Retrospect: Dueber-Hampden Watch Co.
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Retrospect: Dueber-Hampden Watch Co.

- By Lindsey Campbell (PA) 11/7/17

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Aerial image of the watch works, McKinley Presidential Library & Museum via Ohio Memory.

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, two men contributed to the progress of watchmaking for the entire world. John C. Dueber and Don J. Mozart made such an impact on the industry from the United States that it formed the very foundation of watchmaking in Russia. While Dueber was engraving his watch cases in his one-room workshop in Cincinnati, OH, Mozart began his relationship with the Mozart Watch Company in Rhode Island. In time, the two united and with their inventive contributions, watch manufacturing prospered and the industry changed forever. Watch manufacturers will forever be grateful to the two pioneers who dedicated so much of their lives to progress.

In 1851 the Dueber parents immigrated to the United States from Germany with their oldest son, nine-year-old John, and his sister Pauline; of their six children, three died in infancy and brother Hermann is believed to have died before they left their homeland. The family settled in Cincinnati, OH, likely because a large German settlement—and possibly relatives—were there.

When John was old enough, he began a five-year apprenticeship to a watchmaker in Cincinnati who taught him to make watchcases. During this time Dueber also made wedding rings in the evenings to secure more capital to eventually open his own business.

Dueber and Fancis Doll had a workshop in the Carlisle Building in Cincinnati. After a year, Doll left the partnership but Dueber continued, and his business, the Dueber Watch Case Company, flourished for roughly a decade before he moved it into a new brick building at Washington and Jefferson streets in Newport, KY, in 1874. With a larger building, he employed 60 workers to produce gold and silver watchcases that were shipped from Maine to California. According to an 1880 census for Newport, KY, 38-year-old John C. Dueber lived with his wife Mary, age 32, and their three children: Pauline (13), Joseph (8), and Albert M. (5).

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Image from: https://pocketwatchdatabase.com/guide/company/hampden/history.

By 1880 Dueber expanded the company by building a new factory at Washington and Madison streets in Newport to make silver cases only. In the old building only gold cases were made. In 1886 the Dueber Watch Case and Manufacturing Company was incorporated. At the time, their capital stock was $2 million, divided into 20,000 shares at $100 each. Early watch factories made both the cases and movements, but after the Civil War with the growth of mass production, companies specialized; some made only watch movements and others made only watchcases.

Watchcase factories faced overproduction as a result. Before the passage of antitrust acts, watchcase manufacturers formed a trust and proceeded to boycott Dueber. Coincidentally, Dueber had disagreements with three of his best customers at the same time: Elgin, Waltham, and Illinois. Unfortunately, he lost their patronage; to stay in business he either had to surrender to the watchcase trust and make peace with the Newport city officials or buy a company that made watch movements and move to a new location. With great courage, he chose the latter and bought the Hampden Watch Company of Springfield, MA, which had 480 employees and $150,000 surplus cash, and moved the business to Canton, OH.

John Dueber was a friend and faithful supporter of William McKinley. Although he never sought political office, he fought zealously to get McKinley elected president in March 1897. According to the neighboring Zanesville newspaper, he took steps that would be labeled politically incorrect today.

The Republican Canton Repository newspaper may not have reported this incident because John Dueber and his associate, Col. Moore, had bought shares in The Repository Printing Company, the paper’s publisher, in September 1890, and George Frease was their partner and majority shareholder; John Dueber was its president until his death. “On September 6th 1901, McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, and Dueber was chosen by the McKinley family to act as an honorary pall bearer at his state funeral.”1

The Hampden Watch Company

Don J. Mozart, at the age of three, with his parents, fled from Italy to Boston, MA. With a mechanical aptitude, he later began working in the watch business and established himself as an expert in watchmaking. In 1854 he married and settled in Xenia, OH. He later founded his Mozart Watch Company in Providence, RI. In 1863 he moved to Bristol, CT, hoping to manufacture a yearlong clock, but this attempt failed. He then partnered with George Sam Rice of New York to make a three-wheel watch to streamline cost and simplify manufacturing and assembly. He formed the Mozart Watch Company in 1864. This three-wheel-watch venture was unsuccessful, so in 1866, Mozart left the company, moved to Ann Arbor, MI, and opened another Mozart Watch Company.

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Employees at work in the flat steel division at the Dueber Hampden watch factory, ca. 1900. Courtesy of the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum via Ohio Memory.

According to James W. Gibbs, “by 1870, this company, also a failure, engendered the Rock Island Watch Company, which in turn ran into many difficulties.” He continues, “Before it was brought into full production, it engendered the Freeport Watch Company in 1874, which likewise never manufactured many movements as it burned down in October 1875.”2 Operations in Providence were moved to New York City in 1867 and changed the name to New York Watch Company. That same year the company moved to Springfield, MA, and in 1870, it completely burned down. The company was rebuilt and did well until the Panic of 1873. Struggling, the company was forced to close its doors in 1875.

After two years, the bond and stockholders reorganized again with fresh capital and started the Hampden Watch Company. It was named Hampden for Hampden County, MA, where the company was located, which had been named for the English politician John Hampden, who had a major influence in pre-Revolutionary War America.3

Among the main visionaries was John C. Perry, manager and salesman; Henry J. Cain, watch designer and maker; and Charles D. Rood, financial coordinator. Later, these men had important roles in the development of the Hamilton Watch Company. By 1885 the Hampden Watch Company was buying cases from and selling movements to the Dueber Watch Case and Manufacturing Company. John C. Dueber went to Springfield to settle a matter and was so impressed with the products of Hampden that he purchased a controlling interest in the company.

