pocket watch open 2 feature image

Rewinding Time, by Keith Heckler

Blog Entry One     //    Blog Entry Two     //     Blog Entry Three
To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

Blog Entry One, March 10th 2016
Unveiling the Story of a Pocket Watch

Why a pocket watch?

Winthrop E. Stone’s pocket watch is much like any object that you could find in a pawn shop: old, non-operational, worn down, mundane. It is for this exact reason that my interest was piqued when I found such an object stored in the Purdue Archives. What reason would any person have for saving and preserving something with so little intrinsic value and that was probably as common as the paper it was stored in? After fiddling with the watch for a few minutes and trying to figure out the hidden significance that lies behind it I think I’ve found a few answers to this question.

Making a statement

My first explanation was that it was used as a sort of fashion statement. Much like today, it is often the accessories we wear that really pulls an outfit together and adds that certain “wow factor.” It’s quite possible that owning and carrying a pocket watch was what was in style during the early 1900’s. However, I don’t know this to be fact and so I’ll need to find more evidence that it was common to carry a pocket watch. If I find multiple pictures of other men wearing similar pocket watches during this time period, then it’s safe to assume that Winthrop E. Stone saved his because it served as reminder of what his past was like. I’d compare this to looking back at old year books today and having a good laugh at the hair styles from not too long ago that were considered “hip”, “cool”, or “totally far out.” Sometimes it’s fun to remember the past and see events from a different perspective.

For what it’s worth

pocket watch closed

Pocket Watch. Found in Winthrop E. Stone collection.

But what if I don’t find evidence that supports the idea that pocket watches were the style in the early 1900’s? What if he stored the watch for some reason other than to remember the silly fads of the past? Well as I mentioned, the watch itself is not something that you would have expected to be worth very much at the time or at the very least a similar watch wouldn’t be worth much today. It’s crafted out of what I suspect to be steel or some similar metal with perhaps a silver finish.

The inside is just as unimpressive, displaying nothing but a plain white face and three frail arrows that act as the dials. So once again I asked myself once again, why would something so bland be saved? I thought about his time here at Purdue and his job and this led me to another possible conclusion: it’s a symbol of status. When I see a pocket watch I always think of someone that’s super classy and probably has some relatively significant power just as President Winthrop E. Stone had. If it turns out to be true that not many people wore pocket watches, then it’s possible he wore the watch to show others that he was of a higher socioeconomic class than the professors and students around him. The watch would then serve not as a reminder of the good old days of fashionable trinkets, but as a testimony to his time spent as one of the most influential men at a well-established university.

It’s about time

The last reason for preserving the pocket watch that I could think of is one that is relatively abstract and holds a much more profound significance: time. By time I mean specifically the tracking of time and what power time has on all of our lives. Today we have ways of working during all hours of the day and so time is less precious to us than it was back then. We can also communicate faster and easier than people in the earl 1900’s could and so it’s less important that we be on time to events. If we’re running late today we can simply send a text

or make a phone call and while there might still be consequences, at least the other people still know what’s happening. Back then, if you were late to an event or meeting then everybody else was kept in the dark and had less information to use for decision making. Time had a different effect on people of the past than it does today.

What’s to come?

But maybe that’s not the reason either and maybe time doesn’t have that much of a different effect on our lives. Time could have the same significance back then as it does now, watches could have been used in fashion the same exact way they’re used today, and watches might not have given any sign of socioeconomic status. But this doesn’t mean we didn’t learn anything about the past. It means we learned that we’re much more like our ancestors than we ever could have imagined.

Blog Entry Two, April 28th 2016
Unveiling the Story of a Pocket Watch

Knowing What You Don’t Know

When I first started to research my object I was quick to realize something: I don’t know anything about pocket watches. I would be searching the Purdue Archives for ads with pocket watches, pictures of people with pocket watches, or really anything that showed that pocket watches were even on Purdue’s campus during the early 1900s. At times I found a few items that gave me what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to interpret it. All I knew is “Yup. That guy definitely has a pocket watch.” After a few days I decided I should probably start out by learning about the item itself before I tried to figure out what it says about society. I started to look up anything I could about pocket watches and came across a few really useful blogs by other people. While these sources may not be the most reliable for my later, deeper questions such as how pocket watches served as a status symbol, they are fine for more objective material like what pocket watches are made out and their parts.

What I’ve Learned

Thanks to Dapperfield, a commercial website dedicated to the elegance of menswear, I was able to educate myself on a few basic things about pocket watches. Firstly, there are three styles of pocket watches: open face, hunter, and demi-hunter. Each can be identified by the type of cover, or lack thereof, that they have. Open face pocket watches have no cover at all and so you can always read the dial. Hunter watches have a metal lid that covers the dial and so it must be opened before you can use the watch. The last style, demi-hunter, is a mix of the two other styles of pocket watches. A demi-hunter pocket watch has a metal cover that also has a glass panel in the middle so that even with the cover closed the dial can still be read. Regardless of the style, all pocket watches have a layer of glass covering the dial so it won’t be damaged. This layer of glass is called the crystal. Crystals for open face watches are usually thicker because they don’t have an addition cover protecting the dial, but the crystal is still only about 1mm to 1.5 mm.

