Buying A Watch In 1880

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October 31, 2013 9:08 AM

If you were in the market for a watch in 1880, would you know where to get one? You would go to a store, right? Well, of course you could do that, but if you wanted one that was cheaper and a bit better than most of the store watches, you went to the train station! Sound a bit funny? Well, for about 500 towns across the northern United States, that's where the best watches were found.
Why were the best watches found at the train station? The railroad company wasn't selling the watches, not at all The telegraph operator was. Most of the time the telegraph operator was located in the railroad station because the telegraph lines followed the railroad tracks from town to town. It was usually the shortest distance and the right-of-ways had already been secured for the rail line.
Most of the station agents were also skilled telegraph operators and that was the primary way that they communicated with the railroad. They would know when trains left the previous station and when they were due at their next station. And it was the telegraph operator who had the watches. As a matter of fact they sold more of them than almost all the stores combined for a period of about 9 years.
This was all arranged by "Richard", who was a telegraph operator himself. He was on duty in the North Redwood, Minnesota train station one day when a load of watches arrived from the East. It was a huge crate of pocket watches. No one ever came to claim them.$[KGrHqZ,!n0E63WB()4bBPElwIpDRQ~~60_35.JPG
So Richard sent a telegram to the manufacturer and asked them what they wanted to do with the watches. The manufacturer didn't want to pay the freight back, so they wired Richard to see if he could sell them. So Richard did. He sent a wire to every agent in the system asking them if they wanted a cheap, but good, pocket watch. He sold the entire case in less than two days and at a handsome profit.
That started it all. He ordered more watches from the watch company and encouraged the telegraph operators to set up a display case in the station offering high quality watches for a cheap price to all the travelers. It worked! It didn't take long for the word to spread and, before long, people other than travelers came to the train station to buy watches.
Richard became so busy that he had to hire a professional watch maker to help him with the orders. That was Alvah. And the rest is history as they say.
The business took off and soon expanded to many other lines of dry goods.
Richard and Alvah left the train station and moved their company to Chicago -- and it's still there.
YES, IT'S A LITTLE KNOWN FACT that for a while in the 1880's, the biggest watch retailer in the country was at the train station. It all started with a telegraph operator: Richard Sears and his partner Alvah Roebuck!
Bet You Didn't Know Dat!!!

Bobby Ogage

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October 31, 2013 10:10 AM

Actually, it's one bit of RR history I did know, and an absolutely fascinating story.  A shame how badly Sears' business is doing right now, isn't it?  I think half of everything in our house, including most of my toy trains, came from Sears when I was growing up.  I hope they and J. C. Penny somehow pull through.


The railroad industry was a big part of why affordable mass production watches were available and why people knew a pocket or wristwatch could be trusted to operate accurately.    Central to that was Webb (Webster C.) Ball and his Cleveland-based Ball Watch Company.  He was a pretty interesting guy and a big part of RR history - I find him as intriguing and interesting as guys like Nigel Gresley, etc..  His company, was, for a while, a major watchmaker.  You can go to the Ball Watch company website to see their history section which has some neat info.  They revolutionized RR timekeeping. 


Today's Ball Watch Company has little, if anything to do with that original company, other than having had the company absorbed by a big Swiss conglomerate that uses "Ball Watch Company" and its legendary status in the RR industry for branding purposes, but it's a nice conceit.  It took me two years of searching jewelry shops (not about to buy something like that over the internet) for this Ball Union Pacific "Big Boy" below - they didn't make many.  I really can't recommend it as a watch - gains two and a half minutes a week and has the loudest self-winding mechanism I have every heard, but the high-tech nighttime illumination, the Union Pacific crest on the face, and engraved picture of a Big Boy on the back, were just too irresistible to me.


I love stories like this!





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