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Like the Apple Watches of today, early wearable tech had multiple functions, and keeping time wasn’t always the top priority.
Though many sources cite German clockmaker Peter Henlein’s “Nuremberg eggs” of the early 16th century, which were worn on a chain around the neck, as the first wearable timepieces, it’s believed that that the original examples actually appeared in Italy in the late 15th century. Despite the debated origin of the watch, there’s consensus that they often served more as decoration than as accurate timekeepers, and were worn around the neck, fastened to clothing, or embedded into jewelry. Made portable thanks to the invention of the mainspring, they needed to be regularly wound, and watches that kept count of minutes were extremely rare, with many instead tracking things like the month or phase of the moon.
In the 17th century, the introduction of waistcoats popularized the pocket as the new place to wear and display watches, changing the shape of timepieces into the pocket watches we think of today. Flattened so that they could more easily slip into clothing, watch faces began to be covered in glass in part to protect their fragile inner mechanisms from catching on fabric. Often elaborately decorated and made out of expensive materials, they were still as much a fashion accessory as a reflection of their owner’s access to the latest technology.
But besides their obvious function as a status symbol, “watches often became like a bank account,” says Alexis McCrossen, author of Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life, and a popular source on the topic of wearable time. “They were portable and made of precious metals. If you look at items that [were] pawned or sold up through 1900, pocket watches tend to be 30 percent of the inventory.” The perception of a watch as an investment or future heirloom remains popular today, though it’s arguable that the value of a modern watch is determined more by brand than how much it literally weighs in gold.
Because early watches had unreliable timekeeping mechanisms and there were “no established time standards until the 19th century,” McCrossen points out that for much of history, owning a watch was like “having a cellphone without a network.” In a society where circadian rhythms and clock towers offered a rough structure for people’s lives, watches worked best as a way to display and invest wealth.
And then the Industrial Revolution happened and suddenly “being on time” was really important. Train schedules were impossible to understand without standardized timetables, and the shift from agricultural to factory labor introduced the concept of time sense and clocking in.
As time became a commodity to be measured out and capitalized on, factories pushed workers to maximize their output and enforced time discipline with harsh and often disproportionate fines for anyone who arrived late. Time-oriented factories sought to squeeze maximum productivity out of every minute, and the more flexible and task-oriented style of pre-industrial labor was replaced with routine and mechanized monotony. Some factories even slowed down their clocks so that they could stretch the length of a work day.
In his writing, scholar David Landes observes that these strict systems of time discipline led many workers to view “the factory to be a kind of jail, with the clock as the lock,” echoing contemporary sentiments that the clock, and watch, had become tools of worker oppression. Amazon’s recent patent of a controversial employee wristband, designed to track movements and give haptic feedback to help improve efficiency, could be viewed as the descendent of these Industrial Revolution management systems that sought to maximize time efficiency and worker output.
The pressure to be time disciplined could be felt throughout society during the 1870s and 1880s, but according to McCrossen, the proportion of watch owners in the early years of the Industrial Revolution didn’t increase significantly. Clocks, clock towers, and professional wake-up callers remained cheaper solutions, and contemporary accounts show that in some cases, workers simply guessed at the time their shift started based on the sounds of the street.
Marking Modern Times argues that despite watches’ role as a status symbol, the secondhand market was large enough that poor and low-skilled workers also owned timepieces. What contributed to keeping watches outside of certain environments was something as simple as clothing — McCrossen writes that since pocket watches were designed for the “trouser- and- jacket-wearing classes,” manual laborers typically didn’t have a safe place in their uniforms to hold a timepiece. Rather than being a tool at work, the watch was worn as a public item of clothing, a deliberate symbol that communicated something about its wearer’s modernity and efficiency.
Ambitious people earned the nickname “stemwinder” because they were constantly winding their watches, and timeliness became viewed as a moral attribute. The watch showed that its owner was literally keeping up with the times and offered a sense of control and independence. Because watches remained expensive, this moral test was easier for certain groups in society, and in Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches stories the protagonist receiving a watch was a motif that was frequently used to reflect their social ascension.
