How World War I Sold Us On Wristwatches

For a century after their invention, wristwatches were a novelty. What changed?


It’s hard to imagine an alternate reality where the wristwatch wasn’t a success. In terms of fashion, people had worn bracelets for millennia beforehand. In terms of function, of course someone would want to glance at their wrist to see the time.


But over at Boing Boing, Linda Rodriguez takes us deeper into the history of the wrist-worn timepiece. As it turns out, wristwatches may date back as far as 1571, gaining a limited traction as female jewelry. But they didn’t develop widespread popularity until World War I. Trench warfare, in particular, necessitated that soldiers wore the wristwatches–then considered effeminate–to free their hands to carry more gear on the battlefield. And with the soldiers wearing them while fighting, a rare opportunity for watchmakers to introduce a new product to market presented itself. From the story:

We don’t often think of war as an opportunity to sell–it seems vaguely unsavory, however common it is–but manufacturers during the First World War certainly did. [Military historian Peter Doyle] explained that retailers would often slap the word “trench” on items from coats to cookers, believing rightly that the association with the war would help sell. Sometimes manufacturers would label these new wristwatches”trench watches”.

“Everything from 1914 onwards becomes ‘trench this,’ ‘trench that’… it’s kind of a marketing ploy,” said Doyle. Often, these items were marketed towards the families of men serving at the front and implied that whatever it was, it could somehow protect or comfort them. “You get all the wristwatch manufacturers–‘Just the thing for the man in the trenches.'” That context–the families on the home front just looking for something, even a sham talisman, that could make their boys safe–makes the symbolism that wristwatches also began to take on all the more poignant.

As Apple sits on the precipice of releasing its new watch, the historical context seems particularly salient. One might be inclined to draw parallels between the smartwatch and the wristwatch–especially if you view the smartphone as the now antiquated pocketwatch–and wonder if the smartphone’s days are numbered if the marketing machine behind the Apple Watch succeeds. But there’s one little unmentioned bit of Rodriguez’s story: One reason that wristwatches were considered effeminate is that they really weren’t very durable for hundreds of years. Women wore them as jewelry because they weren’t practical enough for the rougher, labored lives men at the time lived.

In other words, the hardware wasn’t ready for mass consumption. It took war to force manufacturers to develop a practical, reliable watch. And I don’t think Apple, or anyone in the smartwatch category, has honed their technology to that practical of a level yet.

You can read the whole history over at Boing Boing.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach