There are of course drawbacks. Speed can be the enemy of accuracy. And all that room is an invitation to verbosity. Space is unlimited, but attention spans are not. Being forced to keep it short by the limits of physical space is a blessing. At least for now. I am always cutting my column to make it fit, and that is typically an improvement.
Although you do lose things. I had to cut back on Sister Zanin's personal history in my column on Mother Cabrini yesterday, for instance, losing the four languages she speaks, the hostility she had to overcome in this country and the scars it left.
Or in my column on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice (which ran on Saturday so I could get an extra 300 words) I limited my remarks about the war's effect on fashion to what I thought was most surprising: the trench coat, named for the trenches that officers wearing such coats spent time in.
I considered mentioning wristwatches as well. But no space. Which is the glory of this blog: there is always another day.
So let's have at it.
Prior to World War I, men generally carried pocket watches, strapless timepieces attached to a chain, typically tucked into their vest pockets.
Precise timing became of crucial military importance in World War I: the assault had to begin at a certain moment, over a front miles long. But it is difficult to fumble around in your vest pocket while holding a rifle. Or while sprawled on the ground. Increasingly soldiers took to wearing their watches on their wrists.
Not that wristwatches began with World War I; it was a practice noted during the Second Boer War, 1899 to 1901. Wristwatches had a distinct military flair—a 1902 Omega ad called them "an indispensable item of military equipment.” This became widespread during the First World War, particularly as soldiers began taking their fashion cues from flying aces. Pilots could not carry pocket watches, their vests were buried under thick leather and lambskin jackets. Though the most famed watch of World War I owed its inspiration to a different new development in military technology—the famed Cartier "Tank" watch, created in 1917 and based on the overhead view of a Renault tank.
Having written none of this, I stopped by American Legion Post 791 in Northbrook Sunday afternoon, to view their display of WWI memorabilia. There I ran into Cody McCullough, a World War One re-enactor from Manteno. We got to talking, and I mentioned the wristwatch/World War I connection, which prompted a legionnaire overhearing our conversation to scoop a small, dried-out leather item from a table top and bring it over for our inspection.
Of course. A watch was expensive, and infantry soldiers could not be expected to equip themselves with the latest fashion just because they went to war. Thus this band designed to hold your pocket watch. Such "wristlets" had been worn by British soldiers for 40 years. The sort of transitional stopgap than any student of shifting technology has to savor, like those little wheeled stands that people used to tuck under galvanized metal garbage cans before they realized they could construct them with attached wheels.
Pocket watches linger on as affectations and items of nostalgia. The U.S. Army did not stop including a watch pocket in its uniform trousers until 1961, a fact that I should not know off the top of my head. But I do.