To combine the two factories into one, a very large lot was needed. Dueber advertised that he would locate the combined companies with 1,500–2,000 employees to any town that raised $100,000 as incentive to help make it happen. Canton, OH, seized the opportunity and granted Dueber 25 acres of land, tax benefits, an agreement to build a railroad spur into the site, and numerous congratulatory messages, including one from congressman, later president, William McKinley. On October 14, 1886, ground was broken for the Dueber-Hampden Watch Company.

Only two short years later, a cyclone destroyed the entire south wing. Because the company did not have insurance, they suffered the $15,000 loss. John C. Dueber was president of the entire establishment until his death in 1907 when responsibilities were handed to his successor, his son Joseph, but Joseph died unexpectedly at age 28. The younger son, Albert M., then became president and treasurer of both companies. With efforts to continue business as his father had established, American watch business underwent important changes; factories were failing and consolidating and when the difficulties became too great, Albert M. sold his father’s legacy in 1925 to a Cleveland, OH, businessman, Walter Vrettman.

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Mozart Watch Company pocket watch, c. 1869. Photo taken at the National Watch & Clock Museum. Keith Lehman.

After the $1,551,000 purchase of the company, it suffered greatly as the result of the new owner’s lack of experience in the watch business. Payroll had become increasingly hard to meet, which resulted in employees taking watches in lieu of pay. During the Depression, they were forced to peddle the watches from door to door at $10 each, but often less.

The art of watchmaking was introduced in Russia when the company tools and machinery were sold for $325,000 to Amtorg Trading Corporation, a Russian buying agency. The Soviet government arranged with 21 former Dueber-Hampden watchmakers, engravers, and other technicians to be “employed for one year to go to Russia and supervise the establishment of a Soviet Watch Factory at Moscow and train the Russians in watchmaking.”4 The employees departed for Moscow on February 25, 1930, and after a long and rough passage, arrived in Moscow on March 16.

According to diary entries of a wife of one of the workers from Canton, upon their arrival, the American workers were treated with the utmost respect and accommodations. Mrs. Jackson explained that pregnant female employees were given two months’ hospitalization at government expense. An American foreman was hospitalized for seven weeks, but his salary and incidental expenses were paid entirely by the government. The speed and skill with which the Russians learned the watch business was very impressive to the American workers. A young worker from Canton, Ira Aungst, explained that “especially the young women… did what no young women did up to that time in American watch factories.”5 Another foreman, Charles Hammer, confirmed that the women learned the work faster than the men.

The machinery and tools were not entirely unpacked and operations did not begin until August 1, 1930. No watch factory existed in Russia until the arrival of Dueber-Hampden assets, but there was an obvious high demand for watches. Russians in those days worked an average of twenty-hour days, from sunup to sundown, but the watch factory forbid working more than eight hours. The skilled Russian workers earned around two and a half rubles a day, which is 50 cents in America. Of course, the watches developed were extremely similar to the Dueber-Hampden watches.

When the yearlong contract ended, the Russian government requested that the Americans stay longer with the stipulation that they would be paid on the same basis as Russian employees. All but six or seven returned to America. No record exists of any American staying beyond 18 months. Only four men who went to Moscow survived as of January 1954. Some tried to stay in contact with their Russian colleagues, but their letters were intercepted by Russian officials and none had received any correspondence since before World War II.

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A Dueber-Hampden pocket watch and a Dueber-Hampden Man O' Fashion wristwatch sitting on top of the book, From Springfield to Moscow: The Complete Dueber-Hampden Story, by James W. Gibbs. Keith Lehman.

Sadly, the returned workers had little interest in bringing their work home with them, because they thought the watches produced were not good quality. It is believed that despite their best efforts to teach the Russians the fine skill of watchmaking, good-quality watches were not produced or exported from Moscow. According to authorities, “some believe that at a later date, watch manufacturing ceased in the Moscow factory and alarm clocks turned out instead.”6 The common belief was that Russians were not as adapted for the intricate mechanism of the watch.

Much evidence indicates the end of watchmaking in Russian, but a few accounts say that watches may have still been produced into the 1950s. According to a transcript of a radio report from Vienna, a Mr. Kenrick explains that “In 1944, the watches then in fashion were the biggest I had ever seen. In fact, I suspect that they were actually small clocks. Yet Russian officers and other well to do persons wore them strapped nonchalantly about their wrists, and I wondered how they were able to raise their hands under the weight.”7

The old company remained in Canton for another 15 years after the doors closed. After negotiations of sale, verbal consent was given to the Anderson brothers, William and Leonard, to continue using the name “Dueber-Hampden”. Although parts from Moscow were requested, none arrived, but the brothers found a sufficient supply from when the factory closed. The great buildings and surrounding grounds in Canton were later used for storage and poorly cared for.

John C. Dueber and his legacy was preserved by statues that adorn the main entrance to the buildings. He will always be remembered as a great builder and one who met life’s issues without flinching. He was known for his fierceness and persistence, and especially for his concern in the welfare of his employees.

Notes

  1. Garratt, Allan F. “Hampden Watches 1864–2017. Accessed October 16, 2017. http://www.hampdenwatches.com.
  2. Gibbs, James W. “From Springfield to Moscow: The Complete Dueber-Hampden Story.” NAWCC Bulletin Supplement (June 1986):8.
  3. Jansson, Maija. “Shared Memory: John Hampden, New World and Old.” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 32, no. 2 (August 2008):157–171. doi:10.1111/j.1754-0208.2008.00106.x. He was just nine years old when he came to the English throne and died in 1643, just six years before the execution of Charles. Colonial legends of Hampden told of “his stand against the unjust taxation by the Crown that culminated his trial in the ship-money case of 1637.”
  4. Gibbs, James W. “From Springfield to Moscow: The Complete Dueber-Hampden Story.” NAWCC Bulletin Supplement (June 1986):40.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 41.
  7. Ibid., 43.

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