Monday 27 March 2017

The watch as an accessory in the Seventeenth Century

Most people don’t think of pocket watches as a seventeenth century accessory, but they have been around since c.1500. One early reference is to Peter Henlein (or Hele) of Nuremburg, in Johann Cochläus’s 1511 edition of Cosmographia. He states that Henlein “shapes many-wheeled clocks out of small bits of iron, which run and chime the hours without weights for forty hours, whether carried at the breast or in a bag.” There is an article on what is possibly the earliest such watch on the Quill & Pad website including photographs of both the 1505 watch and its component parts. 

Silver watch, c.1637
The earliest portrait of a man with a watch is attributed to Tommaso Manzuoli (1531–1571) and has been thought to be of Cosimo I de Medici, painted around 1560, though it is now listed simply as man holding a watch. The portrait is in the Science Museum. Watches could, even at this early date be combined with other similar items, the Ashmolean Museum has a gilt-brass cased watch with an alarm, sundials and a lunar volvelle in the form of a book, with a loop so that it could be hung from a chain or cord around the neck. It dates from around 1580 and was made in Munich. In the sixteenth century watches would have been owned only by the richest in society, but this changed as watches became more common in the seventeenth century.

An analysis of over 5,000 Stuart wills and inventories reveals 18 men with watches, seven of them pre 1650. Most of the owners describe themselves as gentlemen or esquires, though others are members of the professions. In 1640 the vicar of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol owned a watch, as did another Bristolian, Richard Brace, Practitioner in the Art of Physic, in 1642.  In the second half of the century ownership had expanded to include a yeoman, an apothecary, and a plumber. 

The cheapest of these watches was valued at £1 5s, the most expensive at £6. None of them would have been anything like as spectacular as the hexagonal verge watch set in a single large Colombian emerald, that was part of the Cheapside Hoard, and is now in the Museum of London. 

Few of the owners say anything beyond the simple comment that they own a watch, though three specify that the watch is silver. Thomas Chaitor esquire in 1615 leaves his son his, “watch which was Sir Henrie Lindlies.” Roger Widdrington esquire in 1641 has three watches “in his pocket.” He is a problematical person as his administrators discover; while his goods are worth over £1,000, his debts are over £6,000, and his widow has removed a trunk from Durham to Yorkshire “to avoid the Dainger of the Scotts, as she pretended” (I don’t think the administrators believed her). 

One surviving example, completely unaltered, of a puritan verge watch dating to 1625-50, is in the Dover Museum. We may even know its owner, as it was given to the museum by a descendent of Nicholas Eaton, who was mayor of Dover in 1617, 1631 and 1633, and who left a watch in his will. 

The watch photographed above is c.1637 and is in the Metropolitan Museum. It is inscribed on the movement John Ramsay à Londre. David Ramsay (died 1653) was the first master of the Clockmaker’s Company, but we don't know the relationship if any.  The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers was granted its charter in 1631, and its collection is on permanent display at the Science Museum, London.

A considerably less preserved watch is that found on the wreck of the Swan, a ship which sunk in 1653. Analysis of the watch, details, video  and photographs are on the National Museum of Scotland website, and show it was made by “Niccholas Higginson, Westminster”
NMS. Movement of a pocket watch made by I. Moncrief of London, c.1700

The early verge escapments were very inaccurate; they could gain hours per day. It was only with the addition of the balance spring in the 1650s that accuracy improved, down to about 10 minutes a day, so that by the 1680s they were beginning to put on a minute hand. In 1690 Thomas Nedham’s inventory specifies “a watch which goes by springs, £1 6s 8d.” 

For those interested in the technicalities of seventeenth century and earlier watches, the vergefusee website has a lot of information.  Another good source is the Ashmolean Museum’s Timepieces Collection.

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