Once Upon a Time: Watch Papers

Commonplace at one time, watch papers are a rare find today, keepsakes that originated from an earlier era. Briefly, watch papers—generally round, roughly two inches in diameter, blank at first, but later decorated—were placed between the inner and outer cases of pocket watches to protect their internal workings from dust and damage. Many early illustrated watch papers were printed in a single color on white or beige paper and had nicely engraved images of classical and allegorical figures, including, not surprisingly, Father Time. However, by the end of the 18th century they had become somewhat less elegant and had been commercialized.

Two early advertisements for watch papers stand out. On December 4, 1758 Hugh Gaine announced in the New York Mercury, a newspaper he published, that “a beautiful Print, in Miniature, of that truly Great Patriot, the Honourable Mr. Secretary Pitt, Adapted for Watches” was available for purchase for six pence. Unfortunately, none are known to have survived, and we do not know who engraved it. Four years later, on December 27, 1762, the Boston Evening Post noted that engraver Nathaniel Hurd had produced likenesses of King George III, William Pitt, and the late General James Wolfe that could be used as a watch paper. Although watch papers were generally not attributed, other early American engravers, including Paul Revere and Peter Maverick, signed theirs.

Watch papers were considered tokens of esteem and affection. None other than George Washington received one from a youthful admirer, Elizabeth Watkins, whose family had entertained Washington at dinner—to be sure, a memorable occasion in the young girl’s life. In acknowledging the gift, Washington referred to it as a “curious present of a laurel wreath.” The American Antiquarian Society has a hand-painted token from 1824 that reads: “May Friendship still thy evening feast adorn, And Smiling peace forever bless thy morn.”

A hand-painted watch paper in the Winterthur Library collection.

But it did not take long for watchmakers to realize that watch papers could serve another purpose—that of an advertisement. After watches were cleaned and repaired, the maker inserted his own paper, containing an ad and his address. Of course, if a competitor’s paper was already in the watch, he removed and discarded it. On the back of the paper, the watchmaker sometimes wrote in the date of the repairs and what he charged.

Winterthur Library’s collection of watch papers includes 162 examples, dating from ca. 1810–73. Most are from the United States, all but a few were printed, some were done by hand, several are hand-colored, many include text only, and others feature both text and illustrations. If illustrated, pictures include portraits, decorative ornamentation, imagery associated with time, buildings, and ships on a watch paper from New Bedford, Massachusetts, a town known for its seafaring.

If you have a moment, please stop by to see what we have (Collections 243 and 265; Document 499). In the meantime, I include a few scans with this blog entry.

E. Richard McKinstry is the Winterthur Library Director and Andrew W. Mellon Senior Librarian.

For further reading:

Bob Brooke. Watch Papers Offer More than Protection.

Maurice Rickards. The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator, and Historian. New York: Routledge, 2000, pp. 354–5.

Dorothea E. Spear. American Watch Papers: With a Descriptive List of the Collection in the American Antiquarian Society. Worcester: The Society, 1952.

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