WWI and the Rise of Wristwatches

In this post about watches of the 1920's I mentioned that I had stumbled across some research that cast doubt on the traditional narrative concerning the causes of the adoption of the wristwatch as the standard timepiece for men.

Here it is.  Aaron Wilson wrote it for a class that he was taking at the University of Pennsylvania. Most of what we read, especially in the online watch media, is extremely thinly sourced. You find inaccuracies magnified through repetition. (For example: try to sort out the actual relationship between Longines and Wittnauer. It is not as simple as often portrayed.) This article is the opposite of what most watch media produces. (Of course, @celinesimon 's pieces are well researched, that is a given.)

Wilson's argument is that there was a glut in the high end pocket watch market so the two most important watch manufacturers in America, Elgin and Waltham, created the wristwatch market to improve sales. I don't know how this argument would translate in a worldwide context.  I have read that European demand for wristwatches outpaced American demand in the 1920's.  I have also read the opposite.  Only further research would reveal the answer.

What do you think? This has been on the internet since about 2014. Has a rebuttal been published?

·

Thanks for sharing this @Aurelian - I’m looking forward to reading it later today.

·

I’m going to need to read that later too, but for now I’m going to start a PSA campaign about this:

You find inaccuracies magnified through repetition.

It’s a scourge in all realms.

But even before getting going on that campaign, I am going to ponder the history and evolution of watch boxes, inspired by the slender box in that Greuen ad, which I am really enjoying. 

·

Interesting proposition and I bet the real story incorporates parts of both 

·

Interesting read. As I understand the text, the author used the ads as example of lack of demand for wristwatches. Couldn’t that just be another example of dinausours not able to pick up such a demand. They just pushing their message as usual the same way as before the Great War. Not picking up new ”demand” breaking down old conventions saying wristwatches were for women. I guess that a new trend/demand in the 20s took a bit longer to get through than present times.

·

This argument is so well made. I've "known" for years that returning soldiers made male wristwatches acceptable and I doubt that's actually the case after reading this article.

The one problem I picked up with it was his repeated point that wristwatches were seen as unmanly by the American Man in the Street backed up by Professor Joselit's statement that "unnecessary frill was especially abhorred". You almost get the impression that to wear a wristwatch in the 1920's was to take your life in your hands in this very conservative society. 

Why were 1,250,000 men's Swiss wristwatches imported into the USA in 1920? 

With a male adult population in the US of 35 million, most of whom weren't buying pocket watches because their own pocket watches were so well made, it seems like a significant part of the male population were buying wristwatches. It couldn't have been as taboo as the article made out.

·
morganthedruid

This argument is so well made. I've "known" for years that returning soldiers made male wristwatches acceptable and I doubt that's actually the case after reading this article.

The one problem I picked up with it was his repeated point that wristwatches were seen as unmanly by the American Man in the Street backed up by Professor Joselit's statement that "unnecessary frill was especially abhorred". You almost get the impression that to wear a wristwatch in the 1920's was to take your life in your hands in this very conservative society. 

Why were 1,250,000 men's Swiss wristwatches imported into the USA in 1920? 

With a male adult population in the US of 35 million, most of whom weren't buying pocket watches because their own pocket watches were so well made, it seems like a significant part of the male population were buying wristwatches. It couldn't have been as taboo as the article made out.

It may well be an example of the sort of "tipping point" phenomena that Malcolm Gladwell described.  The use of personal computers and cell phones started slowly and then gained incredible momentum over a short period of time.  There are many examples of smart commenters saying that no one will ever need a personal computer and then one day we woke up and everyone had one.

Edit:  I remember thinking that it was stupid to combine cameras with phones. Who would ever want that? (Hint: everybody.)

·

There's one watch that really stood out for me in the article's advertisements and that was the "Numerals on outside of case" model in this advertisement

Image

and after some quick googling I found a photo of this model with what looks like the original strap, what a great looking watch.

Image

I also found out it's pronounced ElJin and not ElGin like our famous marble thief. They made some beautiful watches in their heyday, this ladies model is out of this world.

Image
·
morganthedruid

There's one watch that really stood out for me in the article's advertisements and that was the "Numerals on outside of case" model in this advertisement

Image

and after some quick googling I found a photo of this model with what looks like the original strap, what a great looking watch.

Image

I also found out it's pronounced ElJin and not ElGin like our famous marble thief. They made some beautiful watches in their heyday, this ladies model is out of this world.

Image

How soon we forget.  Elgin had the largest watch manufacturing plant ever.  At one point they supplied half of the watches to what was the largest watch market at the time. They were founded specifically to compete with Waltham.  In fact, at their inception they lured seven of Waltham's best employees to begin production in 1864. Those men became the "Seven Stars". The Holy Trinity have not produced as many watches in their entire history as Elgin did in any one year in the 1950's. Hall of Fame basketball player Elgin Baylor was named after a watch.

