Jul 5, 2017 | by Ellen Dial
“Time, time, time… See what’s become of me…”, one of my favorite songs – love the version by the, now considered oldie (my how time flies!) 80’s girl group The Bangles, take a listen! They really rock it out.
Time, it’s the one thing (other than death and taxes) that’s a constant. Sometimes it flies and sometimes it drags and always when you want it to do the opposite. We try to manage it, change it, make it stop.
Schedules, schedules and more schedules.
As vintage and retro style devotees, we frequently dream of going back in time to our favorite time in history. My favorite? Definitely the Edwardian and WW1 period – gorgeous clothes, dashing gentlemen in high collars, a bit more socially open, slower pace and a definite whiff of modernity. Of course, if you’re a frequent reader, you’ve probably figured this out!
But that’s a story for another … time. Are you beginning to see a pattern?
What got me thinking about time? Oh, a lot of things – but what really got me noodling was a gift my fabulous Momma gave me; the beautiful silver Railroad watch that belonged to my great-grandfather, Bernard J. Vonderheid. I remember the piece from forever, it’s lovely – simply formed, very heavy and substantial. The crystal is amazingly thick. It’s engraved with his initials – BJV. It’s been well loved and the silver plate on the stem is worn away from being wound. It’s an Elgin. He was proud of it. Unfortunately, over the years it’s been overwound and no longer works.
So, this led me to the interwebs, with the intent of checking out time and watches. There’s a TON of information and it can be overwhelming. Watches go all the way back to the way, way back. Grandpa Vonderheid’s watch dates from my favorite period of history – so let’s focus on that!
From pocket watches to wristwatches, let’s flow like the river of time through a brief history of watches! Wind your watch or set the timer on your device and let’s go!
Vintage Time | Working on the Railroad
What is a railroad watch? Well, back in 1891 there was a horrific railroad accident – many people died, it was pretty gruesome, to be sure. Since the railroads were the one of the main modes of travel back then, it would have been like a plane crash or freeway pile up today. Big news.
Why did it happen? In a nutshell, the engineers assumed the other engineers were watching the time, they were sadly mistaken. Those that were had an approximate seven-minute difference in their watches for various reasons. This was a huge deal. They were juggling two trains, time was of the essence, they didn’t engage the switches in time and two trains hit head on.
There was a public hue and cry. Especially since this tragedy could have been avoided, if the watches had been synchronized and accurate. Of course, the engineers not paying enough attention had something to do with it as well.
To that end, management protocols were enacted and watch production expectations were put into place. If you were a railroad worker, you were required to have this type of watch. Only certain producers were accepted as vendors – Elgin was on the preferred list.
The railroad watch was born. Thanks to the majestically bearded Webb C. Ball (check out the link, Mr. Ball’s career was long and would take up quite a lot of space for our purposes), he created new watches that were accurate to 30-seconds and had 17 jewels. They are/were precise in keeping time and had to be wound at the same time each day. Also, he could engineer them in such a manner that changes in temperature and humidity wouldn’t greatly affect their accuracy. The new railroad watches were in synch and this new set of rules greatly reduced the chance of another massive railroad tragedy. Of course, these rules relied on the commitment of human beings, and we all know ourselves… mistakes still occurred. See the engineers above. But this gentleman was pivotal in setting engineer/railroad timing and time management standards – all quite complex. Mr. Ball was all about the time.
Pretty cool, huh? Some Edwardian high tech. Plus the birth of the familiar saying, “on the ball.”
Grandpa V didn’t work on the railroad, but he had a very beautifully engineered and precise timepiece. Railroad watches were popular and dear, limited production made them so. They were fairly expensive and were definitely a piece to be proud of.
Both men and women used a pocket watch or a variation there of. Beautiful watch chains and fobs were the thing – there were even different styles/manners for wearing your watch, as you can see here. A gentleman could advertise his social status based upon the quality of his watch, chain and fob. The more precious the materials, the more prosperous he would be. It rounded out his wardrobe, and we all know how dapper men used to be (and to be fair, some still are). For the ladies, we would have worn a smaller watch on a lovely watch pin or it would be part of her chatelaine – a tool belt of sorts with keys, a watch, thimble, needle case, etc. Little tools and gadgets one would need to manage a busy household. A couple lovely examples reside here. Your watch could have even been in your walking stick! There are some gorgeous examples of Art Nouveau watch stands – garden nymphs or other ethereal creatures would hold (display) a gentleman’s watch until it was needed. Little pieces of art.
