Wristwatches are relative newcomers among timekeepers. Although no one knows precisely when or where they first appeared, it is likely that the modern wristwatch dates from around 1880. About that time, fashionable women in England and Europe began to wear small watches set in leather bands around their wrists, especially for outdoor activities like hunting, horseback riding and, later, bicycling. Men, for the most part, did not wear wristwatches then. They considered them feminine jewelry.
The Swiss pioneered wristwatch manufacturing, with American firms entering the business only in the second decade of the 20th century. This example – made by the Elgin National Watch Company of Elgin, Illinois, in 1917 just before America entered World War I – features a small mechanical movement with seven jewels. Over the dial is a metal grill to protect the crystal while still permitting a quick read of the time. Such grills acquired the nickname "shrapnel guard" during the war, when wristwatches increased in popularity with men.
The practicality of having time at a glance, the feature that attracted active women to the style in the first place, changed military men's minds about wristwatches. As soldiers entered World War I, they experimented with fastening pocket watches to their sleeves or their legs. As the war progressed, the wristwatch became ubiquitous among male soldiers of all branches of the armed forces and female nurses who cared for the wounded. European manufacturers reportedly worked overtime to convert existing women's watches into military timepieces to meet the demand.
This Elgin wristwatch looks much like today's. But when wristwatches first appeared, it wasn't at all clear what they should look like or how people should wear them. The location of the winding stem, or crown, was particularly puzzling. Some early wristwatches placed the crown in line with 3:00 on the dial, others at 9:00. Also unclear was how the watch dial should be oriented on the strap. Should 12:00 and 6:00 line up with the strap or at a right angle to it? By the 1910s, the position of the crown and the orientation on the strap, for the most part, conformed to the style we know today.
In addition to a variety of appearances, the earliest versions of the newfangled timekeeper had a variety of names. Early advertisements called it "wrist strap watch" or just "strap watch" for men and "watch bracelet," "bracelet watch," "wristlet watch" or simply "wristlet" for women. After World War I, watch manufacturers tried to negate the wristwatch's feminine image by advertising that reassured men of the wristwatch's sturdy masculinity. But even as late as 1943, wristwatches were still called "bracelet watches" or "wristlets," recalling feminine jewelry.
Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.