On Page 75 of my book there is mention of a watch which was presented to Emily Faithfull by the women of the Elgin Factory.
8 March 2017 was ‘International Women’s Day 2017’ so I thought it appropriate to include more details of her visits to America, taken from the book ‘Three Visits To America’ Emily Faithfull. The article has been copied from http://gerald-massey.org.uk/faithfull/c_america_7.htm
When I was leaving America at the conclusion of my first tour in 1873, during the luncheon given to me by the White Star Steamer Company, on board the Oceanic the day before I sailed, a representative of the Elgin Watch Factory presented me with a package containing a handsome gold watch, on which my name was engraved, and the following unexpected letter:
“Please accept this little time-keeper as a token of regard and good wishes from the women of the National Elgin Watch Factory. The hands of the many working-women who have been busy in its fashioning are thus extended to you in sincerest appreciation of the work you are doing ‘in helping others to help themselves.’ May the future bring you again amongst your many American friends.”
The watch bearing this kind inscription has ever since been my constant companion, and I naturally resolved that if I ever revisited America a journey to Elgin should form part of my programme.
On the 21st of March, 1884, I was able to carry out this intention. Accompanied by some friends, and a member of the firm, I left Chicago by an early morning train, and spent a very pleasant day in going through that vast factory.
The introduction of the labour-saving contrivances by which the watch trade was wrested from Switzerland and England is due to the promoters of the Waltham Company, who started in Massachusetts a factory which now employs about 2,500 operatives, and turns out watches which not only command a great sale in America, but also in Europe. The success of this concern induced some Chicago capitalists to open a Western factory at Elgin, and in a comparatively short time they were producing five hundred watches a day, which were sold as fast as they were produced.
The Elgin factory is built in the form of a block T. The wings stretch east, west, and south, and are each a hundred feet long. I confess I found the minute inspection of that great building about as hard a day’s work as I could well accomplish. Passing from the room where the designers were busy in draughting machinery, we entered the machine shop, and from thence into the plate room, where a number of women were at work at small lathes, some drilling the holes required in each plate, and others inserting the various steady pins in the bars and bridges. The department in which the wheels and pinions are manufactured interested me the most. There the girls were turning and shaping the various pieces, others making “barrels”—the technical name of the mainspring boxes.
One set gives a rough shape to the barrel, the next cuts to size the rim on which the teeth are cut, the third “making place for the stop-work,” while others receive the barrels from “the tooth cutters,” and give them a final touch with a sapphire cutter. The making of pinions is a very interesting branch of the work to the visitor. A little piece of wire, after a move or two of the lathe, comes out beautifully pointed; the next lathe trims it to the required shape. “The triumph of mechanism” is said to be reached in this series of automatic lathes. The operative places the work in the tool, and sets it running; and when the cut is made, she removes that piece and substitutes another with such rapidity that more than 2,000 pieces are made in a day of about one two-hundredths of an inch diameter, a size which a hand watch-maker could not make without the aid of a strong glass. Other girls take blank wheels and place them in a stack under a bolt. A lever arm, which works a traversing bar, in which is a flying cutter, shaped like a tiny bird’s claw, enables the operative to cut the necessary groove, another stack of blank wheels is advanced, and at last the whole circumference is filled with grooves, and you find twenty-five complete wheels with finished teeth; and each girl can make about 1,500 in ten hours.
This work is then polished and finished by marvellous machines, which imitate the hand-worker’s motions with accuracy and rapidity, and without ever making any mistakes. The manufacture of screws is an attractive branch of the work; 20,000 of the smaller ones only weigh one pound. In the escapement department we found girls cutting and polishing ruby, garnet, and chrysolite with absolute accuracy. In London it takes an apprentice seven years to learn what a girl machinist becomes a proficient in after the first twelve months’ work. The shaping and polishing of the pallet stones require to be done with great precision, but the perfection of the Elgin machinery calls for nothing from the operative but a due appreciation of the finish necessary to the acting planes and angles of the stones. The girls are also employed in the steel work of the pallets, levers, and rollers, and have lately been entrusted with some delicate details of the work which it was once thought would be beyond their capacity. They also fit dials and hands, match the wheels and pinions, get the watch ready for the gilder, make the hairsprings, put the trains into the movements, time the watches after they are set going, and, in fact, adjust the finished parts. In the painting of the dials the girls do not need a long apprenticeship, and are said to be able to equal masculine work both as regards rapidity and precision. The bookkeeping department is entirely confided to female hands and heads. They are earning good wages. The workrooms are quiet, clean, and well ventilated, and a pretty apron covers the dress of the operatives, and gives them quite a pleasing appearance. About a hundred yards from the factory, a capital, well-organized hotel has been built for the benefit of the employees. The large dining-room is common property, but half of the rest of the house is assigned to the men, and the women have their own separate parlour, and a matron who looks after their welfare generally. Here they can live in comfort for a very moderate expenditure, and are close to their work. At Waltham there is not only a large boarding-house attached to the factory, but many of the operatives have been able to build some neat residences of their own on the company’s land.
No cases are made at Elgin for the watches; that is regarded as a separate business; the movements are packed in little boxes, and thus purchased by the trade; but as they are numbered, he knows at once what case to order. One advantage of this practice is, that a poor man is able to purchase the best movements, and place them in a silver case; when he grows richer, he orders a good case, which he substitutes for the one which first did service. Americans are of course able by their process to produce good watches at a cheaper rate than we can in England; for while it takes about seventy hours of skilled hand labour to manufacture a watch here, it can be produced there in thirty hours by girl operatives; and such is the exactitude of the machine-made watch, that any part to which an accident may happen while in use can be replaced. The dealer has only to send to the factory and purchase its duplicate, and the watch is as good as new. In England, the different parts of a watch are made by different persons living far apart, and are purchased by the watch-makers and put together ready for purchase. In America the machines I have described manufacture every plate, wheel, pinion, and screw used under the same roof. The Swiss, from the low price of labour, and the extensive employment of women and children, have always triumphed over all European competition in the matter of cheapness; and they have lately availed themselves to some extent of American machinery, by which it is said they are regaining some of the ground they lost when the Waltham and Elgin factories were first started. The American consul at Geneva recently reported to his government the result of a recent test of English, Swiss, and American watches, under circumstances which forbid any idea of fraud or error. “It was found,” he writes, “that the Swiss watches were superior to all others, and the English, in point of merit, came next. The Swiss watches were the cheapest as well as the best.” They have taken American machinery and supplemented it by a manual skill and system of technical training, which is said not to exist elsewhere. On the other hand, an English watch-maker, in a paper read before the London Horological Institute describing the results of a visit he had paid to the watch factories of America, stated: “I felt at once that the manufacture of watches on the old plan was gone.” He considered that American enterprise had made an epoch in the trade, and beaten Europe in one of her oldest and most difficult productions. Certainly the national watch has a claim to be considered “as the true republican heirloom, a triumph of industry in an age of industry, a product of American enterprise, moderate in cost, and accessible to the body of the people.”
The more I learn about Emily Faithfull, the more I think she would have liked seeing this…