A TIME OF CHANGE
Recently I found an unusual old watch in a family jewel box. I can only assume it belonged to my husband’s grandfather, Wallace Conolly. The band has vanished, but otherwise it is in reasonable condition.
It has a hinged, deep case reminiscent of a pocket watch. The gold plated case was made by the British Dennison Company, but the watch itself was by the American maker, Waltham.
The serial number on the movement itself confirms that it was manufactured in 1914. This date is significant. Watches that could be worn on the wrist had been around for centuries (Lord Robert Dudley presented an ‘arm watch’ to Elizabeth I in 1571), but it was the outbreak of World War I that popularized them. For this reason they were often dubbed Trench Watches.
In January 1916 Hobart’s Daily Post published the following snippet of WWI humour;
BORN WITH WRIST WATCHES
Private Ted Stanford, formerly a well-known country jockey, now in hospital in England recovering from an illness contracted at Gallipoli writes to a friend at Forbes:- ‘In this hospital there are many English Tommies as well as Australians. One of the Tommies got a bit curious about our fellows one night and he asked the nurse how it was that all Australians had wrist watches. ‘They had them on when they were born.’ replied the nurse.
However, for soldiers in the ghastly trenches of France, time began to lose all meaning. By 1918 one fellow wrote home suggesting that knitted socks to protect men’s feet in freezing mud would be of far more use than wrist watches.
Meanwhile, a newspaper in Germany had declared the watches a life-threatening hazard on the battlefield. Early in 1915 a Dr Melchior reported that he had treated men with horrific wounds, caused when shrapnel struck a watch. The resulting wound was far more extensive, he claimed, because the watch often shattered, leaving pieces embedded in the soldier’s wrist and arm. He considered the risk even greater because the wrist watch was usually worn on the left arm, which was more often hit by shrapnel than the right.
Nevertheless, by the time of the Armistice almost every serviceman, allied or enemy, wore a wrist watch. Civilians, both male and female, became just as enthusiastic. It was even possible to send a pocket watch away to have a band attached.
Among the general public there was another, rather negative view of the new fashion. It concerned a perceived lack of manliness in the wearer. I was amused to read the following extract from a piece syndicated in many Australian newspapers in 1917;
There has been an impression in the minds of some persons that the wearing of a wrist watch by a man is a sign of effeminacy. As a fact, however, a great many of our most busily active male humans find the wrist watch an article of great convenience. Military men in the active pursuit of strenuous duties have found it of invaluable aid. The writer went on the say that they were worn by policemen, nightwatchmen, locomotive engineers etc., concluding; ‘Why anybody on earth or off it should be compelled to unbutton a greatcoat or a raincoat and go feeling around in the depths of a waistcoat pocket, like a small boy diving into a grab bag at a church fair, in order to drag his timepiece into the clear light of day, or subject his masculinity to everlasting reproach is utterly beyond me.’ And that, dear readers, is why we no longer wear pocket watches.
Mind you, there were on-going problems with the care and maintenance of early wrist watches, although I suspect the writer of a 1917 piece had his tongue at least partly in his cheek. He wrote that men subjected their watches to very rough treatment, ‘Golfers expect their watches to endure lusty drives and infuriated bunker smites……women tap all day on their typewriters and expect their wrist-watches to keep time.’ He added that watches needed warmth to run smoothly; certainly they were in the open air all day, but they had the warmth of the wearer’s body. However, instead of tucking them under their pillows at night as they had done with their prized pocket watches, owners simply left them on the dressing table, where they contracted ‘dressing table colic’, keeping jewellers busy with repairs.
FOOTNOTE – Inspired by the success of wrist watches, some bright spark invented a wrist blotter, to be worn on the right arm. The aim was to avoid having to repeatedly lay down a pen in order to blot wet ink.. Unfortunately the invention failed to ignite the passion of the public.
Speaking of time, here is another story about WWI and Sydney’s MR ETERNITY
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