In his 1930s classic “Walkin’ Blues”, Robert Johnson wrote of his lady friend: “She’s got Elgin movements from her head down to her toes.” Quite a nice testimonial to the fame of the Elgin watch company I should say.
Elgin was without a doubt the greatest American watch company. If watch companies were like automakers, Elgin would be General Motors fore sure. The biggest, the most makes, the highest variety of models - Elgin was the king.
Elgin began in 1864 when a number of citizens of Chicago decided that the booming American midwest should have its own watch company. They lured a number of skilled watch designers and engineers from Waltham, MA and the National Watch Company was born.
However everybody referred to their product as Elgin watches, since the factory was in Elgin Illinois. Soon the company name changed to Elgin National Watch Company, and finally just to Elgin.
Now El-GIN is pronounced with a soft “G” like Beefeater “gin”, not hard “G” like the Elgin marbles, at least in the USA. The hard “G” is often heard in Canada when the watch company is mentioned.
Elgin was in business over a hundred years and made over 60 million jeweled lever watches. They were not the finest maker, but they always gave good value for money. They were one of the first pocket watch makers to embrace wristwatch technology, and they survived the Great Depression because of this foresight. They switched to war production and back again successfully in the 1940s. However the flood of good, cheap Swiss imports into North America was too much for the American companies to bear and Elgin finally stopped watch production in the 1960s.
The Elgin brand was sold to an importer of Asian watches and today you can pick up an Elgin cheap in Wal-Mart. But it isn’t like the real thing. For that you have to check out the vintage market.
Elgin is a wonderful brand to collect, either pocket or wristwatch models. Lots of parts are still available and they run forever if you keep them lubricated and clean. As well, the Elgin records have been carefully preserved and if you have a movement serial number you can identify the watch precisely. A nice feature for enthusiasts.
In my collection I have 1893, 1905 and 1910 pocket Elgins and a 1947 Elgin DeLuxe wristwatch.