Workman's Time Recorder | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Workman's Time Recorder

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Workman's Time Recorder | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeWorkman's Time Recorder

Workman's Time Recorder, c. 1894 - c. 1915

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1964.58.1,A

EnlargeDetail of peg punch mechanism

Detail of peg punch mechanism

Detail of peg punch mechanism which employees moved to an assigned number on the clock’s exterior wheel to punch a time code next to their name on a rolled form within the clock. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1964.58.1,A

EnlargeAppleton Woolen Mills

Appleton Woolen Mills, c. 1895

View of the Appleton Woolen Mills from the south, circa 1895. The building in the right foreground was completed in 1893. The long, two-story building behind it was built after the fire of 1881. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society Archives Collection M62-137

EnlargeAppleton Woolen Mills general manager Frank James Harwood in his office

Appleton Woolen Mills general manager Frank James Harwood in his office, 1904

Appleton Woolen Mills general manager Frank James Harwood in his office, 1904. Harwood became general manager of Appleton Woolen Mills in 1882 and served as its president from 1910-1940. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society Archives M62-137

EnlargePage from the Appleton Woolen Mills Time Roll

Page from the Appleton Woolen Mills time roll, 1895

Page from the Appleton Woolen Mills Time Roll for June 1895. Employee ID numbers appear in the first column. These numbers, which may correspond to the numbered holes on the time clock, were reassigned as workers left the company. Number 12, for example, was switched from Fred Bretzman to Wm. Kerhn part way through the month. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society Archives M62-137, Appleton Woolen Mills papers, Financial Vols.

Time clock used by workers at the
Appleton Woolen Mills, Appleton, Wisconsin,
c. 1894 - c. 1915.

(Museum object #1964.58.1,A)

Before the industrial revolution, most forms of work were governed by the demands of the season or the task at hand. As more and more goods came to be made in factories, however, the rhythms of work became increasingly determined by the needs of machines. Factory whistles rather than sunrise marked the start of the day. Workers earned their livelihoods according to the demands of the clock, and business owners began to track their employees' hours using time clocks like this one used at the Appleton Woolen Mills.

As companies grew, American business managers struggled to gather and to make sense of a bewildering array of essential information. To succeed, businesses increasingly needed to track changing production and sales figures, the availability and cost of raw materials, the state of distant markets, and the costs and availability of different classes of labor. By the final decades of the 19th century, many businesses had adopted new organizational and technical methods to collect and analyze information.

One of these was the employee time clock. The machine featured here is a Dey Time Recorder, made by the Dey Time Register Co. of Syracuse, New York and used at the Appleton Woolen Mills from roughly 1894 to 1915. This "Workman's Time Recorder" was patented by Alexander Dey of Glasgow, Scotland in 1888. The decorative cast iron thistles on the clock's front whimsically reference Dey's Scottish origins.

The device consists of a weight-driven clock inside a wooden case, with a large iron ring attached to the front. Around the ring's edge are numbers assigned to each employee. To punch in and out, an employee moved the pivoting pointer arm to his or her number, and then pressed its peg into the guide hole, causing the time to be printed next to his or her name on a rolled form inside the machine. The opposite end of the pointer is attached to a smaller wheel; different attachment points on this wheel correspond to different work shifts.

Located on Grand Chute Island in the Fox River, Appleton Woolen Mills was powered by water from Edward West's privately-owned power canal. The initial factory was built as a carding mill in 1861 to take advantage of high wool prices generated by the Civil War. That factory burned in 1863 but the owners rebuilt it in larger quarters. After another devastating fire burned it to the ground in 1881, the company - which had existed until then as a series of partnerships - was reorganized as a corporation called the Appleton Woolen Mills. The firm built a new, two-story brick and stone building, in which it spun and dyed colored yarns. It added a weaving mill in 1888 to produce its own flannel and cassimere.

Inspired, no doubt, by the neighboring paper mills along the Fox River, Appleton Woolen Mills began making papermakers' felts (woven fabrics that are used to support and dry newly made paper) in 1892. A mere year later, the company won a bronze medal for its papermakers' felts at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. That branch of the business grew dramatically in subsequent decades. The company still exists, under a different name and at a different Appleton location, as a division of Voith Paper Fabrics, Inc.

Impetus to add a time clock may have come from the mill's general manager Frank James Harwood. Harwood presided over impressive growth, including plant expansions in 1888, 1893 and 1900; the acquisition of several subsidiaries, including the Reedsburg Woolen Mill in 1902; and the diversification of the company's products from spun and dyed yarn into woven textiles, papermakers' felts and knit apparel. As the business grew larger and more complex, Harwood likely felt the need for greater accuracy and centralization of financial information. Besides encouraging workers to arrive on time and work a full day, a recording time clock for employees' wages would have provided some of that additional control.

Time log books in the Appleton Woolen Mills collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society suggest that the company adopted a time clock in 1894. Identification numbers preceding each employee's name first appear penciled into the ledgers in January of that year. Each employee kept the same ID number from month to month, and numbers were reassigned to new workers as their predecessors left the payroll. The fact that the numbers were reassigned suggests a finite quantity of available numbers, perhaps determined by the numbered holes on the clock's dial.

Although specific occupations are only occasionally listed, the time rolls contain much useful information about work at the mill. In the mid 1890s, a work week consisted of six, ten hour days. Only department foremen were paid by the week; most of the other employees were paid by the hour, with many weavers and spinners receiving piecework. Foremen of the carding, weaving, and dyeing departments made $3.00 per day, the wool sorter $2.50, dye house workers $1.25 - $1.50, night watchman $1.50, teamsters $1.25, and carders $0.625 - $1.75. "Spool and twister" workers, most of whom were women, made 70 to 80 cents per day.

Though they were new to most workers in the 1890s, time clocks soon became a familiar feature of industrial and office employment. It is one of the ironies of history that while "punching the clock" has become synonymous with drudgery, an early example of the technology would be as colorful and visually appealing as this.

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[Sources: Ryan, Thomas H., ed., History of Outagamie County, Wisconsin: being a general survey ... including a history of the cities, towns and villages ... (La Crosse, WI.: Brookhaven Press, 1998; reprint of the 1911 ed.); A 1922 newspaper history of the Appleton Woolen Mills available online; Business records of the Appleton Wollen Mills (accession number M62-137) were donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1962. Though largely unprocessed, this very large collection contains a wealth of information about the company and its subsidiaries; Chandler, AlfredD., Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977).]


Posted on August 30, 2007