Jacob Custer Watchmaker, Norristown, Pa.

Photo courtesy of Jon Hansen

Photo courtesy of Jon Hansen

Jacob D. Custer (1805-1872) is an important name in American horology, as he is best known for his clocks, which he made in Norristown, Pa. beginning in the early 1830s. His accomplishments in the clock field—including tower, light propelling, tall case and shelf clocks—are well documented; other fields of his inventions are many but less known including a steam engine he built (in use through the mid 1880s), a steam boat, and a bullet machine which he designed and invented for use in the Civil War. In addition he also preached early on and was skilled enough as a cobbler to make his own shoes! It can be said of him, a self made man, epitomizing the American “can do” Spirit.

Custer is considered third on the list of early American watch makers. Custer had no formal training but was a mechanical genius and applied his mechanical ability to watches after his clock business. During the 1840s he decided to make some watches and finished about 12, “they” were 14 size 3/4 plate gilt, lever escapement and fusee movements. He also made his own silver cases in the swingout English style. They were key wind, of course, using his own style of key, outfitted with a squared male arbor to wind and set, unlike any other American winding/setting styles.

t is interesting to read about Crossman’s account of the information on Jacob D. Custer as he received it directly from a Dr. Jacobs, also of Norristown, Pa. who was an intimate friend of Custer’s and who actually carried one of these famous Custer watches up through the latter part of the 19th century.

There are just three known of these Custer watche,s which are unique in design. The all original example pictured above, serial number 7 and dated Feb. 4th, 1843 (his patent of record is No. 2939) on the back plate and cased in its original silver Custer made Open face case, originated from an old Pennsylvania collection and was obtained in Norristown in the 1940s. This is the very watch mentioned in Crossman and noted above as being the Jacobs watch. A second example (MOVEMENT ONLY) serial number 2 resides in the Smithsonian along with its original winding keys–this example is the patent model for his design.

A third movement, which has long since disappeared reportedly had a gold metal dial of English origin and of the period, is otherwise virtually identical to number 7. No other examples are known or have been recorded or seen since the rediscovery of number seven.

Photo courtesy of Jon Hansen

Photo courtesy of Jon Hansen

At his Norristown foundry he made more than one hundred tower clocks. He also manufactured a variety of other items including clockwork mechanisms used to rotate lights in lighthouses, forced lubrication grease cups and even a clockwork umbrella that opened and closed automatically to advertise a local parasol maker. Custer was given specifications for the manufacture of parts for additional iron-clad ships of the Monitor class, however the Civil War ended before work on these began.

These early American watches (Goddard, Pitkin and Custer )are remarkable little mechanisms and reflect the early days of the American struggle in watchmaking and are considered the foundation for the great American watch industry which developed hugely in the United States at the beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century.

The borough of Norristown, (1990 pop. 30,749), seat of Montgomery co., SE Pa., on the Schuylkill River; settled c.1712, laid out 1784, inc. 1812. Among its manufactures are textiles, metal and rubber products, machinery, plastics, chemicals, and appliances. The borough is named for Isaac Norris (1671–1735), a Quaker merchant and a mayor of Philadelphia, who in 1704 bought a large tract of land there from his friend William Penn. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, a commander during the Civil War and Democratic candidate for President in 1880, was born in Norristown and is buried there. The County Historical Society is noted for its collection of local folk art. Nearby is Valley Forge. Down the river is Philadelphia.

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