Watches Tell Us More than Just Time by Marc Ferrer

Observing the role of watches during and after the consumer revolution of Eighteenth-century Europe provides insight into the historical trends of the period. Watches can be used to tell time in the obvious and literal sense, but they can also be used to tell us about time. As different watch styles change, they also come and go because tastes themselves change as a result of the social-economic politics of fashion. Specifically, we will see how these watches embody the effects of the consumer revolution (1700s) and French Revolution (1789-1799) on the transformation of watch fashion.


Figure 1: Gold cased verge stop-watch surrounding a white enamel dial. The dial is marked with hours from I-XII, minutes from 5-60, and a winding hole located on “II.” The hour and minute hands are composed of gold while the centre-seconds hand is composed of blue-steel. Made by: Ferdinand Berthoud. Date: 1763. Place of Origin: Paris, France. (The British Museum: 1958,1201.276)

It is important to note first that the changes in consumption habits that pervaded throughout the Atlantic were a direct result of the industrial revolution. In “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-century England,” Neil McKendrick argues that the “democratization of consumption” was essentially reflected in the increase in demand during this period and that consumption of certain goods rose to staggeringly high numbers while only having a minimal increase in the population (29). As such, we can see that as industrialization, production, and wages increased, so too did the taste for consumption and consumer goods. What this also means is that with more wealth in circulation, the general public would then be better able to influence and popularize new style innovations. Likewise, historian Michael Kwass uses the case of taste leaders in “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France” to argue that the process of creating “a new set of consumer values… mediate[s] the relationship between consumption and status” (634). Because of this, McKendrick’s and Kwass’ arguments inherently enhance each other to show how constant changes in demand and taste affect the economic and social value of an object or commodity.

Applying this understanding to the gold watch (Figure 1), we can construct a general outline of the social-economic politics of its particular style. Having been made in 1763, the watch was produced in the latter half of the consumer revolution. By this time, the extravagant tastes characterizing the earlier part of this revolution has been faced with both supporters and dissenters. This leads me to argue that those who sought to appear to have good taste would wear attractive adornments while simultaneously refraining from lavishness. Noting this watch’s style, we can say that it has a fair amount gold which serves to frame the main enamel dial. As for the dial face itself, the presence of both Roman numerals and Arabic numerals may however also be an indicator of higher social-economic status, i.e., the proper amount of extra detailing on a person’s watch would serve as a mark of rank or prestige.

watch2Figure 2: Gilt-brass cased verge watch. The dial is also gilt-brass, with applied enamel chapters. Attributed to: Louis Gauthier. Date: 1705-1715. Place of Origin: Paris, France. (The British Museum: 1958,1201.263)

In comparison with Figure 2, a watch made during the early consumer revolution (early to mid 1700s), it becomes easier to picture how the watch fashion transitioned to the style in Figure 1. The prominence of the etching all over Figure 2 indicates that it may have been a higher quality piece due to the amount of labor needed for precise detailing. Furthermore, despite being brass gilded with gold, the metal case serves as the main attracting component as opposed to the dial’s presence in Figure 1. While Figure 1’s dial is framed and accentuated by its gold case, the watch casing for Figure 2 by contrast is embellished with enamel numbering. This means that even though one of the main facets of the consumer revolution was the ability to show one’s wealth, there is constant development and redefining of said ability in the politics of fashion.

During the time of the French Revolution, new standards of consumption had been enforced which is not just reflected in watch styles, but also in the value of watches. From “Police Reports on Disturbances over Food Supplies (February 1793),” Paris police had said, “the way we knew she had one [a watch] was that when she emerged from the crowd and came over to the counter, she looked for her watch, [and] drew it out, saying, ‘I thought it had been taken.’” By this time though (late Eighteenth Century), watches had begun to exhibit more simplistic tastes (see Figure 3). This leads me to argue that the person’s attachment to the watch was therefore rather pretentious for the time. Eventually by 1810, some people “would have given [away a] watch for a good meal and a dry shirt” indicating that the value of watches had dropped significantly (An Ordinary British Soldier Recounts the Portuguese Campaign (1810)). However, it is also a possibility that for a soldier on the battlefield, a meal would naturally be more valued than a watch given his particular situation. Nonetheless, these accounts still show that with conservative consumption ideals pervading France during its revolution, watches and other luxuries would have been minimalized as a reflection of both modesty and support for a more egalitarian society.

watch3Figure 3: Silver and gold cased watch. White enamel dial, secret signature. Single blued-steel Breguet style moon hand. Silver case, gold bezels. Made by: Abraham Louis Breguet. Case made by: GM. Date: 1798 (case). Place of Origin: Paris, France. (The British Museum: 1927,0513.2)

Watches tell us more than just time. Understanding that watches also tell us about time allows us to understand the social-economic politics of fashion in the age of Atlantic Revolution.


Applewhite, Harriet Branson et. al: editing and translation. “Police Reports on Disturbances over Food Supplies (February 1793),” Women in Revolutionary Paris, (1789–1795). University of Illinois Press: 137–141. Web: Mar. 2014.

