The times of their lives: Women, men, and the clock and watch industry in Bristol, Connecticut, 1900--1970

Date of Completion

January 2003


History, United States|Economics, History|Sociology, Industrial and Labor Relations|Sociology, Social Structure and Development




This dissertation constitutes a first look at the social relations of labor in the American clock and watch industry. Focusing on Bristol, Connecticut, it examines family and workplace cultures and the changes that occurred in them during the twentieth century at the E. Ingraham Company and the Sessions Clock Company. The study emphasizes the transformation from civilian to defense production during the Cold War to argue that the history of the clock and watch industry did not benefit from its participation in the military-industrial complex. Unlike many other examples of labor and business history studied for the twentieth century, workers identified exceptionally closely with their workplaces prior to the 1950s. They were content with the employers' empowering programs of steady work and high wages and accepted the CIO unionism of the early 1940s not so much as labor militancy but as a continuation of the family ideology that prevailed both inside and outside the factory walls. ^ State involvement with the industry, especially at the federal level, undermined the foundations of worker identification. World War II did not bring the higher wages and increased employment that it did elsewhere, nor did it enhance the industrial success of the companies, again in comparison to other industries where the government built and fitted out plants that were later converted to civilian production. Tariffs, taxes, and defense contracting had more dire consequences, whittling away at job security on a long term and permanent basis. At the local level, bosses failed to find alternatives that could counter the detrimental effects of federal policies, further weakening the economic position of workers. By 1970, the industry was all but a memory, leaving workers looking for new jobs in an increasingly service-oriented economy. ^ During this long process, workers' identities also changed. Earlier in the century, men claimed breadwinner wages as their own alone but Cold War ideology and its emphasis on middle class conformity and family consumption extended the ideal of a family wage to women. Engineers, who were once few in the industry, became increasingly visible as the designers of military ordnance and saw themselves as respectable professionals, even while remaining firmly in working class jobs. By the end of the 1960s, blurring the categories of working class and middle class distinction was commonplace among other workers as well, cemented by the introduction of non-whites into the workforce under equal opportunity programs that imparted a racially based sense of who was and wasn't a legitimate worker. Nevertheless, labor activism at the end of the period confirmed the persistence of a strong working class identity that survived the industry's demise. ^