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In 1916, The New York Times Finally Admitted The Wrist Watch Is Here To Stay

In 1916, The New York Times Finally Admitted The Wrist Watch Is Here To Stay Featured Articles Pocket Watch

Harrods early wrist watch comprising a pocket watch and additional leather strap. Source: vintage-watches-collection.com

Apparently, in the early 20th century, around 1910, the term “silly ass fad” was used – according to the New York Times – by comedians and pundits to refer to the then-so-called “strap watch,” which was all but a joke at the time in the view of some style experts. Many of them saw wrist watches as not being masculine or particularly serious items in comparison to pocket watches. By 1916, however, the tide had turned when it appeared that wrist watches were officially a thing that was not going to go away. As a relic of the time, this interesting and rare article published almost 100 years ago on January 16, 1916, by the New York Times remarks on the then apparently “changed status of the wrist watch” as it began to enter the mainstream. How did this happen? Well, it was really a combination of watch manufactures getting more serious about the durability of wrist watches as well as the fact that World War I soldiers were wearing them.

In 1916, The New York Times Finally Admitted The Wrist Watch Is Here To Stay Featured Articles Pocket Watch

World War 1 era vintage “strap watch” also showing a more feminine aesthetic.

In articles I’ve written over the years, there have been many instances where I commented on how early wrist watches were not universally loved and that they were seen as feminine. I have not, however, taken the time to really go in-depth and try to explain the psychology of why this was. Thank you to our Victor Marks on team aBlogtoWatch who located this article from the archives of The New York Times which addresses so many small points of why wrist watches were anything but en vogue. Even the article writer, in their journalistic neutrality, seems to submit to the fact (rather than celebrate) that wrist watches for men (and women) are here to stay.

In 1916, The New York Times Finally Admitted The Wrist Watch Is Here To Stay Featured Articles Pocket Watch

We take so much of wrist watch durability for granted today. Everything from their size to water resistance seems absolutely normal by our current standards, but of course, it wasn’t always this way. Early wrist watches were extremely delicate, and watch makers faced numerous problems in not only making them accurate but also in making them survive normal wear and tear. To make things even more difficult for early watch makers was that just as the trend was emerging, they were expected to survive the terrible conditions of World War I trench warfare.

In addition to things like mud, dust, and water entering the case to ruin the movement, one of the most basic issues was the fact that crystals would shatter. The article discusses these points rather well, and you can imagine the logistical issues faced in trying to have a timepiece strapped to your wrist that would not easily have its crystal shatter. This is before materials such as synthetic sapphire crystal, mineral glass, or plastics. How, then, could you have an exposed glass crystal ready to tell the time at any moment but also be resistant to shock and other types of damage?

In 1916, The New York Times Finally Admitted The Wrist Watch Is Here To Stay Featured Articles Pocket Watch

Extremely early Constant Girard (co-founder to Girard Perregaux as we know it today) wrist watch with a metal grid to protect the front crystal. Circa 1880.

The article seems to reference a new “unbreakable glass” technology that seemed to be emerging around 1916 which seemed to be a popular solution for at least sometime. I believe it was probably an early form of mineral crystal that is still used today. The author also mentions a number of techniques watchmakers attempted to use in order to protect watches such as a grill over the dial or an opening hunter-style case – each of which had their own drawbacks such as legibility or needing to use two hands to see the time. Also noted in the article was “celluloid glass” which is actually made from a natural plant material that was seen as a potential alternative to traditional glass. However, it seemed that celluloid glass had a tendency to “fall out” in cold weather. Celluloid also happened to be quite flammable, which wasn’t exactly an upside for military purposes.

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Apparently, the advent of radio technology for communication uses among the military was the catalyst for all soliders to be required to carry a timepiece around. “Strap watches” were preferred because they could be worn externally and referenced while the soldiers hands were occupied (carrying a gun). The article as well as other sources I’ve seen indicate that soldiers at the time seemed to overwhelmingly prefer wrist watches over anything else because they were literally the only option for being able to know the time when necessary. The war effort more or less made the pocket watch totally obsolete for all but the most conservative and formal of occasions.

