John Cairns, Providence

John Cairns advertised in the Providence Gazette in 1800 that he made verge watches for $25 that were warranted for two years. By some accounts, he "was the only man of his time who made watches entire." John Cairns, like Thomas Harland, Luther Goddard and others, made watches similar in appearance to England-made fusee watches with verge escapements. He died of accidental drowning in 1809 and his estate included a large inventory of watchmaking tools and supplies including an unfinished movement. Interestingly, Cairns may have been Luther Goddard's mentor; upon Cairns death, Goddard buys his tools and equipment and proceeds to capitalize on the Jefferson Embargo as war with England looms (until repealed in 1815) becoming the first to make watches of significant quantity in America.

Three surviving watches are known. Two are pictured and were likely made between 1795 and 1800. John Cairns was the subject of an extensive article by David Cooper, John Cairns (1751-1809) and Other Early American Watchmakers that evidences Cairns' manufacture of watches in Providence, Rhode Island. Cooper wrote:

"..he more than likely engraved the plates, pierced the balance table, spoked out and mounted the wheels to arbors, which he made from pinion wire... He assembled the plates and pillars, had them gilded, planted the wheels, adjusted the escapement, and cased the watch. I do not think that he cut his wheels or fusee, but he did make the ratchet wheel spring and click mounting. The balance, staff, chain, and mainspring are English, as was the dial and most likely the hands, together with the rest of the materials used."

Cairns' movements are signed but do not have serial numbers. Both have verge and fusee escapements, round pillars and are similarly finished with rather simple engraving and piercing on the balance table and back plate. The fusee assemblies have a unique ratchet system that appears to be Cairne's own design.

The watch analyzed in David Cooper's article is engraved "John Cairns Providence" and has Roman numerals on the enamel dial. There are no hallmarks on its silver pair cases and the silver alloy content is approximately 89%, which is well below the 92.5% English sterling standard at the time.

The second watch is engraved "John Cairns" without a city name and has Arabic numerals on the enamel dial. Thankfully, the outer silver pair case has a maker's mark (the only mark on the case), for Sanders (Saunders) Pitman who worked next door to Cairns in Providence, Rhode Island. Sanders Pitman was in Providence by 1755 and partnered briefly with Seril Dodge in 1793, the same man that apprenticed for the eminent clock and watchmaker Thomas Harland in Norwich, Connecticut. Pitman died in 1804. The silver alloy content is 92.01%, quite close to the sterling standard of 92.5%. The replaced outer case has London assay and date marks for 1797 and unfortunately has a rectangular warn-through hole where the makers' mark would have been.

John Cairns Article

References and recommended reading:

  • J. Carter Harris, The Clock and Watch Makers American Advertiser, Sussex, UK, Antiquarian Horological Society, 2003, p.54
  • David Cooper, John Cairns (1751-1809) and Other Early American Watchmakers, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 336, (February, 2002), pp. 26-38
  • Hudson Moore, The Old Clock Book, Tudor Publishing, New York, 1936
  • Philip Priestley, Watch Case Makers of England, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin Supplement No. 20 (1994)
  • Sara Steiner, Excerpts from Mechanics’ Festival, Rhode Island, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 227, 1983