An Abbreviated History Of The Illinois Watch Company Fredric Friedberg has written an extensive, five-volume history of the Illinois Watch Company, which has been out of business for nearly a century. He talks with NPR's Scott Simon about it.

An Abbreviated History Of The Illinois Watch Company

An Abbreviated History Of The Illinois Watch Company

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Fredric Friedberg has written an extensive, five-volume history of the Illinois Watch Company, which has been out of business for nearly a century. He talks with NPR's Scott Simon about it.


Fredric Friedberg is a heavyweight author. He's completed a five-volume, 1,648-page, 24.5-total-pound history of the Illinois Watch Company, a long-gone business that hasn't made wristwatches for nearly a century. Mr. Friedberg devoted nearly a decade of his life to what is surely a definitive volume. He joins us now from the studios of KUCI in Irvine, Calif. And forgive me. Thanks for taking the time. Oh, that was a bad pun on my part.


SIMON: Thanks for being with us, Mr. Friedberg.

FRIEDBERG: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: So watches in general or just these watches in particular that fascinate you?

FRIEDBERG: These in particular because if I wanted every watch I liked, I'd be in the poorhouse a long time ago.

SIMON: (Laughter) Well, we should explain a bit of the company. These were American-made watches in the heart of America, right?

FRIEDBERG: Yes, sir. They were made actually at the time at the far frontier - you know, the Western frontier of the United States at the time in 1870.

SIMON: And what did it say about American industry and workmanship and industrialization?

FRIEDBERG: On par with anyone in the world, in fact, during this time, when they started, they were just about approaching exceeding the Swiss in manufacturing watches. And the products worked then. And, you know, if you take care of the watch, they work as accurately today.

SIMON: And I must say, beautiful art deco designs, aren't they?

FRIEDBERG: That's what attracted me to the brand. You know, it's my favorite design period. I just absolutely love the art deco design.

SIMON: You sent us some photos. Tell us about a couple of them, if you could.

FRIEDBERG: One I sent you was a Ritz that has a white bezel, which is the front of the watch, and a white caseback and a yellow center that has a scalloped step edges (ph). And then the dial has black Egyptian numerals. And the story behind that watch is that its design was inspired by the discovery of King Tut's tomb, which helped launch the deco era.

SIMON: And another one?

FRIEDBERG: I think I also sent you a Metropolitan, which is a particularly favorite watch of mine because it has - also has a two-tone case. And it has, also, a very art deco numeral dial, which has a drop shadow around the luminous (ph) around the dial, which is very unusual. But it also has, like - racing stripes, I call them. There are three grooves on both sides of the top and bottom bezel that are also filled with gold. So it's a very striking and very unusual watch. You don't see it anywhere.

SIMON: I'm still not clear on the need for such a massive history. Are you hoping it's going to be made into a musical, or what?

FRIEDBERG: First of all, I never intended it to be five volumes. I, all along, thought I was writing a book. I had no idea until I sent it to the publisher and he said, Fred, what have you done to us? He said, we're probably going to have to break this into three volumes. And they ended up having to break it into five volumes. My goal was to try to sustain the brand into perpetuity. In order to do that, it had to be comprehensive. So anyone who picks up the five volumes will know everything that I know about the brand and about the company.

SIMON: These watches, we should explain, are - I mean, they're not Swatches, but they're not crazy expensive like a Rolex, are they?

FRIEDBERG: No, not at all. They're in a totally different league. And that's one of the reasons why I acquired them. But it's a very good area for a collector to focus on.

SIMON: They keep good time?

FRIEDBERG: Excellent time. Most of my watches operate within three minutes in a 24-hour period, which is, I think, excellent.

SIMON: Who buys a book like this - books like this?

FRIEDBERG: Mostly collectors, some historians. But also, there's knowledge in it because I go into depth what the market situation was in the United States, how the American watch industry commenced and what the players were at the time. So there's a lot of history in there. We had the stock market crash, then the Great Depression. So it's a real economic lesson and a business lesson for someone who's interested in that time period.

SIMON: I wonder what you say to people who might say to you, look; you know, this is all very interesting, but I get split-second accurate time from my iPhone and/or Fitbit.

FRIEDBERG: Correct, but the watch you wear, if it's not a Apple or a Fitbit, says something about yourself, says something about history, says something about preserving history. It says something about your interest in life. So it's much more than that. And, you know, there are thousands and thousands of collectors worldwide that seek out vintage watches, notwithstanding that they - if they look at the time, they'll look at their Apple phone prior to looking at their wrist.

SIMON: Fredric Friedberg - his five-volume history is called "The Illinois Watch And Its Hamilton Years" - thanks so much for being with us. Good timekeeping to you.

FRIEDBERG: Likewise. It was a pleasure spending time with you.


CHICAGO: (Singing) Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care? If so, I can't imagine why. We've all got time enough to cry.

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