Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A whole new meaning to "Watch on the Rhine"

Cody McCullough
     All things considered, the Internet is the best way to publish the written word. You have all the space you need. The work goes everywhere instantly. You can fix mistakes immediately. 
     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.


  1. Funny how our memories work. Or don't work at times. I just learned that Bluetooth technology was named for King Harald I (Bluetooth) of Denmark and probably won't be able to forget it (or keep myself from mentioning it to others) for many a moon.


    1. FYI- If you have ancestors that joined the Canadian Army during The Great War, their entire service records might be available online. My father's uncle volunteered in 1916 and served in France ,was wounded twice, buried alive and gassed. Hand written documents for it all, digitized. just occurs to me, perhaps WWII service records might also be archived.

  2. Not to date myself, but a recent Reader's Digest article (oops, I did it!) listed a number of items with WWI origins.


  3. As that old windbag put it, "brevity is the soul wit." And often to cut is to improve. But then prolixity can also have its virtues. Glad to know the history of the wrist watch.


  4. Pocket watches, attached to a chain, had a brief comeback in the early Seventies, during the nostalgia craze of that period. I knew quite a few guys, mostly older hippies, who ditched their wristwatches for shiny old timepieces. They would make a big show out of removing their watch from a pocket, snapping open the cover, and announcing the correct time. Then they'd snap the cover shut, just like the Zippo lighter owners do.

    Some guys went looking for them, while others were lucky enough to obtain them from family members. A friend of mine inherited one from a uncle who was a train conductor. These so-called "railroad watches" were highly prized, for their appearance and their accuracy. Many of them were made in Ohio. I never desired a pocket watch. I didn't want to drop it and break it, or lose it to a mugger or in a stick-up.

  5. I know I've had a few pair of pants in the last 60 years or so that had watch pockets. Always seemed a little weird.

  6. According to a short story by Katherine Anne Porter set during WWI, some American men at that time considered wristwatches effeminate. That story, whose title I can't remember, says that was a standard joke in vaudeville acts to have one wimpy guy simper to another, "I'll slap you one on the wristwatch." That seems incongruous with the military origin of the wristwatch as described here.

    1. "Pale Horse, Pale Rider." They're remembering from when they were young; wristwatches were a ladies' fashion before men adapted them. And the military is a longstanding butt of effeminacy jokes: witness Monty Python.


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