Very early clocks and watches, made in Germany in the last half of the 16th century, were notoriously poor for keeping track of the time. Fashioned into shapes like animals, crosses, and even skulls, however, they proved to be a popular accessory among the upper class. They may not have been able to tell you the hour, but they could signify your dedication to forward fashion.
The accuracy of wristwatches improved over the next few centuries, but even today they remain as important to fashion as they are to timekeeping. Today’s millennials may gravitate towards so-called “smart” watches that can do everything but make a cup of coffee, but many collectors are still interested in the character watches that had their heyday in the 1950s. With faces that used Disney characters, baseball stars, and movie heroes, these watches were all the rage among kids of the era.
Even today, children may be more apt to wear a watch with Captain America on the front than one without any adornments. Character watches are the perfect expression of our infatuation with pop culture, mixed effortlessly with our love affair with science. Before they are replaced entirely by cell phones, Google glasses, and whatever technological wonders are coming around the corner, let’s take a moment to appreciate these lasting tributes to the 20th century.
Early Character Watches – The Early 1900s
You might expect that Mickey Mouse would be the first character to be featured on the earliest character watches, but that venerable rodent was beaten to the industry by none other than Buster Brown. The comic strip scamp was famous in America in the early 1900’s, so it was only natural that he wind up on the face of the first character watch. Of course, this was some time before wristwatches captured the country’s imagination; Ingersoll’s Buster Brown watch was of the pocket variety.
Unlike the watches to follow, the Buster Brown watch merely featured a static image of the character on the back plate. The hands and other mechanisms of the watch remained standard. That changed, however, in 1933. The character behind the change was, indeed, Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney’s most famous creation was used to introduce the Ingersoll-Waterbury Mickey Mouse watch, and it was more than just an image on a back plate. Instead of standard hands, the watch used the mouse’s thin black arms to point out the correct time, animating him in a way that became an instant sensation. If people today associate Mickey Mouse with the character watch, much of that reputation was earned in that very first smash hit.
The unprecedented sales of the Mickey Mouse watch paved the way for other companies to jump into the market. By the time World War II put manufacturing on hold, America had embraced watches featuring Popeye, Dick Tracy, Superman, the Lone Ranger, and many other popular icons of the day.
The Second Wave – The 1950s
There have been few moments in American history that changed the landscape of pop culture as dramatically as World War II. Even after manufacturers were able to go back into private industry, many of the fads and trends that enjoyed popularity in prewar America had fallen out of relevance. In such a climate, it’s all the more surprising that character watches enjoyed a resurgence.
The second wave of character watches was once again dominated by Mickey Mouse. By the late 1950s, nearly 30 million watches featuring the Disney icon had been sold. Hoping to capitalize on the boom, Disney unleashed a torrent of character watches featuring all of their most popular creations. Soon, the wrists of American children were adorned by Donald Duck, Davy Crockett, Jiminy Cricket, Snow White, and other top Disney characters.
Disney’s cartoon heroes weren’t the only ones riding the wave. The 1950s introduced American families to the wonders of television, and there was one form of fictional media that proved to be a hit with children and adults alike. Starting with Hopalong Cassidy in 1949, the TV western enthralled audiences for nearly two decades. Characters like Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry were so entrenched in the American imagination that it was inevitable that they joined the Disney crew in character watches of their own.
The public might have waned in their fascination with cowboys by the 1970s, but the popularity of character watches continued. The Lone Ranger was replaced by Luke Skywalker, Donald Duck by Bugs Bunny, but the concept remained largely the same. These watches remained the choice for generations of kids who wanted their wrist wear to match their lunchboxes, T-shirts, and other forms of Hollywood marketing that saturated the stores.
If fictional characters of the kind enumerated above laid the foundation for the character watch, they weren’t the only pop culture icons to find their way onto the American wrist. Watch companies cast their net beyond cartoons and movies to incorporate political figures, sports stars, comedians, and other figures known to the public. Additionally, companies like McDonalds and Coca Cola used these novelty watches to act as a form of advertisement. After all, if you looked down to see Ronald McDonald giving you the time, you might just want to make room for a Big Mac in your dinner plans.
