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Antique Pocket Watches

Today’s watches - worn on the wrist - are increasingly high-tech, providing not only the time and date, but also GPS navigation, fitness tracking, and internet access. However, for most of history, people carried simple watches in their pockets in order to tell time. Also called “pocket clocks” pocket watches were used until WWI when the wrist watch was developed.

During the month of March, Rosenberg Library will exhibit an assortment of antique pocket watches from its museum collection.

Pocket Clocks

By the late 1400s, small, spring-driven clocks were being manufactured in Italy and Germany. The earliest European watches only had an hour hand; the minute hand did not appear until the late 1600s. Typically, the watch face was covered by a hinged brass plate rather than with glass. These watches were often worn on a chain around a neck, and only later were watches carried in a pocket. Pocket watches were usually attached to a chain to prevent them from being dropped or broken.

Pocket Watch Styles

There are three main types of pocket watches: open-face, hunter, and demi-hunter. An open-face watch lacks a protective cover over the crystal but is covered by a thick piece of glass. Conversely, hunter watches have a thin glass face but are protected by a metal cover which opens with a springed hinge. This keeps the watch from getting dirty or scratched. A demi-hunter also has a springed hinge cover, but it features a glass panel on the outer cover so that the time can be read without opening it. Cases for pocket watches were most often made from metal, though less durable ceramic and glass cases were also manufactured.

American Watch Makers

Although early Americans owned watches imported from Europe, pocket watches were not manufactured in America until the 1830s. Even then, American-made watches were only produced on a small scale and many people could not afford to purchase them. However, by the mid-1850s, innovative American companies (including Elgin, Waltham, and Hamilton) had developed machine-made, interchangeable watch parts and had begun to utilize assembly-line production. This enabled American watch makers to offer mass-produced watches at a low price to consumers.

In 1896, the mail order firm of R.H. Ingersoll and Bros. began selling wholesale watches for $1 apiece. Dubbed “The Watch that Made the Dollar Famous” Ingersoll’s dollar watches became wildly popular and within 20 years, 40 million units had been sold. Despite this initial success, Ingersoll and Bros. declared bankruptcy in 1921 during the post WWI recession.

For higher-end consumers, the iconic American jewelry firm Tiffany and Co. also produced pocket watches. Tiffany partnered with Patek Phillipe, a prestigious Swiss watchmaking firm which produced a line of luxury, handcrafted watches for the Tiffany brand in its Geneva factory.

The Emergence of the Wristwatch

During WWI, the trench watch was developed. This was a transitional design combining elements of both the pocket watch and the wrist watch. Military personnel found it more convenient to wear a watch on the wrist than to carry it in a pocket. This trend spread to the general public, and by the 1940s, wrist watches had become the much preferred timekeeping accessory.

 

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