J. D. Custer
Research Notes

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Jacob D. (Detweiler) Custer (1809--1879) is another famous name in horology, but 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!

Considered the third on the list of early American watch makers, Custer evidentially had no formal training but was one of those fellows (like Henry Pitkin) who was a mechanical genius and applied it later on to watches after his clock business. During the 1840s he decided to make some watches and (according to Crossman) finished about 12 of these, 14s 3/4 plate gilt, lever escapement and fusee movements. He also made his own silver cases in the swingout style. One interesting note is that these movements require a male arbor squared key to wind and set them unlike any other American winding/setting styles. It 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 seen of these Custer watches which are unique in design and virtually uncollectible. 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 OF case, originated from old time 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.

Note: that the balance cock is different from (more narrow and more crudely made) than the cock on watch number 7.

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.

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 BIG TIMEi n the United States at the beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Jon (Hanson)