Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Wristlet-The Beginning of the Man's Wristwatch






This review is more of a history lesson than it is a true review. The reason for that is because the subject of this post is a watch band, not the watch itself.  I got the idea for this review while idly searching on the world wide tag sale for Russian Molnija pocket watches. I have something of a soft spot for a nice pocket watch on an Albert chain and the old Russian Molnijas are, in my experience, rugged, affordable and pretty good looking too. (As an aside, for those folks who believe that Russian watchmakers could make only crude, undecorated movements, have a gander at the 1949 Molnija in the pic above. To my eye, it doesn't get much nicer than that. Pretty good work for a country that had been devastated just a few years earlier in the war and had not yet even remotely recovered. And it still keeps perfect time by the way) Anyway, while clicking around on ebay and gawking at the wares, I came across a Polish watch band maker who was selling some very strange looking watch bands for Molnija pocket watches. At first, I thought I was looking at some sort of strange bund style strap (the kind with the leather pad under the watch) Upon closer examination though, I saw that the band was really a sort of wrist mounted case for a pocket watch. Intrigued, I ordered one up and began to do some research about the design.

Long ago, before the 1870s, a wrist watch was considered a ladies accessory only.  Women, or women of means more likely,  had been wearing wrist watches apparently as far back as the days of Queen Elizabeth I. For men though, the situation was very different.  The notion of a wrist watch for a man was considered effeminate and thus completely inappropriate. Men were supposed to carry a proper pocket watch on a chain. Pocket watches were considered more accurate than a ladies wrist watch (which was probably true in the past given the nature of watch making) and a pocket watch was much safer in a man's vest pocket where it would be less subject to being banged around (this was in the days before shock, water and dust protected movements after all).

Where things began to change when it came to a man's wrist watch was in the area of combat.  At one time, coordinating a cavalry charge meant getting all the horses and men into position and then sounding a horn or making some other sort of loud noise as the signal for the attack to begin.  As time keeping technology improved though, soldiers realized that it was possible to coordinate complex attacks by designating the exact time for the armies to engage.  This had the advantage of keeping the element of surprise for the attacker by eliminating the need for sounding a horn and thus tipping off the other side that trouble was coming.  There was one problem though. Fumbling around with a pocket watch on a chain while on horse back (you are holding the horse's reins, and a weapon after all) was not a great idea.  The solution was the leather contraption that you see in the pictures above, the wristlet.

The basic idea for the wristlet was certainly simple enough.  Stitch a tough leather pocket to a leather strap. Leave one end of the pocket open so a pocket watch could be squeezed in and put a slot on the other side for the band to fit through to hold the watch in place. This way, a mounted soldier (either a cavalryman or a dragoon) could see the time easily without having to stop his horse and pull out a pocket watch.  Another plus, from a soldier of that time's perspective, was that you could take your pocket watch out of the wristlet and return it to your chain and vest pocket where it properly belonged (and thus not be though of as effeminate, God forbid).  The first instance where this was used, to my knowledge, was during the Third Burma War of 1885.  (For more historical background on this whole subject, see The Evolution of the Wristwatch and A Brief History of the Wristwatch.

From the field of battle, the wristlet got its introduction to the civilian world in the 1890s when people discovered the joys of bicycling. Bicycles were a lot cheaper than horses for getting around and, as a novelty, were very popular at the time. However, like the mounted soldiers before them, a pocket watch was quickly found to be unwieldy when used while riding a bicycle.  A military style wristlet was perfect though. And so, through cyclists, a second exception to the notion of a man's wrist watch being effeminate was made.  However, also like the soldiers before them, a cyclist was expected to return one's pocket watch to its proper chain after a ride.  It was not until WWI, where millions of soldiers, sailors and airmen strapped on wrist watches, that the idea of a man's wrist watch for regular wear took hold.  As such, the half step solution of the wristlet was now unneeded as modern wrist watches were now built for men with fixed lugs for permanently attached bands.

I find this odd timekeeping accessory fascinating.  It is another little window into the past that history fans like me cannot resist. The wristlet also gives me another way to wear my Molnija pocket watches beyond using a fob or chain.  I wouldn't recommend using a wristlet as a daily wearer as it is certainly a little odd looking. And there is no getting around the reality that an errant knock while wearing this could put a pocket watch out of action pretty quickly.  Still, I'm glad I have a wristlet now. It is a nice addition to my collection with an interesting story behind it.

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