Apr 23, 2011

Backyard Archeology

On my recent visit to New Hampshire, my parents showed me an old, tarnished, dirt-encrusted pocketwatch that my sister had dug up in the backyard. They'd thrown out the potsherds and given away the arrowheads that she'd dug up, but left the pocketwatch lying around the house. Here it is:
old pocketwatch
Curious, I decided to find out how old it was, and what metal it was made of. The front of the timepiece read "American Waltham Co," which I Googled. I learned that this company had manufactured pocketwatches from 1852 to 1957; our watch might be from any date in between, and it could be cheap nickel plate or sterling silver. The only way to know for sure would be to open the watch and find the serial number.

The pocketwatch was jammed shut. My dad used some tools to pry the case open, and we found a slip of paper sealed inside, protected from who-knows-how-many harsh winters. A name and date were inked on the paper in faded fountainpen ink.
George F. Smith
September 28, 1913
The name and date were too common for a Google search to turn up anything. However, my parents thought to look in an old census for their local town, and found a George F. Smith who was a watch-maker and repairman. Apparently it was common for the watch-maker to leave a receipt inside the watch, so the owner would know when it was last serviced.

We used silver/nickel polish, clarifying the engraved design on the back of the case. But the inner workings and case were corroded with blue oxide, telling us that it was brass or copper.
polished pocketwatch
The serial number was visible, as was "Elgin Navy Watch Co." I looked up the serial number, and discovered that this pocketwatch was manufactured in 1893. The inner workings come from the Elgin Navy Watch Company in Chicago, while the outer case comes from the American Waltham Company in Massachussetts. It was common for people to buy the case separately from the inner movement (workings).

Who dropped or lost this watch near the old stone wall in my parents' backyard? Why were they hiking around (what would have been) rural farmland? How many decades ago was it lost? I assume it was lost or thrown away before my parents' house was built, possibly in the WWI or WWII era, when the plot of land belonged to a farmer.

I'll never know its exact history, but it was fun to find out so much.


David Lyman said...

That is a really neat find! It might have belonged to the farmer, or whoever built the wall. But who it belonged to and why it was lost is wide open to speculation. Whomever it was though, I'm sure they lamented its loss. You know, you should rent a metal detector and see what else you can find near "the old stone wall". Maybe you'll find the gold teeth of the watchs owner ~ spooky!

Jason Denzel said...

That's a really neat story. Thanks for sharing!

PotatoFarmGirl said...

This is amazing! I love that you tried to solve the mystery of this watch, and that it found it's way to human hands again.

Abby Goldsmith said...

Update: This is a museum piece now! I'm surprised and pleased that the Bedford Historical Society will display my little essay and the pocketwatch in their museum.