The Ingersoll Watch Company is famous for two things. In its early incarnation, it produced the ubiquitous “dollar watch,” and several decades later made the equally ubiquitous Mickey Mouse watch, which actually saved the then-financially shaky company.
The Robert H. Ingersoll & Bros. company was established by Robert Hawley and Charles Henry Ingersoll in 1891 as a mail-order-catalog business (not long after Aaron Montgomery Ward established the template), ordering 10,000 cheap pin-pallet lever watches from the Waterbury Watch Company. The following year they sold 85,000 of the embossed watches at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, where they set up a miniature factory so people could see how the watches were made and place their orders.
Three years later, they introduced the $1 Yankee model, becoming known as the dollar watch, leading to the firm’s slogan, “The Watch that Made the Dollar Famous.” After making a variety of other models with different names, Ingersoll acquired two other watch companies – Trenton Watch Co. and New England Watch Co. – and they in turn were taken over by Waterbury Clock of Waterbury, Conn., who retained the Ingersoll name until 1944.
The idea of a Mickey Mouse watch was hatched in 1932, when a buyer for Montgomery Ward suggested to Disney’s merchandising mastermind, Kay Kamen, that a watch with Mickey on its face could be a big hit. Kamen then commissioned preliminary sketches from Disney artists and brought them to the Ingersoll-Waterbury Company. On May 22, 1933, an application for a U.S. patent was submitted, and the first watches went into production.
Its success was unprecedented: In one day, 11,000 were sold at Macy’s, and the Ingersoll company, which had an exclusive license for all Disney characters, was saved from imminent bankruptcy. Eight weeks after the first character watch went on the market, the firm increased its staff from 300 to 3,000, launching the entire comic character timepiece industry.
By June 1935, more than 2.5 million Mickey Mouse wristwatches had been sold.
The initial line of Mickey timepieces consisted of the iconic wristwatch (priced at $3.75, but later lowered to $2.95), plus a pocket watch with an engraved Mickey image on the back of the case and on the fob, which sold for $1.50. Later would come an alarm clock and one designed to be worn on the lapel.
The original wristwatch had a simple round face, with Mickey’s yellow-gloved hands pointing to the time and three tiny Mickeys rotating on a disc indicating the seconds; there was a choice of a leather band with metal die-cut Mickeys attached, or in silver plate with the mouse’s image cut into the bracelet. This model has been produced continuously, except for one three-year period, from 1933 to now, made by a succession of post-Ingersoll companies, including U.S. Time, Timex, Bradley and Lorus.
In 1957, the 25 millionth watch was personally presented to Walt Disney.