Pocket watches also have parts called “jewels” that are usually made out of low-grade, natural ruby and sapphire. These jewels help the components of the actual watch mechanism to run smoothly and with as little error as possible by providing a smooth surface for the parts of the mechanism to run over. This creates less friction and so there is less resistance that would otherwise slow down the watch. Typical pocket watches have anywhere from seven to twenty-three jewels.

Using this information, I’ve identified Winthrop E. Stone’s pocket watch as a hunter style one because of its metal cover. It’s also missing the crystal that covers the dial. While it would be interesting to know how it was broken or lost, I don’t think it would be probable that a line of research would give me an answer. Another thing I can’t determine is the jewel count of his watch. The jewels are placed inside the back cover of the pocket watch and so I would have to disassemble the watch to count them. Because the watch is so old and is property of the Purdue Archives, I’m not able to disassemble it.

Socioeconomic Status

As I said in my last entry, I believe that pocket watches probably served as some type of symbol for socioeconomic status; my research supports that theory. During the early 1900s, if someone was seen carrying a silver pocket watch, then it was assumed that the person was or was going to be extremely successful and lead a promising life. Silver pocket watches were associated with “stability, reliability, and trustworthiness.”[1] This concept was so popular that it actually spread to other countries as well. In Japan, it was a popular tradition of newly founded state universities to award graduates with a silver pocket watch.[2] This in turn led to the pocket watch, specifically silver ones, to be associated with the idea of success and of the elite. Soon the idea of silver pocket watches being a symbol of status carried over to all pocket watches. A pocket watch now represented “the possibility of following a successful course that, contrary to the hierarchal structured society, was open to everyone.”[3]

While pocket watches were in general looked upon as favorable, there were of course a few exceptions. The largest example was owning a gold pocket watch instead one made out of silver or another type of metal. According to historian Alexis McCrossen, any man who owned a gold pocket watch, for example, was looked down on for being ostentatious. While the silver watches represented the virtues of men, gold watches represented vices such as “the inability to marshal resources and spend wisely, excessive attention to outward appearance, and pretentions both dangerous and aggressive.”[4] In fact, McCrossen notes that Abraham Lincoln used this against his opponent in a debate prior to 1840 who was donning a gold pocket watch at the time.

Gender Roles

Gold pocket watches were only considered bad for men, however; women were expected to own gold pocket watches. Four out of five pocket watches owned by women were gold.[5] This is most likely because gold watches were associated with “lack of utility” and therefore were considered feminine. Gold watches were also taboo for men because they were given to women specifically since a woman’s time was considered a “symbolic, rather than real, resource.”[6]

Fashion and Time Consciousness

My research in fashion and time consciousness have not been as prominent as the others so far. This is mostly because I spent time I would have used researching these areas to research the more objective first area in this post. I’m including this section to let you know that I have not given up on these areas, but in fact have barely just started. I hope to have more to write about concerning fashion and time consciousness along with socioeconomic status and maybe even gender roles in my next entry.

Blog Entry Three, May 7th 2016
Unveiling the Story of a Pocket Watch

Why It Matters

So far I’ve written about what the pocket watch itself is, what I had hoped to find, and what I actually have found out about it. However, I’ve recently realized that I’ve been so caught up in the research that I forgot why I originally started this paper: I wanted to better understand Purdue’s history. Now that I’ve got an ample amount of research to finish the paper (the previous blogs were just a small portion), I can finally start to relate it to what was happening at Purdue in 1904.


The Purdue Archives are about to be my new best friend. Like I said, the past few weeks I’ve spent my time looking at secondary sources. Now that I have this information, I can use it to interpret what I find in the primary resources the Archives have to offer. For example, I recently found a picture of Charles Benedict Stuart, Purdue Board of Trustees member, wearing a pocket watch [7]; but it’s hard to tell he is. The only part of the watch you can see is the chain, and the only reason I know it’s a pocket watch chain is because it’s attached to his vest. According to Dapperfied, the men’s fashion website I referenced in my last entry, this was the most common way to wear them.


Many of you may be asking why this matters. For a majority, the Purdue side of this paper may not pertain to you unless you attend Purdue, are an alumni, a faculty member, or if you just happen to really like Purdue. For those of you that don’t fall into one of these categories, my paper still applies to you. What this paper is really about is how every day objects tell others who we are and what’s important to us whether they’re peers, strangers, or people of future generations. Maybe after reading it you’ll even learn a little bit about yourself.


[1] McCrossen, Alexis. “The ‘Very Delicate Construction’ of Pocket Watches and Time Consciousness in the Nineteenth-Century United States.” Winterthur Portfolio, Spring 2010, Vol. 44 Issue 1, pg. 21-22

[2] Shimada, Shingo. “History and Cultural Identity: The Case of Japan.” In Time and History: The Variety of Cultures, edited by Jörn Rüsen. Berghan Books, 2008, pg. 217

[3] Ibid.

[4] McCrossen, Alexis. “The ‘Very Delicate Construction’ of Pocket Watches and Time Consciousness in the Nineteenth-Century United States.” Winterthur Portfolio, Spring 2010, Vol. 44 Issue 1, pg. 21-22

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 1900 Debris, Volume 12, Pg. 24. Debris Year Books, Purdue University. Purdue University Archives, West Lafayette, IN.


To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

About the Authors

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