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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 you want is your expensive and delicate timepiece falling out of your pocket every time you 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.



3 thoughts on “Fobbed Off?”

  1. This post, and the photographs, feel very familiar to me. Were they, perchance, originally published on the Book View Café blog before the Great Calamity?

    It occurs to me that, today, the key chain may have inherited the role of the watch-fob as a place to hang small objects both decorative and useful. I personally have several small tools meant for attaching to a keychain; they include a tiny pair of scissors with a built-in bottle opener, a tiny screwdriver with four interchangeable, magnetic heads, and a tiny, waterproof lighter of the liquid-fuel-and-wick variety.

  2. Yes, they were, Marva. I’ve been trying to resurrect the lost posts as much as possible.

    And I think that’s very insightful about the key chain taking the place of the watch fob. The key chain is less public, perhaps–less “hey look at me” and more personally significant–but they totally feel related.

    1. On second thought, I think a key chain loaded with tiny tools is more closely related to the châtelaine (in the 19th-century English sense of the word) than to a watch fob. The châtelaine was named, and supposedly modeled after, a ring of keys to begin with. But considering that a watch was very often one of the items hanging from a châtelaine -at least, after the watch had been invented and become reasonably affordable and reasonably small – I suppose the ancient and Medieval key rings, the châtelaine, the watch-fob, and the modern key chain crowded with “everyday-carry” items are all members of the same family.

      I found some lovely 19th century châtelaines here, including one that was supposedly purchased by Queen Victoria:

      This page has fewer examples, but has nice close-up photos of all the components of one Victorian châtelaine:

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