A Brief History of the Wristwatch
On July 9, 1916, The New York Times puzzled over a fashion trend: Europeans were starting to wear bracelets with clocks on them. Time had migrated to the human wrist, and the development required some explaining.
“Until recently,” the paper observed, “the bracelet watch has been looked upon by Americans as more or less of a joke. Vaudeville artists and moving-picture actors have utilized it as a funmaker, as a ‘silly ass’ fad.”
But the wristwatch was a “silly-ass fad” no more. “The telephone and signal service, which play important parts in modern warfare, have made the wearing of watches by soldiers obligatory,” the Times observed, two years into World War I. “The only practical way in which they can wear them is on the wrist, where the time can be ascertained readily, an impossibility with the old style pocket watch.” Improvements in communications technologies had enabled militaries to more precisely coordinate their maneuvers, and coordination required soldiers to discern the time at a glance. Rifling through your pocket for a watch was not advisable in the chaos of the trenches.
European soldiers were outfitting the device with unbreakable glass to survive the trenches and radium to illuminate the display at night. And civilians, seeing the wristwatch’s practical benefits over the pocket watch, were parroting the behavior.
The wristwatch nevertheless remained largely a woman’s accoutrement, though one whose universal utility presaged broader popularity. “The wrist watch ... is now the fashion of the hour,” The New York Times breathlessly reported from Paris in 1912. “It is worn over here by women who have to work as well as those who play.” Not only that, but “it is the most useful piece of jewelry that has been invented for many decades. … The watch hidden away in the belt, or turned face downward on the bust, or swinging loose from a chatelaine pin, was an ornament but not always a help. As it was usually under one’s furs or topcoat in Winter, it was better to guess the time than to try to prove it.”