The earliest printed watchpapers date from the first half of the 18th century. The exact date is not known but those from 1760 or before are rarely seen. Most surviving examples date from the 19th century.

Most 18th century pocket watches were ‘pair cased,’ so called because the inner case or ‘box’ was housed within an outer protecting case. This was done to prevent dirt and moisture entering via the winding hole in the inner case. The outer is removed to wind the watch and these were supplied with a fitted silk liner to stop any chaffing between the two cases. From there it was a simple step to place a purpose-made, small circular tradecard (watchpaper) in what is such a safe and convenient position that would continue to advertise the watchmaker every time the watch was wound.

The earliest papers were not only engraved with the name and address of the maker but also included an ‘equation-of-time’ table. This allowed an owner to correctly set their watch to mean time from a sundial, then the only easily available way of finding the correct time. Due to the earth’s tilt in relation to the sun during the year, the sun is up to around fifteen minutes fast or slow of mean time and the table provided the number of minutes fast or slow of mean time the sun would be for every week of the year. Such tables continued to be featured on watchpapers into the 19th century so are not, in themselves, a sign of the paper being very early.

By the late 1770’s watch repairers had also recognized the opportunity offered to advertise themselves and most started to produce their own papers. This would also take up any slack in the case joint due to wear, thus giving the owner the impression of a tighter, better fitting outer case. As many as ten or more papers can be found in old watches, often giving a detailed history of cleaning and repairs, but so many papers will have also contributed greatly to the stretching of the joint and weakening of the case.

It was at this period that the back of the paper became as interesting as the front as many repairers would provide a receipt for the owner by writing on the rear. One often finds a note of the work done, the charges, and sometimes the owner’s name and address. Such provenance is wonderful but, and it must be stated in the strongest terms, that papers have always been moved from one watch to another by owners, repairers, watch dealers etc, and one should never be misled into believing such provenance on its own.

The best watchpapers of the 18th century are works of art in their own right and the constraints of size have, it seems, acted as a spur to the engraver, many of whom have excelled themselves, and some will include their name somewhere in the design. Lack of skill, however, did not deter all and naively engraved examples are also found, some, perhaps, even having been done by the watch repairer themselves.

As soon as printed watchpapers appeared, or maybe earlier, the outer case was recognized as an ideal place in which to hold a personal token of esteem. The variety of such handmade work is enormous and many are evocative of times past, indicating separation, travel and, of course, love. Techniques include embroidery of all types, paintings on paper or silk, miniature writing, paper cutting, pinwork, in which the decoration was seen by holding the paper to the light, and many other styles, some of which were promoted in the newly fashionable ladies’ magazines of the period.

By 1790, printers had recognized that there was a profit to be made in the sale of decorative and topical watchpapers, and many of the most colourful examples date from the late 18th and early 19th century. What better way of using up paper scraps otherwise too small to be of use? Whatever the subject matter, they would have provided cheap and novel gifts for every father, son or lover.

Important battles and events were commemorated as well as the death of royalty and other public figures. Verses emphasising self-improvement were common and quotations from the Bible or other great, and some not so great, works can be found. Calendars were produced as well as different forms of ‘perpetual’ calendar. Theses latter are rare, especially in good condition, but some of the most decorative papers from this period are miniature maps. These range from a complete view of Europe or the UK, to those showing the main features within five miles or less around towns and cities – ideal for any watch repairers working in the area.

By the middle of the 19th century, the key-wound, pair cased watch began to be replaced with the newer, slimmer, single cased watches. Virtues of strength and familiarity, however, meant that the pair cased watch continued to be made and sold, surviving into the first quarter of the 20th century, especially within rural and farming communities. This meant that watchpapers continued to be produced and in some areas, such as Scotland, they are most commonly found from the later part of the 19th century.

No matter when or how they are produced, watchpapers can provide a wealth of information. Printed papers will give addresses, dates, and partnerships, often never previously recorded in any of the standard works, plus a note of the various types of work also undertaken by some country, so-called, watchmakers. These include opticians, barber, dentist, etc.

Such small and fragile items are easily damaged, a problem made more likely by the fact that many papers, when originally supplied, were provided with small cuts around the edge allowing better fitting within deeply concave cases. As well as the cuts, they are subject to abrasion, misplaced oil and unwanted water, the results of which mean that most are now in a rather dirty and sometimes rust-stained condition. Examples that survive in good, clean condition are uncommon, and mint examples, especially those that have remained unused and uncut, are the rarest of all.

I do not advocate the removal of watchpapers from a watch, especially as most pocket watches are not longer used in day-to-day wear, but often the only way to properly conserve fragile papers is to store them in an archival quality album (stamp or similar). Never glue them onto card, and never attempt repairs using adhesive tape. Separation from a watch is not the sacrilege it seems as papers are not integral to the working of a watch and most do not provide any form of provable provenance. If they do, best leave them in place and cover them with a thin transparent film. If so fragile they are best removed, please ensure they are not lost and put a note in the watch where they can be found. 

I have a collection numbering over 5,000, all of which are in albums and which have been recoded on my database. Images are available for those wanting to use them, and it is the duplicates that I sell via my website. I am always keen to purchase watchpapers, and more than happy to swap examples with other collectors. NB: Please be aware that modern reproduction techniques mean that many photocopied papers are now circulating. Though it is sometimes difficult to tell, these should never be confused with the beautiful and rare originals.


David Penney - Copyright 2011