They took their watches seriously.
Most everyone had a watch, you could order mass produced pieces for a reasonable price through the Sears Catalogue (the Amazon of its time – buy your watch, shotgun and house in one order!) or procure a sublime one of a kind or small production piece from Lalique or Tiffany’s – if you were, you know, fancy.
As with most trends, fashions and attitudes – war changed everything.
Vintage Time | It’s on Your Wrist, Sir
The Great War was a huge catalyst – pocket watches were inconvenient and could be downright dangerous on the battlefield. Officers were expected to keep track of time – they needed to synchronize and keep schedules for the big guns and coordinated ground efforts. The new airplane pilots needed to be hands-free as well. Time was important while in the muddy trenches – avoiding gas or a volley of bullets – one couldn’t easily do so with their watch crammed in a pants or shirt pocket. The Brits put a trench (wrist) watch in their officer’s kit, these early trench watches were huge and had a large stem at 12 o’clock, basically a pocket watch on a strap. They were super convenient, though and less likely to get destroyed, the watch, that is.
As the horrific conflagration of the War to end All Wars ground to a close, the boys marched home, and their wrist watches came with them. Along with crippling shell shock (PTSD) and gruesome physical disabilities, but I digress.
The soldiers loathed the trenches but liked their trench watch! Others liked them as well. So modern!
Wrist watches became the rage and the elegant pocket watch quickly began to fade into the mists of time.
Vintage Time | Flappers, Sheiks and Beyond
Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s the wrist watch as we know it exploded. For women, they became beautiful bracelets that just happen to have a watch attached. Men’s watches were substantial and elegant. Names we recognize began to resonate in the public’s mind, such as Rolex, Hamilton (the innovative Mr. Ball worked for this company!) and Cartier. People wanted more than one – something for everyday and something for more formal occasions. More and more wrist watches became popular gifts for momentous life events. You kept your watch basically forever.
These watches were more accurate – you could get a manual wind watch or kinetically wound watches – a kinetic watch winds itself while you move throughout your day and stay wound for around 24 to 48 hours while stationary. Pretty snazzy! Many had their old pocket watches made into wrist watches – similar to the original trench watch design.
Watches today primarily run on batteries or are kinetic (the serious watch aficionado can purchase automatic watch winders – pricey perpetual motion contraptions that keep your kinetic watch wound). Collecting watches is a thing, a big thing. There are scads of sites on the internet. I know some people who have upwards of a dozen watches, some dearly expensive, some just funky and interesting. I totally remember a college trend, you HAD to have a Swatch Watch – along with the rubber bands to protect the (plastic) crystal. Swatches are funky, fun and colorful. I still have my college Swatch that states “Don’t be too late” on the face, each word positioned at 12, 3, 6 and 9 respectively. So clever! Not sure it works…. the originals (like mine) are considered vintage! That wasn’t that long ago, was it? Ugh.
The pocket watch isn’t totally gone – a few gentlemen still use them and hipsters have picked up the habit. A sweet bit of vintage love in this fast paced 21st century twirl. This girl is all for it!
Many of us, myself included, don’t wear a watch much anymore. Dependent upon our devices to tell time and remind us of obligations. It’s a bit sad really, when one thinks of the history behind these little pieces of necessary, practical jewelry. Everyone’s device is pretty much the same (bling’d out cases notwithstanding) – but ones’ watch could be very personal, dear and individual – something to last and not be discarded when the latest and greatest shiny new thing hit the markets.
If you have an interesting watch? Wear it! It could spark a lively conversation with someone and you just might be wearing a piece of history.
To our darling readers: Do you wear a watch? If yes, does it have an interesting back story? Do share!
The author would like to thank: Wikipedi.com, nytimes.com, luxos.com, wsj.com, ablogtowatch.com, ph.nawc.org and voticwatches.com
As well as those who post their images freely on the internet.