Friday, July 24, 2009

Timepieces as Images of Civilization

"Oh Great Sheik of the Desert. I love that Cartier Tank watch you are wearing. Did you buy it in Paris, or do you have their mail order catalogue?"

My grandfather, Joseph Roy Chapman, was a successful advertising man in Birmingham, Alabama, and like most men of his generation, he carried a pocket watch. My father, whose memory for recent events has vanished, but whose memories of the past have actually grown more acute, told us a funny story about that, recently.

He and his family lived in a Birmingham suburb called Homewood, and there they had a neighbor who played in a band. Being a musician, he was a bit of a sporty fellow and wore something my father (born in 1919) had never seen before: a wrist watch. The watch-on-a-wrist idea was so intriguing to my father as a little boy that he took the cap from a bottle of Coca Cola and some rubber bands and made himself a reasonable facsimile to wear. The inventiveness of children.

Joseph Roy Chapman, my grandfather who died in 1948, always kept his watch in his pocket, unlike some modernists.

What my father was seeing, as a child of the 1920s, was the beginning of an enormous change in the fashion of telling time. The wrist watch had been invented about 1896, but it was not popularized until World War I. Pilots and the first tank commanders (the tank was also invented during World War I) were mostly officers who needed to shout details and instructions to others and had their hands busy enough without having to reach into their pockets in order to check the time. So, these dashing gents ordered the newfangled wrist watch from their suppliers back home.

And when they came home on leave, battle-scarred, handsome and completely irresistible in their uniforms, everyone noticed that these paragons of style (many of whom wore "trench" coats, also invented for officers in the Great War) were accessorised with wrist watches. How truly modern they looked! The most well-off of them wore the Cartier Tank watch, designed by the French jeweler for tank officers. It wasn't long before the pocket watch was virtually discarded for the convenience of the new invention.

So my father, with his Coke-bottle-cap copy in the 1920s, had spotted the trend. Eight decades later, his father's pocket watch sits under glass in a display at Dad's home and Dad, age 89, tells the time with the old digital Casio on his wrist.

One of the most famous film appearances of a wrist watch takes place in the 1924 Rudolph Valentino film Son of the Sheik. In the film, Valentino plays a primitive Bedouin who takes dancing girl Vilma Banky to his tent and in stepping forward to ravage her, reveals ... a Cartier Tank watch on his wrist! The scene drew hoots from 1920s audiences who thought it impossible for an Arab swain to have slipped up to Cartier in Paris to buy himself this little item. Little did they know that in the 21st century sheiks were among the few who could afford to do this. The Cartier "Tank" continues to be one of that company's signature products.

Winston Churchill was probably the last great leader of the 20th century who did not make the conversion from pocket watch to wrist watch. In all his photos, even unto his death, he wears his pocket watch chain, fully visible across his vest, or as the English call it, his "waistcoat." On that chain he hung his gold watch and his cigar cutter, something, he always pointed out, one could never hang from a wrist watch. I once found a watch chain at an estate sale with that same link he used and I often double-loop it around my wrist to wear as a bracelet, in his honor.

Winston Spencer Churchill, the man who saved civilization in the 20th century. He also beat the Nazis.

Recently, I read an article that suggested how much things have, once again, changed regarding the use of the portable timepiece. "If you want to look young," said the author; "you must not wear a watch at all. All young people check the time on their cell phones."

This may be true. But having a cell phone in my purse will never serve as an excuse for me to miss the opportunity to wear a piece of jewelry around my wrist that, by the way, conveniently tells me the time. Good grief! One must maintain some standards of civilization. And if that makes me old fashioned, I guess I'll take my lead from Winston Churchill.

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1 comment:

Devon C. said...

Interesting. I also think a wrist watch is much more convenient for time telling than a cell phone. Although I'm not one who is texting 24/7 constantly having phone in hand.