Over a hundred years ago, wrist watches weren’t a men’s accessory – a real man wore a pocket watch. Pocket watches at the time were more durable and more reliable than wrist watches. Sometime between then and now, all this changed.
Time to be Manly
The pocket watch’s popularity came from its association with ‘manly’ occupations, especially railway workers. While trains were no more reliable than they are now, it was at the very least a comfort to see that time was a serious consideration, whether it was the station master checking whether the services were running on time, or an engineer checking the timing on the engine movement. Of course, a pocket watch is also large, easily lost or stolen, and relatively expensive.
Time to be Practical
At the time, wrist watches were considered effeminate, but the practicality was making itself known. It has been claimed that soldiers were beginning to convert their pocket watches into wrist watches as far back as the American Civil War. The work to do so probably wasn’t especially elegant, but it certainly would have made it easier to check the time when under fire, and significantly reduced the risk of loss or damage.
By the start of World War I, it was much more common for pocket watches to be converted into wrist watches, and even the major players in the industry were beginning to do so. Many of the common soldiers could not afford a new wrist watch, of course, and so converted pocket watches – called ‘trench watches’ to distinguish them from true wrist watches – remained popular among the military.
Time to be on the Wrist
The first true wrist watch – rather than a converted pocket watch – was Cartier’s Santos, which was designed for the famous Brazilian aviator, Alberto Santos Dumont. Aviators were especially enamoured of wrist watches for the simple reason that they could check the time while paying attention to where they were going, a feature that appealed to many other occupations.
By World War II, the wrist watch was significantly more popular, and militaries around the world issued their soldiers with wrist watches. Gallet & Co were, in fact, producing more than 100,000 watches per year for the US, Canadian and British militaries. There was a sort of ‘last hurrah’ in 1943, when the Royal Navy issued their sailors with Waltham pocket watches in anticipation of the D-Day invasion. These featured nine jewel movements, black dials and radium numbers for visibility in the dark.
Since then, the pocket watch has gradually declined in popularity. While it is a rare sight in 2014, the shift was only gradual. Even major cultural icons like James Dean wore pocket watches; while pocket watches are now often seen as an affectation, clearly this wasn’t the case into the 50s.
James Dean loved this watch, and wore it on a chain inherited from his father. He considered it a lucky charm. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so lucky as to save his life, and the movement stopped at 5:43pm.
Credits Images © Watchuseek, Watchaholics