Invented in the 16th century, the pocket-watch lasted an astounding 400+ years as the timepiece of choice for mankind, well into the 1960s when the last mass-produced pocket-watches were made and when they finally succumbed to the wristwatch.
What is the point of this article?
I’m sure some folks here would wonder why there would be an article about watches in a site which isn’t about watches. The reason is that it’s about a specific kind of watch. To many people, pocket-watches evoke images of times gone by. Grandparents, family-heirlooms, priceless antiques and hand-cranked veteran cars. The pocket-watch is one of those items, which, like Model T Fords, typewriters, tombstone radios and fountain pens, forever makes people think of times gone by. This article exists to provide information on those quiet, quick, ticking pocket watches, one of the most enduring objects of the “Golden Age”.
Before the 1900s
From the 1500s until the 1850s, pocket watches were gigantic chunky things. Early pocket watches could be the size of tennis balls and no more accurate than a water-clock. The pocket-watch as we know it today (and indeed, the modern wristwatch itself), did not exist until the 1850s. Before then, all pocket watches were wound with watch-keys and were incredibly bulky and heavy.
In the 1850s, a company known to the modern world as Patek-Philippe, created the world’s first stem-wind, stem-set pocket watch. This was revolutionary – people didn’t need to carry around watch-keys to wind and set their watches anymore, because the watch could be wound and the time could be set, simply by moving a little round, knurled knob! We owe a lot to the Patek-Philippe boys. Thanks to them, the modern watch was made a reality. The first ‘keyless’ watches (as they were then-called), were exihibited to the world at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, England.
The pocket watch as a status symbol
Today, if someone owns a gold pocket watch, most people would assume the person is fairly wealthy, even if the watch is just a cheap, quartzy piece of junk. This isn’t always true. But still, the pocket watch remains a big status-symbol. And this has been true for centuries.
From the 16th-18th centuries, all pocket watches were made by hand. This made them frightfully expensive, and only the richest of the rich could afford to own them, as all the parts were made and cut and shaped by hand. In the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution, it became possible to mass-produce machine-made pocket-watch parts and for the first time, a timepiece was available to the common man. Or at least, that was the theory.
Unfortunately, the pocket-watch still remained very expensive and for many people in the 1900s, owning a pocket-watch was still a status-symbol and a possession completely beyond their financial reach. Even the cheapest watch that you could buy at the turn of the last century would have cost you one American dollar. If that sounds cheap today, remember that in 1900, a bottle of Coca Cola cost 5c. A film-ticket cost 5c. One whole dollar could buy you and your date dinner and a movie in 1900. So even though it only cost a dollar, the cheapest watch was still expensive.
An advertisment for ‘Ingersoll dollar watches’ around the turn of the century. The Ingersoll company envisioned a cheap, functional watch which any man could buy. It was the Henry Ford of the watchmaking world.
In the 1910s, 20s and 30s, pocket watches became more stylish, better quality and naturally, more expensive. A decent pocket watch cost you anywhere from $10-$50, which was a substantial amount of money in the 1920s, but for that, you could get a watch which would last for decades.
Chop and Change
One fact not widely known about pocket-watches is that until fairly recently, pocket watches were not all made in one place. Watch-companies only ever made pocket-watch MOVEMENTS (the mechanics inside the watch). Another company made the watch-case and both the movement and the case was sold to the jeweller. A customer came into the jeweller’s shop and picked the case and movement individually and the jeweller joined the two together. A wealthy customer might pick a solid gold case and a high-quality movement. A man who needed a watch for work might pick a high-quality movement and a cheap, nickel case. A person who needed a watch outright might just buy a cheap case and a cheap movement.
When dating a pocket-watch, it’s important to look at the MOVEMENT instead of the CASE because the case is just a case. The movement is the watch itself.
This part of the article is covered in greater detail in “Keeping your eye on the Ball – The History of Railroad Chronometers”, further down
One famous kind of watch was the “railroad chronometer”. A ‘chronometer’ is the designation given to a watch capable of VERY precise timekeeping. The railroad chronometer was just such a watch. Railroading in the USA boomed in the years after the Civil War of the 1860s and by the turn of the century, the USA was linked by thousands of miles of railway tracks. To keep trains running on time, extremely precise pocket-watches were needed. A conductor standing on the platform of a station and shouting: “ALL ABOARD!” and waving his flag might seem like a pretty scene from a movie, but the truth was that trains HAD to stay on schedule to prevent life-threatening accidents.
If trains left their stations too soon, or too early, they risked crashing into other trains. Don’t forget that there are no CCTVs, there’s no radio-communication, no GPS. The only way to get from one place to another safely, was to leave ON TIME. Railroad pocket watches had to keep very precise time. Any more than +/-4 seconds a day meant the conductor, engineer or fireman was sent back to the watchmaker and his watch required an overhaul. And this wasn’t cheap. A railway pocket watch cost about $30-$50 in the 1910s, and the railway man had to pay for it out of his own salary. He had to pay for the repairs, too. Railway pocket watches had to keep such accurate time because if it was so much as a minute (and I mean literally ONE MINUTE) off time, it could mean a catastrophic train-wreck.
