On wearing two watches

By beatrice behlen on 31 Mar 2010

When I was twelve I met a girl who was wearing two watches on one of her wrists. She explained that she really loved one of the watches but as it didn’t work, she wore the second one to keep the time. Although this happened a very, very long time ago, and I only ever met this girl once (I never found out her name), and what she did wasn’t particularly eccentric, I think about it quite often.

Maybe because of this strangely memorable encounter, I have been fascinated by the custom of wearing two watches in the late 18th century. I have been pouring over our collection of more than 3000 (!!!) fashion plates for the last few months to decide what kind of accessories our Pleasure Garden figures should be wearing (they will be in on show in our new galleries). Have a look at the gentleman in this slightly risqué plate from 1778:

Eighteenth century gentlemen did not display the actual watches, but rather kept them in little pockets, or fobs, on the front of their breeches. (The word fob is apparently derived from the old German fobke or fuppe for pocket.)

What was on show was the ribbon, leather string, or sometimes chain, attached to the watch, often adorned with a watch key and seal or other trinkets that are very difficult to make out in paintings and fashion plates. We have a large number of watch keys and seals in the collection, unfortunately the actual strings have not survived.

Watch strings provided an opportunity for displaying one’s flair for little decorative flourishes but was also useful for pulling the watch out of the pocket, something that pickpockets were well aware of. On 8 December 1756 a certain Ann Dove, spinster, was indicted for stealing the silver watch of Robert Hunt ‘privately from his person’. The victim recalled that Miss Dove ‘laid hold of my watch string and pull’d it out of my fob directly’.

The double-watch fashion seems to have started in the late 1770s (the plate above is from a little later: 1781) and is mentioned by no other than Mozart in a letter to his father on 13 November 1777. Mozart had just received yet another watch, rather than the hard cash he would have preferred, as payment for some of his compositions. So he came up with a scheme: ‘I have now five watches and I am inclined to have a second fob made to all my inexpressibles; and when I go to a great personage I shall be careful to wear two watches (which, by the way, is the fashion at present); in which case, it is to be hoped, that he will not take it into his head to make me a present of a watch.’ (While Mozart has no qualms talking about his ‘Hosen’, or ‘breeches’, in the original letter, the 19th century translator obviously felt the need to replace the offending word with ‘inexpressibles’.)

It seems that this fashion only lasted about ten years. The European Magazine and London Review provides an account of the drawing room (or reception) celebrating the Queen’s birth held in December 1787 (the Queen’s 44th birthday was not until May the following year, but that’s another story). Although this was usually an occasion for proper dressing up, very few of the attending gentlemen wore two watches and it was reported that ‘This fashion is given up to the ladies.’

If you want to know how the ladies displayed their watches, and what a fake 18th century watch looks like, please come back soon.

5 thoughts on “On wearing two watches

  1. Grace Elliot says:

    Another awesome post. I suppose it must have been a huge status symbol displaying two watches at a time when they were such a luxury item. I wonder if some men ‘faked’ the second watch by just displaying the chain?

  2. Beatrice says:

    Hi Grace, thanks for your very nice comment! I am absolutely sure fakery of various kinds was going on but I haven’t found any references – yet …

  3. Jacob Winther says:

    Dear Beatrice

    Gathering background information and context for a 1780′ pocket watch I just added to my
    collection, I was fortunate to stumble onto your delightful posts.
    Your sense of storytelling and animation is clicking all my buttons as a collector.

    Thank you so much for the anecdote of Mozart’s plight. It is just great.


    Jacob Winther

    1. beatrice behlen says:

      Thank you very much for taking the time to leave a comment, and such a nice one! One of these days I will read Mozart’s entire letters, I am sure there will be more gems.

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