World War I wasn’t even over when this article was written in 1916. It would not have been until 1918 when the war ended and soldiers returning home would bring back with them their watch-wearing habits to civilian life in order to truly cement the wrist watch as a preferred and permanent part of daily culture for so many people. What is also interesting is how The New York Times doesn’t even think to cover the topic until “much has been printed in European papers on the subject of strap watches.” As though New York City didn’t even want to acknowledge the importance of wrist watches until it faced the sheer fact that in Europe (where style and fashion still all came from at the time) was set to be on board for a future of wearing watches around one’s wrist as opposed to in one’s pocket.

In 1916, The New York Times Finally Admitted The Wrist Watch Is Here To Stay Featured Articles Pocket Watch

Rare image showing a British World War I soldier wearing a wrist watch, circa 1917. Source: Jake’s Rolex World

It would have been an exciting time to be in the watch industry back then because it was when real innovation was taking place. Today, the watch industry still uses the term “innovation” all the time, but for the most part, it has lost its meaning because, by definition, the luxury watch industry is all about keeping things the same. Innovation today is all about design, marketing, and product packaging, but back then in the early 20th century, it was all engineering and scientific. In 1916, the wrist watch was still an extremely primitive item. Recall that it took a full 10 years after that for Rolex to release its first Oyster watch in 1926. It might seem basic by today’s standards, but having a water resistant case which also kept out dust and was reasonably shock-resistant was a big deal. In 1916, most wrist watches were still incredibly fragile.

Despite the relative brevity of 1916 New York Times articles, there are loads of era-relevant information. The struggle for people to find proper wrist watches had wearers as well as watchmakers coming up with interesting solutions. Note that in one part of the article, it is suggested that soldiers started to wear women’s watches on their wrist since they fit better on straps versus the larger pocket watches that were otherwise being converted. Apparently, it was the watch manufacturers who turned to women’s wrist watch conversions for men during the war time given the demand for timepieces.

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  • iamcalledryan

    A nice bit of historical trivia. I like the idea of soldiers returning from war sporting wristwatches and turning down pocket watches when those back at home were turning their noses up at the effeminate gaudiness of a strap-watch!

    But it is just a fad, a 100 year fad – we all look so silly with our strap watches…

  • SuperStrapper

    I’m going to go out on a limb and just say that wrist watches are cool.

    • No, its a silly ass fad. But an enduring one…

      • Boogur T. Wang

        (anecdote)
        RE: “silly ass fad”,
        That was my Fathers comment circa 1965 regarding hippies in Bel Bottomed trousers.
        When I mentioned his 26+ years in the U.S.Navy, where bell bottoms were the utility uniform of the day; he scratched his head a bit and offered “Yes, but not with those damn flowers sewn on!”

        Auld Scots argumentum.

        • spiceballs

          love it all!!! 🙂

  • Nathan

    Great article! Fun to see the change in perception. Interesting to think that maybe companies such as Apple, Pebble, Sony and even Tag Heuer might be seen as the innovators that brought Smart Watches into the mix. These are some of the only brands looking to evolve what the modern watch can be.

  • TrevorXM

    So next year is the “official” 100 year anniversary of the wrist watch.

    That is if the New York Times actually mattered any more. That’s if the New York Times wasn’t bought and paid for by special interests a few decades ago. That’s if the New York Times hadn’t been degraded from a bastion of Liberal intelligence to left-fascist propaganda over the past twenty years or so. That’s a lot of “That’s if’s”

    Nah, the 100 year anniversary of the wrist watch was a long time ago.

  • Willy Chu

    I like the analog Ariel puts forth. From the room sized clock tower like Big Ben to the the watch that fits in a pocket to finally one on the wrist, we have the analogous room sized ENIAC computer to the pocketable smartphone computer and now the smartwatch on the wrist

    From pocket watch to wristwatch took almost 250 years,

    “1675 was the year when new fashion style emerged – pocket clocks that were small enough to be wore in pocket and not like a pendant. The originator of this fashion style was Charles II of England who popularized this new way of carrying watches across entire Europe and North America. By then, Glass protection was introduced, and pocket watches truly became the luxurious items that received many attention from fashion designers and innovators. The only downside of the watches that were made before 1750s was their lack of accuracy – they often loose several hours during one day!” (www.historyofwatch.com)

    From iPhone to Apple Watch, only 8 years. It would be hard to predict what another 10 years will bring, much less a hundred.

    • Implants

      • resonator resonator

        C’mon Mark… You’re ruining my image of having a Date-O-Graph printed on demand! I was really looking forward to a multi-material, 3D sintering printer to accomplish that. Guess I’ll settle for a sub-dermal.

