Fobbed Off

Charm bracelets have been in fashion for decades, right up until the present day; girls (and women!) still seem to love them. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, they weren’t necessarily for girls…and they weren’t bracelets, either.

Pocket watches began to come into their own in the second half of the eighteenth century, thanks to improvements in technology and metals science. A pocket watch usually is attached to one’s person somehow; the last thing anyone wants is their expensive and delicate timepiece falling out of their pocket every time they chance to bend over. A length of ribbon or cord sufficed, but a chain or strip of chain mesh was both sturdier and offered more scope to show off with.

Originally, this fastener for one’s watch was called a fob (likely from a German word meaning “pocket”.) Then it was realized that hanging little dangly things from one’s fob added enough weight to aid in keeping it closer to the body, and therefore made it less likely for the fob (and watch) to catch on something and be yanked from the pocket. It made sense for one of those dangly bits to be, say, the key that wound the watch; then it was realized that the fob would be a useful place to hang one’s seal…and then the decorative and (ahem) show-off possibilities dawned on everyone. Hanging other things from one’s watch chain became the fashion…and in times, these gewgaws were referred to themselves as fobs.

Over the course of the 19th century, a watch chain with fobs became a peculiarly masculine fashion (and chains themselves known by other names: an albert was a chain worn horizontally across the waistcoat from pocket to pocket, while a leontine was a short chain most often worn on dress occasions.) In fact, it became so fashionable that wearing a huge collection of fobs on one’s watch chain probably meant that you were a dandy.

So what form did fobs take?

They could be sentimental—a tiny miniature of a loved one or a snip of hair in a locket. They could be practical—a minute pencil or button hook for fastening one’s gloves, a tiny case for vestas (matches) or a wee vinaigrette like those shown in these photos of fobs from my collection.

Those whose hobbies included mountaineering or ballooning might have a small barometer or altimeter or a compass; members of sporting clubs or other organizations might have club badges or commemorative medals. Seals of course remained popular…but really, almost any small object could be and probably was turned into a fob and worn by someone somewhere.

The introduction of the wristwatch during World War I spelled the death of the pocket watch…and the delicious, tiny fobs often found their way onto women’s jewelry as necklaces or…as charm bracelets.

Though I love to wear bracelets and adore the concept of charm bracelets, I find them too clunky and distracting to wear. But a watch chain with fobs…that is a practice I could totally embrace.

How about you? Could you see yourself with a collection of these tiny, jingly treasures hanging from your watch chain? ?

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Fobbed Off — 4 Comments

  1. Tangentially connected to the pocket watch-and-fob is Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, who wrote the popular comedy on which the opera, The Barber of Seville was based. His story is as operatic and theatrical as anything put on stage. I mean, woo! this fellow, among all his other accomplishments, so to speak, was a spy for France, and arms purveyer to the rebels of North America!

    [ “Pierre-Augustin Caron de Baumarchais — courtier, speculator, spy, gunrunner for the American Revolution, and French playwright — was born in Paris in 1732. His father, a watchmaker named Caron, brought him up to pursue the same trade. He was an unusually precocious and lively boy, shrewd, sagacious, passionately fond of music, and imbued with a strong desire for rising in the world.

    At the age of 21 he invented a new escapement for watches that allowed them to be more accurate as well as more compact. When this was pirated by the royal watchmaker, young Caron at once published his grievance in the gazette Mercure de France and had the matter referred to the Academy of Sciences, which decided in his favor. This affair brought him to notice at court; he was appointed (or at least called himself) watchmaker to King Louis XV, who ordered from him a watch similar to one he had made for Madame de Pompadour.”]

  2. My first charm bracelet held Girl Scout emblems. I loved it, but wanted miniatures of all my merit badges. Didn’t happen.

    Then I received a bracelet with a single ballerina charm. Over the years I loaded that up with souvenirs of all the places I visited.

    And then I took all those lovely charms and added them to lace making bobbins as part of the bangles to add weight and stability so the bobbins wouldn’t roll and untwist or over-twist the thread. Many, many uses for charms.

  3. OMG I’m totally addicted to small, useful objects that can go on my keychain or loose in my purse (inside a zip pocket of course). It’s appalling. Good thing I stay out of antique stores.

    • You too? I have a miniature pair of scissors, a miniature screwdriver with four interchangeable heads, and a tiny waterproof lighter on a ring in a pocket or in my purse. This ring is separate from my key chain, which is already too #@%$& heavy with keys and only keys on it, and separate from my pocket knife, which is attached to a retractable cord normally clipped to my belt or pocket edge.

      Do I actually use all these items frequently enough to justify taking them everywhere? No, not really. The lighter is particularly difficult to justify – I have never used it; I am no smoker and I haven’t gone to a picnic in well over a year. On the rare occasion that I want to ignite something at home, I tend to reach for the crême bruleé torch. Yet still I stop to examine tiny pocketable containers, cutting tools, writing implements and even more esoteric tools.

      The problem with the watch-fob as a means of carrying all these little gadgets is firstly that it requires a particular style of waistcoat with pockets – not a part of my wardrobe – and secondly, that the whole collection is heavy. Too heavy to combine with the keys I keep on an elastic key-fob, and too heavy to actually use any gadget without separating it from the bunch first. The collection is also too heavy to comfortably hang from my neck.

      I think what I need is a chatelaine-like accessory I can suspend from my belt, or hang on a cord or chain around my waist when I have no belt. Do historical fashions offer any possibilities there?