It was a busy day on site today! We had a visit from Rory MacKay, a historian and archaeologist who is working on an upcoming book about the history of Algonquin Park. We also had a visit from Dr Michael Eamon, who brought some visiting academics from a university in Queensland, Australia to see our research project in action. Thanks for coming by, it was lovely to have visitors!
It’s hard to believe we have only been in the field for a couple of weeks. All of a sudden, it looks like a proper site. We didn’t even know if there was a south wall when we started because of all the material on top of it, and now it has been beautifully excavated, primarily by Don, Jacob and Brianne.
Today’s Artifact of the Day comes from Nic and Emily’s excavation area. It’s a pocket watch chain!
A lot of archaeology is consumed with telling time. Most often it relates to determining how old something is, or the order in which things happened. Today, our artifact of the day really has something to do with time!
I think most students in my classes now use their phones as a way of telling time, instead of a watch. Pocket watches were the first wearable tech! Up until the start of the 20th century, the pocket watch was the main way people kept track of time.
1943 marks the end of the use of the pocket watch in a professional environment. In that year, the British navy issued Waltham pocket watches with black dials and radium-coated numbers for visibility in the dark, in anticipation of the D-Day invasion. The Canadian navy also ordered the same for their sailors.
Pocket watches always make me think of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.
An essential furnishing relating to the pocket watch was the strap or chain attached to it that allowed it to be anchored to clothing, usually a waistcoat, lapel or belt loop. This prevented the watch from being easily stolen or dropped.
The latter part of the nineteenth century saw the first attempts of standardizing time, not only for creation of time zones but also because of ever increasing need of precise time measurements in many scientific experiments and public transportation systems. For example the Great Kipton Train Wreck of 1891 happened because of train engineer watches were 4 minutes out of sync.
A popular style was the Albert chain, supposedly named after a style of chain worn by Prince Albert (1819-1861), consort to Queen Victoria.
The Albert chain often has a small pendant called a fob or drop (similar to a charm bracelet) that could be exotic coins, medals, or symbols or coats of arms of fraternal organizations.
The double Albert has two symmetrical lengths of chain draped between each vest pocket, one attached to a watch, the other to a small item like a match case or pocket knife. Also suspended from the T-bar in the middle is a fob or drop with a medal or token.
So why did such a ubiquitous and useful object fall into decline? The big drawback to pocket watches are they are impractical to consult when one is on the go. Like distracted driving today, fumbling around in a pocket while riding a horse or driving a car or bicycle could cause disaster.
So intrepid sporting folk of the nineteenth century began to fashion wristlets, which were essentially leather straps that secured a pocket watch around the wearer’s wrist. Parallel to this was the development of beautiful, delicate watch faces and formal watches, worn by women as jewellery.
Wristlets meant that time became accessible through a quick glance instead of an ostentatious perfomance of drawing a watch out of a pocket. But they didn’t catch on at first, mainly because they were too closely linked to women’s fashions and were thought to be silly and effeminate.
This changed during World War I. Officers in the field quickly appreciated the advantages of easily accessible time, which was instrumental in implementing new forms of attack such as an opening barrage of gunfire to shock and stun the enemy, followed immediately by a coordinated onrush of soldiers. Wristlets became trench watches, which had large, round faces, heavy black numbers on brilliant white porcelain faces, and radium coated numbers that glowed in the dark.
Suddenly, wristlets were seen as manly. By the 1930s, they were known as wristwatches, instead of wristlets. By 1935, 85 percent of the watches made in the United States were wristwatches, compared to only 15 percent in 1920.
Glanceability (ability to quickly see time without obviously turning to look at a clock) and visibility (luxury brands) meant wristwatches became really important signals of efficiency and status by the 1950s.
Nowadays, however, the access to time is everywhere. We have clocks on our phones, microwaves, coffeemakers, computer monitors. Most people can get along just fine without wearing a watch to tell time!