Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Wearing of Watches...in Pockets

Our modern society is used to strapping on a wrist watch every morning to keep track of time throughout the day. (Or maybe you just use your smartphone!) Wrist watches are everywhere, whether they're cheap little Mickey Mouse versions or jewel-encrusted fancy affairs.

But that's not how they wore watches in the Victorian era.

Watches were worn two ways in the 1800s: On the end of a chain with the watch in a pocket, or (later in the era) on a pin. The watches on a chain were called pocket watches.

For many years, watches were only affordable by the rich, costing a month's wages or more. Watches were made by hand and were therefore expensive. But in the 1850s, some companies started to make pocket watches on the assembly lines instead of by hand as formerly. Thus the price came down and the average American could buy one.

Ladies had hidden watch pockets sewn into their gowns. In many old photos, you can see the lady's chain, but the watch itself is hidden in its pocket.

Gentlemen generally had a pocket sewn into their vest. Once again, you could see the chain but the watch was carefully guarded in a pocket.

(By the way, isn't that a dapper looking Scottish dude? :D)

Watches were often some alloy of silver or gold (not usually the pure metal). Watch chains, on the other hand, were made of a variety of materials. Many were silver and gold, but some other interesting choices included gutta percha and woven hair.

Here's a picture of a man's watch chain made from horse hair.

Here is one made from gutta percha.

Men's chains were fairly short, needing only to reach from the vest button hole to the vest pocket. Ladies' chains, on the other hand, were much longer since they were usually worn around the neck.

In order to keep the chain from flopping around, ladies' chains usually had a slider on them. These sliders were often beautifully decorated with gems. Here are some pictures of the watch chains the ladies in our family own.

A close-up of the sliders.

If you go to Civil War reenactments, you may see "watch pockets" sold at the sutlers. What are these for? Well, old watches often had a peculiarity - they would stop running if laid flat on their back. Of course, if they're in your pocket, you don't have to worry about this. But what to do with your watch when you go to bed? Simple: A pocket hanging by the bed into which you can slip your watch.

Here's a picture of one of the watch pockets we made.

So what did pocket watches cost in the 1800s? After the advent of the assembly line, pocket watches ranged in price from a very basic economy model ($15) to much more expensive models in the $50s and $60s (at least a month's wages then).

What do they cost now? If you're looking for one of those 1800s watches, good luck trying to find a working model under for $200! Though you may find non-working models, or watch parts, for less.

Hey, if you've got the money, honey, I've got the time...


  1. wow! you have some great finds I LOVE YOUR BLOG ;)

  2. I have seen many CDV photos with ladies wearing shorter, heavier chains. After doing a lot of research, I think they were called "albertinas". I can't tell for sure as getting a close up of this detail has been very elusive. What do you think? Love your blog. Thanks.

  3. That's an interesting historical note, Deborah! Thanks for bringing it up. Now you've got me curious... so I'm going to post this in the "Civilian Closet" on Facebook and see what kind of research turns up on it!