Wristwatches have been commonplace for nearly everyone alive today.
It was hard to imagine a world where most people – both men and women – didn’t have a watch mounted on their wrist. A future where we learn the time from glancing at our phones and not our wrists was inconceivable. But that certainly seems to be the future we’re heading towards.
And, historically, it’s not an inconceivable one. Watches, when they were first being worn on the wrist in the early 1900s, were not considered to be a serious trend, and were instead worn by jokesters and Vaudeville artists. A 1916 New York Times article even referred to wristwatches as a “silly a– fad.”
At the time, both gentlemen and ladies tended to carry around pocket watches. The Times article notes how wrist-mounted watches started as a tool of the military in WWI. The use of wristwatches later migrated to civilian life because they were so practical, and because they were positively associated with a kind of warlike masculinity.
Now, watches have none of that cachet. With the proliferation of clocks – from car dashboards, to laptop screens, to microwave oven displays, to, of course, phone screens – the wristwatch is seen by some to be not just impractical, but not useful at all.
Alexis McCrossen, a professor of history at Southern Methodist University, wrote in a 2013 Time magazine article that while the “pocket-to-wrist cycle may repeat itself” in modern times, she thinks it’s unlikely.
“The wrist had a good run, but it simply cannot afford the privacy, security, mobility, or safety of the pocket,” McCrossen wrote. For that reason, she argued that the Apple Watch (which had not been released at the time of her writing) and other high-tech wrist wear like it would be likely to fail.
According to estimates from IDC, Apple shipped 1.1 million Apple Watches in the third quarter of 2016, down 71% from the same quarter a year before. Though Apple has never publicly revealed exact sales figures, the watch has clearly not proven to be the industry disrupter the company hoped it would be.
Most young people don’t wear watches on a daily basis. The Swiss watch industry hasn’t faced such strong headwinds since the “quartz crisis” of the 1970s. It’s unlikely wrist-mounted tech will be able to stem the tide.
In this case, it’s actually the wristwatch that’s the historical anomaly, and time is going back into our pocket where it was kept for centuries prior to the arrival of the wrist-mounted watch. While we at Business Insider argue that every man should wear a watch on his wrist every day, we recognize we are battling against the tides of history.