Hibbert, Christopher. “An Ordinary British Soldier Recounts the Portuguese Campaign (1810),” ed, A Soldier of the Seventy-First: The Journal of a Soldier of the Highland Light Infantry, (1806-1815). London: Leo Cooper, 1975. 48-53. Web: Mar. 2014.

Kwass, Michael. “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France,” American Historical Review 111.3 (2006). 631-59. Print.

McKendrick, Neil. “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-century England,” The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England. London Europa Publications Limited (1982). 9-33. Print.

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Female Design: How Women Were Shaped to Fill Their Roles in Society –Brianda Barrera

“Parents ought to above all Things give their Children new Stays frequently, and not grumble at the Expence,” (Andry de-Bois Regard 87-88). In eighteenth century England, stays also known as corsets were bought and sold for children as young as two years old. At an age before some could even walk, young girls were put in stays to begin creating their womanly figure. As can be seen in the figure below, young girls in this time were valued mostly for their marital value. At the early age of two, they are put in stays to prepare them for their ultimate goal of marriage, which would then lead to children. As was seen in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, women were thought of only in their capacity as mothers. Subsequently, they were dressed in ridiculous fashions such as stays and petticoats to satisfy the shape which men thought women should be. These values and ideals were further pushed as anxieties about gender grew, and women’s role in the private sphere began to be questioned.


During the eighteenth century, the revolutions experienced in the Western hemispheres caused anxieties about the roles people played in society. Women were amongst those challenging their roles by taking part in the politics of their countries. As governments began to change, women attempted to help frame and form the fledgling government of their respective country. This was seen in Belinda, with Lady Delacour’s, and Harriet Freke’s endorsement of politicians. These new roles which women were attempting to create for themselves in the public sphere were constrained and contrasted by the clothes and fashion which was imposed on them. Although women wanted to play active roles in the public sphere, the fashions they were given, particularly petticoats and stays, forced they and their bodies to conform to the way in which men preferred to see them. By making stays for women and young girls, men attempted to prepare the women’s body so it may look more shapely, so she may eventually find a suitable husband. All so the women may eventually fulfill her role in society by getting married, and having children. The stays are constructed with cloth and whalebones to create the desired shape. While not all men of this time endorsed stays, some argued that stays encouraged proper growth in children. As was articulated at the time, “When children are recovering from a disease… use of stitched stays, or at least of quilted bodice, is more necessary than upon any other occasion,” (Andry de-Bois Regard 88). It created the appropriate shape which society sought in women, while being justified for its use on children as being corrective or helpful for growth. Similarly, petticoats, another cumbersome fashion, were created to emulate the curves of a woman. Although some were quite large, and exaggerated, they were the fashions which women felt they had to wear, in order to attain a husband.  The stay for adult women below also shows that corsets were not simply to encourage proper growth.  They were used to accentuate and exaggerate female curves. To further objectify women and exemplify their purpose.


Ironically, many men criticized women who wore petticoats and stays. Even though petticoats and stays were sold and created by men, other men criticized women for wearing what they deemed ridiculous garb. As explained by the scholar Kimberly Chrisman, “…it [the petticoat] was taken up as an all-encompassing symbol of female (and, by extension, fashion’s) caprice” (Chrisman 6). The drawing below also depicts this sentiment which men felt towards women. The woman wearing the petticoat and stay created by a man is seen as ridiculous and frivolous. Mothers ran a fine line between being attractive and fashionable, while also fulfilling their roles as mothers and wives. Women like Lady Delacour preferred to be fashionable, than motherly, “The same reasons which convinced me I ought not to nurse my own child, determined me… not to undertake its education” (Edgeworth 42). Women were expected to wear petticoats, and stays, but were also criticized for it. The antagonism aimed towards women and their fashions, mirrored the anxiety felt towards their involvement in the public sphere. If women could control what they wore, and ventured in the public sphere, men feared they would abandon the children, and manipulate the world into chaos. As men in revolutions struggled to find their new identity, so did women.



Andry de Bois-Regard, Nicolas. Orthopædia: or, the art of correcting and preventing deformities in children: By such Means, as may easily be put in Practice by Parents themselves, and all such as are employed in Educating Children. To which is added, a defence of the Orthopædia, by way of supplement, by the author. Translated from the French of M. Andry, Professor of Medicine in the Royal College, and Senior Dean of the Faculty of Physick at Paris. In two volumes. Illustrated with cuts. … Vol. Volume 1. London,  M.DCC.XLIII. [1743]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. UC Los Angeles. 10 Mar. 2014

Edgeworth, Maria. Belinda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Chrisman, Kimberly. “Unhoop the Fair Sex: The Campaign against the Hoop Petticoat in Eighteenth-Century England,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 30.1 (1996): 5-23.

Child’s Stay, Museum of Costume, Item Number: BATMC 2003.734. Accessed 03-09-2014 <;

Adult Stay, Museum of Costume, Item Number: BATMC I.27.866. Accessed 03-09-2014 <;

“In Fashion. Out of Fashion.” The British Museum, Item Number: 1851,0901.296-297. Date Accessed 03-09-2014. <;