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.