1891 Fascinating Diary by a Student of Watchmaking at the American Horological Institute in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

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On offer is an interesting diary that touches on the history of watchmaking, through the experience of a man who travels to Philadelphia in the winter of 1891 to attend the American Horological Institute. 

The author of this diary is unknown. Context tells us our diarist is a man and he begins his diary on January 6, 1891, when he “arrived at Washington” on route to Philadelphia to become a watchmaker. The diary covers the period of January 6, 1891 through April 9, 1891. During this time, the vast majority of our young watchmaker’s entries are focused on his watchmaking education. He attends the American Horological Institute six days per week and on Sundays he goes to churches and to the local YMCA. This man’s commitment to his chosen craft is both endearing and a reminder of the pride once taken in mastering skills. Some excerpts give the flavour of this fascinating diary:

“Arrived at Philadelphia 10:30 AM. Took dinner at the Bingham House. Went to the American Horological Institute and made arrangements for entering. Went and found a Boarding place, went to the Institute at night” [Jan 7].

“Went to institute and went to work making a polishing tool. Practiced engraving a little. Went around the city a little at night” [Jan 8]. 

“Went down to Institute. Made a jewel setting tool and practised setting jewels. Went down to the merry go round after supper” [Jan 16].

“Went to Institute and practiced engraving and turning on the lathe. Went to Broad Street Theatre in the evening very good” [Jan 24]. 

“Went to St. Pauls Reform Episcopal Church 1030. PM Chestnut and 22nd. Went to John Wanamaker Sunday School 230…22nd and Bainbridge Sts. Went to the YMCA 15th and Chestnut. Went to Broad St Station and weighed 150 lbs. Did not go out in evening” [Jan 25]. 

“Went to Institute and practiced engraving and pivoting and drill making …” [Feb 6]. 

“Went to Broad Street station, weighed 151, then went to spring Garden M.E. church. Did not go out in the afternoon. Went to First Baptist Church in the evening” [March 8].

“Went to Institute and did engraving and work on Hain spring gauge. Went down to Gilbert and Bacons and had group lecture, then went to Keystone watch case factory” [March 26].

In the back of the diary, our author provides even more details about the American Horological Institute, listing supplies he bought for class, his expenses connected to his schooling, as well as names and addresses of individuals and businesses, some clearly associated with his watchmaking education. 


The American Horological Institute was new approach to training watchmakers. It has its roots with Ezra Bowman who was born in 1847. His family had emigrated from Switzerland and settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. At a young age, Ezra displayed an interest in watchmaking. His father considered the standard 7 year apprenticeship excessive so he hired a Swiss watchmaker to teach his son in an intensive 2 year period. Completing his studies, Bowman worked for several other watchmakers before opening his own shop in Lancaster in 1877. He began to take on apprentices, using the intense 2-year course that he had experienced. He was successful and in 1887 opened a school in Philadelphia called the American Horological Institute. Five years later, it was renamed the Ezra F. Bowman Technical School and relocated to Lancaster PA. Eventually, it was renames the Bowman Technical School. The school remained in existence until it closed in 1992.

Bowman was a pioneering horological genius in the pre-Hamilton years of the Lancaster watch factories. He worked on the model of the first watch made by the Adams & Perry Watch Manufacturing Company and then manufactured the Bowman watch in his own shop. He improved and made watchmaking tools that were recognized worldwide. Yet he is best known as a pioneer in horological education through his desire to promote high craft standards for watch-makers in his school.

For a historian this is an excellent written artifact that refers directly to one of the founders of a unique American skilled craft. Today, there is an extensive collection of original source material about the Bowman Technical School in the Lancaster County historical collection

Measuring 7.25 inches by 3.25 inches, this diary contains 122 pages and is about 25% complete, with entries between January and April of 1891, and many notes in the Address and Accounts sections at the back of the diary. Our author writes very consistently January through early March, and his entries space out in late March and become almost absent as of April, though he does write twice in April about a bike tour he is taking. The cover shows some signs of wear but is otherwise intact. The spine and binding are intact as are all of the pages and the handwriting is legible. Overall Fair to Good.


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