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“…won’t lose more than a minute a month, and you can’t break ‘em with a hammer.” ~ John Wayne as Will Anderson in The Cowboys.

Many years ago I inherited a pair of pocket watches from my Great Grandmother Minnie. One is a lovely gold cased ladies’ watch made by Waltham. It has what looks like initials engraved in the cover, but the lines are so small I have never been able to decipher them. The second is a large watch with a battered silver case. The porcelain face is chipped away in several places, and the engraving on the back is mostly worn away.

Minnie homesteaded in Alaska around 1920. Old photos in our family album show Nome’s main street with Model T pickup trucks sunk to the axles in mud. Great Grandma lived in a tent cabin. Think of a log cabin foundation about 4 feet high with the upper walls and roof made of a canvas tent. After her husband abandoned her, leaving her to raise my grandfather alone, she went to work cooking breakfast in one of the two hotels on Main Street. When breakfast was done she crossed the street to cook supper in the other hotel. Minnie was tough as nails, and she was a real lady in the truest sense of the term. I am privileged to have known her.

Minnie’s old watches show the wear and tear of long years of use common to many things that went west during the 19th century. They have no real collector value, being samples of watches commonly available during the period, but the watch was a special symbol in the wild places that still existed in the 1800’s.

When a working cowboy earned about a dollar a day, a Colt’s revolver cost a month’s wages. A broken horse cost around $100. A watch of any kind was a luxury item, and having one indicated a person of means and prosperity. Gold watches were often retirement gifts given to railroad men upon retirement indicating a long successful career.

As pocket watches became more common, they evolved into male jewelry with the application of gold chains to secure them to the person of the owner. Vests were made with designated watch pockets. Initially, short chains connected the watch to the vest via a crossbar passed through a button hole. Later “fobs” became all the rage. A fob is a small weight of some kind carried in a pocket sewn into the opposite side of the vest from the watch pocket. Wealthy and professional men would own fobs made from gold coins, and sometimes jewels. Carrying the fobs on the opposite side of the body required longer chains which allowed the gentleman to display his wealth in the length and heaviness of his watch chain.

Some watch fobs were practical and took the form of a folding knife with two blades. The longer blade was used to peel and slice fruit. The smaller for small trimming tasks and opening the mail. Other fobs took the form of small telescope-like picture viewers that held tiny images of family, sweethearts, and occasionally something more risqué.

Pocket watches are still manufactured. Often with a large company logo on the face, and carried on a leather tab that hangs the watch from the owner’s belt. Cases are made from traditional gold and silver as well as stainless steel and more exotic materials. No matter the century, pulling out a watch and popping open the cover to check the time still looks classy.

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