The Elgin American story started when Max Eppenstein began working in the jewellery quarter of New York in the late 1870s. In 1880 Solomon Eppenstein joined his brother and together they ran the M C Eppenstein & Company, (aka Eppenstein Brothers Company). The premises were located at 67 Washington St, Chicago. Initially the firm was only involved in the wholesale jewellery trade.
1895 Illinois Watch Case Company Advertisement
In 1888, the Eppenstein Brothers established a company manufacturing watchcases with the expertise of Thomas Duncan, an established watchmaker. The venture was named The Illinois Watchcase Company. Thomas Duncan managed this concern.
In 1989 another subsidiary was set up and this was named the Elgin American Manufacturing Company, often abbreviated to EAM. This company would concentrate on the crafting of cases, buttons and lockets. The ‘handsomely enamelled’ lockets were made using the same techniques which produced the watch cases. The Illinois Watchcase Company was still producing watches even though the business practices of the brothers had made them enemies within the watch trade.
In the spring of 1890 The Illinois Watchcase Company relocated to Elgin, IL. The new location brought about the desire for a new name -The Elgin Watchcase Company. However, this name was very similar to an old established (c.1866) and highly regarded concern known as the Elgin National Watch Inc. Protests that this would cause confusion were taken up by lawyers and the new name was not granted.
The brothers’ solution was to create a line of watches prefixed with the name ‘Elgin’. For example the ‘Elgin Commander’. The Eppenstiens registered the names as their own. A court case ensued with the brothers being banned from using this prefix. The brothers were wealthy enough to engage a first rate legal team who pursued the matter all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
In 1901, after much legal wrangling, the court ruled that as ‘Elgin’ was an actual location it could not be trademarked and therefore the Eppenstein brothers could use the word ‘Elgin’ on any of their products or in any of their company names. However, they decided to keep the name The Illinois Watchcase Company.
You can find out more on the history behind this iconic manufacturer in our bespoke fact packs that come with every order - shop Elgin and the major brands of compacts here.
In 1919 the Elgin American Vanity Case was being advertised for sale.
The Jewelers' Circular October 26 1921
By 1921 Elgin American vanities were widely advertised in the press. The above advertisement shows that in this year the main office and factory were still located in Elgin, Illinois. The New York branch was at Maiden Lane and the Chicago branch was at 29 E. Madison Street.
Elgin American vanities ranged widely in price. The top of the range were fashioned from solid gold. Sterling silver vanity cases were more popular, as gold was out of the reach of most ladies. Some of the solid silver cases were ‘inlaid with solid gold’. Gold filled cases were also offered for sale which had all the appeal of solid gold and the obvious advantage of being more affordable.
These materials were used to craft other novelties such as cigarette cases, ‘photo cases, tapered matchsafes, belt buckles, vanity powder cases, traveling watches, pocket knives’ and (hip) ‘flasks in 3 different sizes’. ‘Link cuff buttons’ were available in ‘white - green and yellow solid gold’. There isn't a record of the price of solid gold vanities but we know from advertisements that sterling silver cases were sold for just over $9 in the early 1920s. It is curious to note that the firm did not apply for any patents for their vanities until 1923. As you can see from the advertisement the vanity cases were fitted with a strap so that they could be worn on the wrist - a dance purse. The wrist straps were equipped with a slider, which would secure the vanity purse and enable the lady to dance with her fashionable accessory. The interior contained compartments that could house powder, a memorandum, pencil, make-up, money, coins placed in the coin holders, as well as a mirror and maybe even a tiny comb.
In 1921 Max Eppenstein died. Solomon became the company president. Max’s son, Louis, was appointed to the role of Vice-President. The 1920s saw the growth of the novelties / vanities side of the business. Sterling silver and silver plated vanities with wrist straps were manufactured and the demand for these was high.
The Illinois Watchcase Company was still producing cases until the 1940s. The company went from strength to strength and in the 1940s, which is widely considered to be heyday of American novelty compact manufacturing, they were at the forefront, producing many different styles with the most appealing and glamorous lid decorations.
Elgin American were famous for their novelty compacts too. They were considered to be novelty compacts as they often resembled other items.
Envelopes, purses, pocket watches, tear drops or heart shapes.
The heart shaped compacts were produced especially with St Valentine’s Day in mind.
Elgin American Order Form
The image above shows the shapes of Elgin American compact mirrors and the corresponding refill product codes that were available from the manufacturer back in the day.
The different shades of powder that were available are listed at the bottom of the form:
NATURAL (BLONDE) GOLDEN BRUNETTE (LIGHT BRUNETTE)
LIGHT SUN TAN (DARK BRUNETTE)
LIGHT RACHEL (BROWNETT) MED. BRUNETTE (BRUNETTE)
DARK SUN TAN