Time Piece: Working Men and Watches

John Styles considers whether the fashion for wearing pocket-watches flourished among working men in the eighteenth century because it was stylish, because they needed to know the time accurately, or for some other reason.

The earliest dated watch known, from 1530In 1747, William Hutton, a twenty-four-year old journeyman framework knitter at Nottingham, bought a silver watch for 35 shillings. 'It had been the pride of my life, ever since pride commenced, to wear a watch', he later remembered in his autobiography. The watch turned out badly.

It went ill. I kept it four years, then gave that and a guinea for another, which went as ill. I afterwards exchanged this for a brass one, which, going no better, I sold it for five shillings, and, to close the watch farce, gave the five shillings away and went without for thirty years.

Hutton’s reminiscences tell us three important things about watches and those who wore them in 18th-century England. First, although Hutton was only a humble framework knitter, he was able to acquire two expensive silver watches in the course of four years, and also to realize some of their value when he disposed of them. Second, wanting to own a watch was an expression of sartorial aspiration for young working men like Hutton, and owning one was in large part about display. Third, the watches Hutton bought were disappointments as timepieces, although it was many years before frustration at their functional shortcomings finally conquered his desire to own one.

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