Pocket Watches – A Brief History

Pocket Watches – A Brief History 2017-05-06T05:32:09+00:00

Keeping track of time changed drastically in the early 15 th century. That was when the mainspring was invented which allowed for the creation of portable timepieces. The pocket watch as we know it developed as a result of fashion. When Charles II of England first introduced waistcoats in 1675, watches soon were designed to fit in a pocket. Prior to this the portable watches of the day often fell victim to the elements. Being able to discreetly stash a watch into a pocket to keep it protected and attached to a tiny chain to a belt or other piece of clothing turned pocket watches into the ‘must have’ fashion accessory of the late 1600’s and early 1700’s.

It wasn’t until about 1610 when glass was used to protect the faces of the early portable timepieces that evolved into pocket watches. Their design also changed into the rounded shape we are familiar with today. Prior to the pocket watch design, these handheld watches were heavy on function rather than looks with sharp edges, and were prone to damage. Watch fobs showed up being named from the German word fuppe which translates to mean “a small watch.” Many fob designs, popular as women’s watches, came with a tiny flap that covered and protected the watch face. The fob design is still popular with nurse’s watches in particular adopting this style.

It turns out that the increase in railroading in the latter half of the 1800’s more or less shot the pocket watch trend into high gear. It was following a horrific train wreck in 1891 that led to the establishment of the General Railroad Timepiece Standards which was adopted in 1893. This document outlined the guidelines that were expected for train engineers to use when selecting a pocket watch to use as a railroad chronometer. Pocket watches are still in use today and are considered a piece of history as well as a precision timepiece. Some styles are highly collectible and as a result, can be valuable.

There are four main types of pocket watches. They include:

Open-Face Pocket Watches

This style of pocket watch is also known as a Lepine. The case of an open-face pocket watch comes without a metal cover to protect the crystal. They typically have the pendant located at the 12 O’clock position with a sub-second dial at 6 O’clock. There are also watch movements with the winding stem at 3:00 and a sub-second dial at 6:00 that are meant for use in a hunting case with an open-face design. These are known by the term ‘sidewinder.’ These kinds of watch movements can be changed out with a conversion dial which moves the winding stem to 12:00 and sub-second dial to 3:00. It is interesting to note that watches approved for railroad service after 1908 were to be open-faced with a 12:00 winding stem.

Hunter-Case Pocket Watches

This kind of pocket watch features an interesting design meant to provide protection of the watch. A hunter-case is a pocket watch with a spring-hinged metal lid or cover that is the same shape as the watch. It closes over the crystal – many snap into place – providing the entire face of the watch with protection from damage that may result from dust or debris. It is meant to make reading time easy with one hand and was named in England. The common use at the time was by fox hunters who could see what time it was without letting go of the reins of their horse.

It is interesting to note that the French refer to the hunter-case pocket watch as a savonnette. The French word for soap is savon and the watch received this name simply because of how it resembled a round bar of soap when the cover is down. Early hunter-case pocket watches have the lid hinges located at 9:00 with the stem, crown and bow at 3:00. Contemporary styles have the lid hinged at 6:00 and stem, crown and bow at 12:00. The sub-second dial is always located at 6:00.

Demi or Half-Hunter Case Pocket Watches

This variation of the hunter-case is a style that features an outer lid that contains either a glass panel or a hole in the centre. What this does is allows for a quick glance at the partial watch hands visible through the centre viewing hole. The outer lid features the hours marked, often in blue coloured enamel so you can read the time without having to open the case.

Nurses Fob Watches

A nurses fob watch is a kind of pocket watch that does not always rest inside a pocket. The faces of these watches are considerably smaller than any other pocket watch, up to half or quarter the size of a traditional pocket watch. Nurses watches have a long history as a women’s watch style. They often have a strap-like attachment but only on one side and far too short to fit around anything bigger than a finger. At the end of the strap is a pin or clip of some kind allowing the fob watch to be attached to a piece of clothing such as a collar or pocket. Nurse’s fob watches in particular feature the strap attached at 6:00 so that the watch appears to hang upside down to someone standing in front of the wearer. This allows the wearer to hold the watch up for viewing to read the dial in the normal position to them. They have been popular gift ideas for nursing graduates in recent years however, for hygienic reasons, more and more medical facilities are requesting nursing staff wear fob watches instead of a wrist watch.

Time For A Change?

If you are a wrist watch wearer, it is nice to know you have other options available to you with pocket watches and fob watches. What makes these choices even more interesting is the history behind them. Portable timepieces have been with us for much longer than most people realise, and they have changed how we keep track of time and continue to influence the styles of today’s best known watches.

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