockford never does the same. It never lies, it doesn't wait. It's perfect and it's up to date.

The reverse side of the postcard above sent from the Rockford Watch Company to members of its jewelry co-op. The dealer would have the dealer name and address included on the card to send to potential customers along with any custom text to feature the jeweler’s line of goods.

The Rockford watch company supplied these post cards every month to some 20,000 jewelers in the United States, who in turn mailed them out to their customers and friends. The watch company had sent out a number of advance cards in November 1909 and received so many responses that the value of the advertising medium of the postal service was established beyond any doubt. The only point upon which the Rockford watch company insisted was that every month each jeweler it supplied should mail out the post cards, as the value of the advertising relied in the steady consecutive effort every month. Also the jeweler must not change the number of cards he distributed each month.

Needless to say, December 1909 represents a jolly faced Santa Claus bringing his friend a Rockford Watch. Ask Santa Clause to bring to you A Rockford watch it's always true. The best that modern skill can do in watches. True Time For A Lifetime

Speaking of the new campaign for the Rockford watch, Alfred J. Holtz, manager of the company said: "We expect to have orders for about one million of these cards every month. The number of cards which were sent to each of the jewelers was anywhere from 50 to 1000, depending a great deal on the size of the jewelers town and the size of his business." These cards are supplied to the jewelers free of charge. Besides advertising the Rockford Watch the address side of the post card contained the jewelers name and a paragraph about his stock of goods.

The January cards show a crowd of belated clerks and school children, all without a Rockford Watch rushing to work or school, and the rhyme is: At one o'clock when whistles blow, And back to work or school we go, if we are late there's no excuse, when there is such a watch in use as the Rockford. As perfect as skill and experience can make it.

The drawings on the cards are in the style which has made Mr. Outcault's cartoons famous, and they have been well reproduced in appropriate colors. Some of the pictures are from real life and Mr. Outcault has made the motto ‘True Time For A Lifetime’ appear on all the cards, and besides the sketch and the calendar was a written verse for each card. Each month is shown by the time on the dial of the watch which is pictured.

The February card shows a pair of lovers, and the rhyme declares the Rockford watch truest thing on earth. The may rhyme is very good. It follows: At two o'clock the matinee, Begins most every Saturday. Then love lorn lads and lassies too, Go watch the hero prove so true. But truest thing on earth today, the 'Rockford Watch' t'is made that way

The March card which featured a picture of the chubby little son of Jacob Franks, president of the company at that time. On the March card is the following dainty rhyme: At three o'clock the baby goes, Dressed in his fluffy lacy clothes, To take a ride out in the park, And watch the birds fly until dark, But Time flies too and baby soon, Will be a man and know the boon of A 'Rockford Watch" like other men.

The April card shows a man rushing frantically in the rain after his train, which the rhyme says he would not miss if he had a Rockford. The April rhyme is very good. It follows: This April Fool has missed his train, Because his watch is slow, And he goes splashing in the rain, Because he doesn't know, That if he had a "Rockford" watch, He'd never miss a trick. The Rockford is an honest watch, it doesn't miss a tick.

The May card, another real life card represented the wife of the cartoonist, smiling over a teacup. The rhyme read: If you want to be prompt to a T, To a show or where e'er it may be, There's a time piece that's true, I will spell it for you R-O-C-K-F-O-R-D.

The June card illustrates the exactness of the Rockford watch by comparing it with the sun dial, and a line above the drawing reads, "Times have changed but the Rockford never changes." This months rhyme read: The longest day in all the year. ( The 21st ) is almost here. But there is not a day so long, The Rockford watch will e'er go wrong.

The July card depicts one of the leading comedians of the Buster Brown Company. You will have the Time of Your Life when you buy a Rockford Watch..True Time For A Life Time.

The August card introduces our old friend Tige in the lower left hand corner, Busters Brown's ubiquitous dog.  Although you can find his signature on many post cards in this set, he used Tige instead of his signature to indicate it was his art. This month’s verse: In the good old summer time, At morning, noon or night, When e'er you see a Rockford watch, You know the time is right. It is made to tell the right time. True Time For A Life Time

The September card shows the teacher instructing her students in the perfection of the Rockford watch. Don't be late to school, Get a Rockford Watch Its never late. School Time 9 o-clock

October shows a policeman shining his spotlight on a Rockford watch billboard that states: You can tell a Rockford every time by it's name; It can tell you every time by it's superiority. The Rockford Watch will stand the test. A Rockford Watch is made the best. The Best Jewelers sell it.

The last of the thirteen card series of post cards issued by the Rockford Watch Company was November 1910. This was one of the company's most successful campaigns and it came with considerable expense but more watches were sold during 1910 than any year prior and was deemed a success.

I Fix Rockford Watches. Another Rockford Watch Company trade card advertising repair services. The New York and Paris offices are advertised as well as co-op member Phillips & Lucas at 28 State Street in Montpelier, Vermont.

The Rockford Watch Company in an effort to keep their name in front of the public also distributed trade cards, lapel pins, watch case openers and tip trays among other promotional items. Some which are shown below.

The Rockford Watch Company purchased cases from various watch companies and case makers as well as producing its own. One of the companies they purchased watch cases from was the Rockford Watch Case Company. The Rockford Watch Case Company was organized in 1872 and incorporated in 1874. The Northwestern Watch Case Company moved from Racine, Wisconsin to Rockford probably around 1878, and became The Rockford Watch Case Company in 1883. It was located on the second floor of a building located at 112-116 N. Main Street until 1896 and then located to 658 Race Street afterwards. There were sixty employees and $50,000 in sales in 1880. James S. Ticknor was president, John Barnes vice president and A. K. Ticknor as secretary. It is listed as the New Rockford Watch Case Company in city directories in 1913. The quantity and extent of production by the Rockford Watch Case Company are not known. When the Rockford Watch Company closed the Rockford Case Company lost its biggest buyer and it too would close in 1915. The Orpheum Theater was later built on the N. Main site of the former watch case company.

The Rockford Watch Company brought its first movements to the market in 1876. It lasted through a reorganization and sale. Among mounting financial pressure the Rockford Watch Company closed its doors for good in 1915. Over those 39 years, not quite a million movements were built of the very high-grade watch movements and as such they are quite collectible today. In 1917 the Rockford School District purchased the building and moved their offices out of the overcrowded Rockford High School and a small portion of the space was used as classrooms. Later after the building of East and West High schools the district closed the old high school and demolished half of the building and remodeled the remaining portion before moving their offices back in. The old watch factory was sold to the W. F. & John Barnes Company. Recently the City of Rockford demolished an addition to the original building as part of a parking lot for a new nearby sports complex. The original portion of the building is awaiting re-use.

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