Historic Structures

Aurora Watch Factory - Aurora Corset Company, Aurora Illinois

Date added: September 5, 2022 Categories: Illinois Industrial

The Aurora Watch Company was one of a number of local watch companies in America, most have their hometowns' names (i.e., Elgin, Waltham, Rockford, Springfield...). Aurora won this factory through competition between towns as was recently done for a number of auto factories. The outcome was based on the allowances or inducements from an area. Aurora came up with a capital base of $250,000, of which $75,000 was from the citizenry, and land. The first directors were all jewelers: E.W. Trask, of Aurora; M. Wendell of Chicago, the originator of the move; M. Hoffman, of Quincy; A.H. Pike, of Kankakee; and George F. Johnson, who was the superintendent and worked closely with Adler & Sullivan on the watch factory's requirements. Mr. Johnson had the background in the size of machinery, the required space, and the order of assembly of such intricate goods as watches. In Watch Factories of America, Henry Abbott credited George Johnson with designing the machinery and the factory.

At the time of the Watch Company's incorporation, other factories in Aurora were an iron foundry, a well works (well-digging equipment), a creamery, a smelting and refining company, a road cart factory, cotton mills, and a corset company (the Chicago Corset Company, not related to the Aurora Corset Company). Also in early Aurora were a light and power company, three banks, the Chicago Telephone Company, and the Aurora Street Railway. In 1885 the Company decided to move its headquarters from Chicago to its Aurora factory, and new officers were elected. When the watch company's business was well established, the rest of its proposed factory would be erected, but it never was.

The first watch from its machines was purchased by E.W. Trask, who donated the watch to Aurora's Carnegie library building fund. The watch was then raffled off, and quite a sum was raised for the library.

Not all Aurora watches had the Aurora name on the face. It was the custom of the company to sell through only one jeweler in a town, so their names were among those that appeared on the face. Inside the watch was stamped Aurora. Because of this practice of selling through one jeweler in a town, they didn't do much advertising on their own. In town directories, there was usually only a picture of the factory to show the Company's solidity. Each jeweler did the advertising for the watches.

Unfortunately, the Aurora Watch Company did not fare too well. Business suffered a number of drawbacks, was reorganized, and a large amount of additional stock had been taken. Originally, it was indicated that the watchworks would stay in Aurora. Holland's Triennial Directory, published in 1894, had this to say about the Aurora Watch Company: "...has erected a factory and equipped it with a class of machinery that is acknowledged to be unexcelled for the purpose for which it was designed and constructed. It has...produced watches, which, for time-keeping qualities, are the peers of any in the world's market....Time and experience have proven that the company had insufficient capital with which to compete with older concerns...the managers...made an assignment and shortly thereafter Charles D. Rood, one of the most successful and wealthy watch factory owners and managers in the country, bought the installation, which is now running to its full capacity with some 300 hands....This is one of the most valuable and beneficial manufactories in the city..." But the plant in Aurora was abandoned in 1894. The company was purchased by Rood, and the machinery was moved to Pennsylvania to the Hamilton Watch Company. According to the Centennial History of Aurora, the stockholders did quite well with this decision.

The Aurora Corset Company made its headquarters in the Aurora Watch Company's buildings from 1894 to 1943. They manufactured corsets under the names of Henderson and La Princess and related items.

The Aurora Corset Company made the additions to the complex. The first of these was an extension of the factory (Building #3C) to the south of the complex. This addition is barely visible in an 1898 photo of the employees in front of the factory. The second addition was Building #2, the main entrance with the Company's name in stone over the front door, in 1909-10. The company became Formfit in 1943, and they were in existence until 1958. The building then was sold to the present occupant which continued its original use as a factory.

The Aurora Corset Company was quite proud of its headquarters and the conveniences for its employees. It included its employee dining room, reading room, and large park with swings and seats in its advertising and termed itself "The Factory Beautiful." A picture of the factory was included in many of their advertisements, partially to show that their product was manufactured in Aurora, and partially to show the size of the Company.

The Aurora Corset Company purchased the factory in 1894, and the complex remained unchanged for two-three years. The Company increased the complex by two additions to the original machine shop (Buildings (Building #2) attached to the original factory (Building #1) in 1909-10. The present occupant has made no major changes to the complex. The minor changes include bricking up windows in Buildings #1 (south end,

The Aurora Corset Company is perhaps most significant as the sole survivor of an industry that once was the largest employer of women in Aurora. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century Aurora City directories indicate that three firms were large employers of women: the Aurora Cotton Mills (all building have been demolished); the Aurora Corset Company; and the Chicago Corset Company (all buildings have been demolished). Families whose husbands worked at the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Machine Shops in Aurora frequently had wives or older daughters who worked for one of the three above textile concerns.

While the Chicago Corset Company's factory was also located in the midst of a residential neighborhood, the Aurora Corset Company's complex had landscaping and siting which made it blend in the best with its residential surroundings. In order to attract a cheap workforce of women, these corset companies had to project a safe, clean image.

Thus the company promoted their complex as "The Factory Beautiful" just as "The City Beautiful" and "The House Beautiful" were gaining popularity during this period. Photographs show the women in starched white dresses posing outside the complex, again, projecting a clean, wholesome environment that families could feel comfortable sending their daughters to work in. This strategy is highly reminiscent of early textile milling in New England where communities such as Lowell strove to maintain a safe, wholesome environment for its young female workforce. Aside from domestic employment, no other late nineteenth or early twentieth century industry was such a large employer of Aurora women. The complex's addition by Worst and Shepardson is the only extant commercial work of this firm. F.E. Worst had been associated with early Aurora architect J.E. Minott in the late nineteenth century, but broke off to form his own firm in the early twentieth century.

Developers had plans to utilize the complex by turning it into apartments or condominiums. The building was destroyed by fire in 1989. A city park now occupies the site.