In the 1880s, watch manufacturers recognized that their sales numbers were being held back by pricing and began to develop cheaper models. In 1892 the first dollar watch hit the wider American market for the equivalent of $27.78 in today’s money. The Ingersoll Watch Company sold over 1 million of the product it would later dub “the watch that made the dollar famous.”
Built to stand up to regular use, the inner mechanism of the dollar watch was made without a jewel and the parts were out made of stamped metal, drastically cutting down on production costs. Typically cheaper to replace than fix, it didn’t offer the full investment value of the timepieces that had come before it, but it still had the power to communicate ideas about its owner. The brand used patriotic imagery like flags and soldiers to market its “Yankee” watches, and publicized the story of how during a hunting trip in Africa, Theodore Roosevelt was referred to as “the man from the country where Ingersoll watches are made.” That timepieces were being used as a reference point for the US during an era of expanding globalization demonstrates their effectiveness, or at least perceived effectiveness, in communicating a specific type of desirable identity.
The modern perception of wristwatches as symbols of masculinity — reflected in recent coverage that brands are “finally” taking female buyers seriously — contradicts the early history of what was once perceived as an exclusively feminine object. The first wristwatch was made in 1868, and these “bracelets,” as they were called at the time, were primarily considered fashionable jewelry. Like nearly every example of female fashion, they faced criticism and snickers up until the 20th century, when they were eventually adopted by men.
In 1912 The New York Times declared the bracelet watch “the fashion of the hour” in Paris and “the most useful piece of jewelry that has been invented,” wondering if its practicality might help it become “universally fashionable” across genders. By this point, soldiers in the Boer War had already strapped watches to their arms to better coordinate tactical movements and attacks, but the military application of “trench watches” in the World Wars were what truly solidified the wristwatch’s macho cred. In Uri Friedman’s 2015 Atlantic article, McCrossen describes how World War I transformed the watch into an accessory for “the most modern of all heroes... the aviator.” In response, manufacturers began to design wristwatches with “the promise that [they] could make a man more soldierlike... [and] more masculine.” Though the focus in advertising shifted away from aesthetics and toward efficiency, watch marketing never abandoned the themes of symbolic power and modernity. Owning a watch was still about more than just telling time.
These values span the history of wearable tech. The mass popularity of calculator watches during the 1970s wasn’t just because people suddenly had to crunch numbers on the go, but because they served as a new vehicle for communicating ideas about efficiency, status, and modernity that we have always sought to express with our wardrobes and accessories. By the mid 1980s, Casio’s Databank calculator watch could also store appointments, names, addresses, and phone numbers — all the things that a busy and productive person might need. The PDAs that followed the calculator watch and the workaholic-friendly reputation of Blackberries during the mid-aughts all played on the ideas of efficiency and ambition that made pocket watches popular with “stemwinders” over a century earlier.
Today’s smart watches continue to play on these ideas, speaking to the person who constantly needs to be plugged in. By moving notifications to the wrist, where you can easily monitor them without having to spend time on your phone, the idea is that users can more efficiently spend time managing their tasks and receive and react to important updates in the moment. While smart-watch wearers can’t be described by a single demographic, the price point of these devices (and the fact that people who own them already need to have a smartphone) makes them a luxury product linked to perceived efficiency.
Throughout history, watches have played various roles in people’s outward expression of how modern, manly, womanly, rich, or industrious they are. They have been financial investments, tools of war, and a reflection of the ways that clothing can shape technology and our lives. The dichotomy watches have had as luxury objects and utilitarian tools reflects the dual purpose of clothing itself — something that has practical usefulness and also a unique ability to communicate something deeper about ourselves. What makes the wearable technology and smart watches of today different is that they’re competing with our smartphones. McCrossen doesn’t think that’s a fight that they can win, standing behind her 2013 statement that “anything attached to the wrist is more likely to fail than thrive.” “If anything, the wristwatch is a blip,” in history, she muses, less useful than a smartphone and more vulnerable to damage. And while the design and materials of a luxury wristwatch can communicate specific ideas about its owner and their taste, standardized-looking smart watches just don’t offer that same kind of symbolic power.
Despite her own adoring description of her favorite wristwatch, McCrossen thinks that the smartphone will continue to overshadow other forms of wearable tech, making use of the innovation that first made technology truly wearable: pockets.