The Waltham ‘Vanguard’ was typical of the pocket watches used by railwaymen from the 1890s until the 1950s.
Pocket watches needed to be large and easily read because the engineers who used them were often confined to dark, lightless locomotive-cabs and needed to be able to tell the time accurately. The adjustments to the timekeeping were necessary because trains rocked and vibrated a great deal. Temperature-compesations were necessary because of the vast differences in temperature – It oculd be freezing cold outside but boilng inside the locomotive with roaring coal fires and smoke and steam everywhere.
Watches in the Wars
Until the 1910s, a man…a REAL MAN…wore a pocket watch. Only pansy homosexuals wore a wristwatch. A wristwatch was akin to a bracelet, a wristwatch was feminine. A wristwatch belonged to a woman, but even then, not many women wore wristwatches either! In popular culture, the First World War has been credited with popularising wristwatches with men. Soldiers fighting in the trenches realised that it was easier to tell the time with a wristwatch than a pocket-watch when your hands were full trying to kill the enemy. Despite this, the pocket-watch remained in popular demand in the civilian market for several years after the end of WWI. Some men had their pocket-watches converted to wristwatches by having lugs soldered onto the cases and having straps put on.
The interwar period saw a rise in both wristwatch and pocket-watch design, production and distribution. Pocket-watches continued to be used on railroads as railway officials did not trust these newfangled “wrist” watches to keep proper time. Plus, wristwatches are small, and a key factor in railway pocket watches was that they were big and easy to read. Pocket watches continued to be made by commercial watch companies well into the mid 1960s, when the market for pocket watches well and truly did dry up. But until then, pocket watches moved with the times, and the 1920s and the 1930s, with the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties and the rise of the Art Deco movement, saw several fantastic and stylish new pocket watches being made.
When World War Two came along in 1939, one of the big things on the list of things to buy, for allied armed forces…was pocket watches! Twenty-odd years before, a war had caused pocket watches to be phased out in the military and yet a generation later, they were ‘back in style’, so to speak.
The reason for wanting POCKET watches in the army, navy and airforce during WWII had its roots in practicality and quality. Military pocket watches were high-grade, big, black beasts of timepieces. A typical military pocket watch was large, jet black, with glow-in-the-dark hands and numbers with a 21-jewel count (or higher). The size and glow-in-the-dark numbers were crucial. It was easier to tell the time during night-attacks and you didn’t have to light a match to read the time, which might give away your position to the enemy. Similarly, when flying in an airplane, big bold pocket watches were easier to read. Most pilots bought pocket watches, put them in special boxes and had them fixed to the instrument-panels of their fighter-planes.
A typical military pocket-watch. Big, black and bold. Its white numbers and hands contrast easily against the black for clearer legibility. This watch has a twenty-four hour dial.
The pocket-watch’s primary accessory is the watch-chain and no pocket-watch should be worn without one. Apart from the aesthetic side of it, pocket-watch chains have a practical purpose as well. The chain serves as a fob, that is, an item for grasping and removing the watch from one’s pocket. But it also serves as a safety or security device, and prevents the watch from falling and breaking on the ground, should it come out of one’s pocket.
There are three main types of watch-chains…
The Double Albert is characterisd by having two equal lengths of chain hanging from a central T-bar. In days gone by, the Double Albert was used to hold a watch-key and pocket-watch. In more modern times, a Double Albert was used to hold a pocket watch and…a compass, a pocket-knife, a fountain pen, match-case, cigarette-case and several other little accessories which could be clipped onto the other end of the chain to be placed in the opposite watch-pocket.
The Single Albert or Half-Albert was the descendant of the Double Albert. This kind of chain became popular in the latter decades of the 19th Century, when keyless watches were invented. Both styles of Albert chain are designed to be worn with a waistcoat and with the T-bar going through a buttonhole. They are called “Albert” chains because they are named after Prince Albert, wife of Queen Victoria.
The spring-ring or ring-clip watch-chain is another common design. Spring-ring chains are usually longer than Albert chains (apart from maybe, Double Alberts), and they are attached to watches which are worn in the watch-pocket of your trousers. The ring is clipped around the belt-loop of your trousers and the watch goes into the watch-pocket.
“Trousers don’t have watch pockets!”, I hear you say. As a matter of fact, yes they do. The watch-pocket on your trousers or blue-jeans is the “fifth pocket”:
How many times have you put on your jeans and wondered what that pocket was for? It was created in the 1870s by Levi Strauss, the jeans manufacturer and its original purpose was to hold a pocket watch. Despite the fact that the pocket-watch has largely disappeared from public use, the fifth pocket remains as an enigmatic and puzzling leftover, an addition to legwear which now provides an inconvenient place for cellphones, keys, condoms and loose change, none of which are easily extracted from the watch-pocket when they’re actually needed.