·
Aurelian

How soon we forget.  Elgin had the largest watch manufacturing plant ever.  At one point they supplied half of the watches to what was the largest watch market at the time. They were founded specifically to compete with Waltham.  In fact, at their inception they lured seven of Waltham's best employees to begin production in 1864. Those men became the "Seven Stars". The Holy Trinity have not produced as many watches in their entire history as Elgin did in any one year in the 1950's. Hall of Fame basketball player Elgin Baylor was named after a watch.

You're right, it's all forgotten. The massive industrialisation of watch making just seemed to fail and the American watch industry became brand names to trade. I've got a Waltham that's more Swiss than American but it feels American, same as German owned Rolls Royce feels more British than German.

Image
·

It's clearly a well researched piece. I'm not sure that the incumbent claims about WW1 fueling adoption are inconsistent with what he observed though. The main point seems to be a 10 year delay between production numbers favoring watches and the end of WW1. I'm not sure I find this surprising, a lot of things were slower back then. The mindshift could have happened during WW1 but the metal shift was just a lot slower. 

·
Katimepieces

It's clearly a well researched piece. I'm not sure that the incumbent claims about WW1 fueling adoption are inconsistent with what he observed though. The main point seems to be a 10 year delay between production numbers favoring watches and the end of WW1. I'm not sure I find this surprising, a lot of things were slower back then. The mindshift could have happened during WW1 but the metal shift was just a lot slower. 

The question then becomes, what is the nature of advertising? Is the advertiser pushing a new product on us and making a new market? Or, is the advertiser a lagging indicator? Are they merely filling and catering to an existing need?

It is clear that there was a resistance to the adoption of the wristwatch and that resistance broke forever around 1930. The simple explanation was not so simple. (A note for new folks: @Katimepieces actually researches stuff.)

What I took away from the piece was a reminder that history rarely can be reduced to a simple monocausal premise. I don't know if the wristwatch was inevitable in 1910.  There is better evidence that is was by 1920. It took eight decades to move the watch from pocket to wrist. It took the phone much less time to move out of the pocket.

·
Aurelian

The question then becomes, what is the nature of advertising? Is the advertiser pushing a new product on us and making a new market? Or, is the advertiser a lagging indicator? Are they merely filling and catering to an existing need?

It is clear that there was a resistance to the adoption of the wristwatch and that resistance broke forever around 1930. The simple explanation was not so simple. (A note for new folks: @Katimepieces actually researches stuff.)

What I took away from the piece was a reminder that history rarely can be reduced to a simple monocausal premise. I don't know if the wristwatch was inevitable in 1910.  There is better evidence that is was by 1920. It took eight decades to move the watch from pocket to wrist. It took the phone much less time to move out of the pocket.

Yes I agree with what you've written. Advertisers likely wouldn't be permitted to promote watches on wrists if the manufacturing and watchmaking skills weren't in place yet. I don't know how long that would have taken but by point of comparison, it took Eisenhower 62 days to lead a military convoy coast to coast in the US in 1919. Everything was so slow!

·

By citing advertising and larger fashion trends Wilson quite successfully proves the first part of his argument that WWI was not the sole event that led to the widespread adoption. However, that's not where his argument stops is it? His argument goes further. You can see his argument more generally as: It was B (not A) that led to C. Understanding this, you can then begin to see certain flaws in his argument. 

Jumping to the end, Wilson seems to acknowledge some weakness in the totality of his argument. The entire first paragraph of his conclusion essentially acknowledges setting aside "all the forces" that led to the adoption of wristwatches in order to offer up a different cause. In arguing "that it was not the singular experience of World War I (A) that led to the adoption of the wristwatch (C), but the efforts of the major watchmakers (B) that aggressively created a new market in the wristwatch, taking advantage of innumerable forces, including changing gender norms in fashion," Wilson commits the same causal fallacy as the horologists he mentions made in the original argument for WWI. That is, there was but a (singular/one) cause that led to the effect when in reality it's more complex than that.

The effect of widespread wristwatch adoption was caused by a number of events of which the efforts of major watchmakers is only a part. Even if Waltham & Gruen created a concerted advertising campaign, would this campaign not have benefited from soldiers returning from WWI normalizing the practice of men wearing wristwatches years earlier? Or the change in men's fashion trends that were similarly cited? All those things could be true and could have been equal causes; thus the cause is complex.

Had Wilson argued: it was A and B (and...) that led to C then his argument would have been more sound. Nevertheless, I found his research thought-provoking and enjoyable to read.