        • OK, so after getting the sub-dermal watch/timing implant it looks like you want the optional adapter which fits within the lens of your eye so that when you look at your wrist you “see” a Date-O-Graph. No need for physically printing anything. The only problem is that people without implants (those poor luddites) will just see you staring at your naked wrist, ha ha.

          • resonator resonator

            You know, at first I thought I’d be okay with that. Now I know better. You wear a Date-O-Graph, and there’s times you WANT certain people to see you wearing it. In all seriousness, how close do you think someone is to printing a fully functional minute repeater in a wristwatch sized package that can keep COSC or better? I ask because in my quest for prototyping my plates and bridges and several other small parts like the winding works, I came across a company that has a very very hi-resolution, multiple material 3D machine, that I believe is capable of producing such a device, including springs (both), & bearings. I’m working on adding the last of the sacrificial “support” structures in Solidworks now, and could have something as soon as next week if I crunch it this weekend. I’ve seen tourbillon in 1:5 scale, and I’ve seen a few companies print plates and bridges. I’ve just not heard of anyone getting a full, working movement from a printer yet. any ideas?

          • Sadly the resolution and surface quality of 3D printed items leave a lot to be desired as of now. But those should get better in the years to come.

  • wallydog2

    The “cultural” shift from pocket watches to wrist watches is not unlike the advent of quartz in the 1970s and, more so, the current shift to “smart watches”. I think I’ll get an hour glass and be done with it. This dinosaur doesn’t cope with change. (This Canadian dinosaur has never adapted to the metric system, a Commie plot “against our preciously body fluids” [Gen. Jack Ripper/ Dr. Strangelove?] )

    • iamcalledryan

      There is nothing wrong with sporting a wrist-mounted hourglass, save for the rate fluctuations in horizontal positions 😉

      • wallydog2

        “…the rate fluctuations in horizontal positions.” – the would be “happy hour”.

      • egznyc

        I’m picturing putting on Ravel’s Bolero, lighting a few candles, and testing some horizontal positions with my love … And I don’t mean my hourglass, although she once had an hourglass figure.

    • Omega gave away hour glasses as swag at BaselWorld 2015. Mine takes about 38 seconds to empty. Being glass, I don’t think I want to strap it on my wrist. Plus is is nearly as large an an Arnold Schwarzenegger watch (OK, actually smaller but maybe lighter).

      • egznyc

        Well you’d think they could’ve done a better job of regulating your hourglass. An even 60 seconds would’ve done fine.

  • Concerned1

    Smart watches are going to devastate the lower end watch market, and to a lesser extent the luxury market. It all depends on how quickly the battery issue will be resolved.

    In years to come there will be two types of people. Those who wear a smart watch, and those who wear both a smart watch and a luxury watch.

    • Third category – people with cell phones and nothing on their wrist. Sure they will be branded luddites in the future, but…

      • spiceballs

        Sorry but really looking ahead I rather think that it’ll be more like google (or somebody else’s?) (eye) glass (or contact lens?) powered by body electricity containing everything (time included, of course) controlled by blinks?

  • Boogur T. Wang

    Excellent article.
    The Lisieux “Officers” Watch, circa 1915, pictured displays lines that are to be found widely in todays offering. Railroad track, small seconds, plain bezel, bull-head crown. And, interestingly, it appears that it may be made for a “left-handed” person to wear on their right wrist (note the cant). This indicates there may also be “right-hander” version, which would indicate such specialization was used 100 years ago in the horological world!

    • Coert Welman

      Good comment. Just one correction: The one in the picture is for left-arm wearing.

  • Lurch

    Thanks for the amazing photos. Definitely watches I have never seen before. I like the Lisieaux. Would like to have a closer view of the watch the soldier was wearing.

  • ZBT71

    It certainly is nice to know that the NYT is as up-to-date today as it was in 1915!

  • Carlos Behrends

    Hi! I have the feeling that an article on this subject not mentioning the influence of the friendship between Cartier and Santos Dumont is not complete. This story is of around 1905.

  • Raymond Wilkie

    A watch for your wrist ?, how frightfully vulgar

  • spiceballs

    Enjoyed this article Ariel, almost as much as the recent discussion on the GS diver – – . Technology moves faster and faster, and its getting harder & harder to keep up. No doubt somebody said(wrote) the same in 1916?