The Companies That Matter
Robert and Charles Ingersoll will forever be remembered as two of the most important figures in wristwatch history, and their Ingersoll Watch Company remains an American triumph today. They were responsible for getting character watches off the ground with Buster Brown, and they continued to produce memorable character watches throughout the 20th century.
But Ingersoll isn’t the only company that made great character watches. Bradley Time, a division of the Elgin Watch Company, was given the Disney license after Ingersoll in 1933, and they made the most of their exclusivity. They were also able to secure the Sesame Street license in the 1970s, producing watches featuring Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and the other PBS favorites. Not to be overlooked are companies like E. Ingraham out of Connecticut and the New Haven Clock Company, both of which made their mark on the collectible market.
Character Watch Types
The use of popular figures from pop culture undoubtedly had much to do with the success of character watches, but just as important were the risks companies took to push the technology forward. Buster Brown on the backplate was sufficient to get the ball rolling, but subsequent generations wanted more from their watches than a static picture. They wanted Mickey Mouse using his arms to point out the correct time. They wanted to see Popeye‘s thick, tattooed forearms replace the typical hands of a clock.
It is in this outside-the-box thinking that character watches have made their biggest impact on the history of the timepiece. A Dan Quayle watch from the late 1980s poked fun at the Vice President, putting the numbers of the watch in random order. Rush Limbaugh poked back a few years later, debuting a Bill Clinton watch whose time ran backwards. A Snoopy watch from the 1970s made the seconds hand a tennis ball and the minute hand out of a tennis racket. The created illusion made it one of the most popular watches of the decade.
Buying Antique Character Watches
Whether you’re interested in collecting character watches for nostalgic purposes or as an investment strategy, it pays to go into the market as informed as possible. This is a hobby with limited interest, a fact that comes with benefits and drawbacks. The major benefit is that you can find bargains on antique collectibles that you wouldn’t find if there was a sudden boom. The major drawback is that it can be difficult to find the information you need to become an expert.
The information is out there, however. One of the most comprehensive books on the subject comes from 1986. Collecting Comic Character Clocks and Watches by Howard S. Brenner takes the reader through the author’s extensive personal collection while providing invaluable information on the subjects of buying, selling, and identifying character watches. It’s age makes it hopelessly out of date as a price guide, but there is plenty of information in the book that will never go out of date.
Another good book, this one more recent, is Character & Novelty Clocks & Watches: Identification & Values by Jim and Merlyn Collings. Released in 2010, the book takes a broad look at rare collectible watches while slapping them with a modern price tag. The authors have divided their guide into 15 separate chapters, delving deeply into everything from animated alarm clocks to comic heroes.
Fortunately, the advent of sites like eBay make pricing research a cinch. You can get more relevant pricing information from an auction search than you can from a guidebook. Find character watches you’re interested in, see how much they’re going for online, and you’ll have a much better sense of how much coin you’re going to have to part with. By searching closed listings, you can get an immediate feel for the state of the market.
The Future of Character Watch Collectibles
Character watches may not be the hottest collectibles on the market in 2015, but that can change in an instant. Only a few years ago, pinball enthusiasts would have been shocked at the prices people are fetching today for some of the genre’s classics. You never know what might trigger a national sensation, and character watches have the right combination of nostalgia, intricacy, and American history to make a comeback.
Besides, there’s something compellingly quaint about character watches, especially when you compare them with today’s obsession with slick technology. Smart watches from companies like Apple are poised to become the next big thing, but they can’t match character watches for their simplicity, charm, and enduring appeal. The characters that adorned these watches – Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, Superman, etc. – remain in the zeitgeist today. And while fads and trends may come and go, there will always be a place in the culture for “retro” resurgences.
If the next big thing in American collectibles turns out to be watches featuring some of the country’s greatest characters, it could be the perfect antidote to the smartphone/smartwatch/texting/selfie craze. Sometimes, it’s nice to just sit back and appreciate the slow, methodical ticking of a clock. Happy collecting!
Sources & Suggestions for Further Reading about Character Watches: