Historicity of mid-20th Cen workers receiving a Gold Watch at retirement
November 30, 2021 8:27 AM   Subscribe

Historicity of "Gold watch presented at retirement": There's an old saw that comes up frequently in fiction, where working-class men (in the U.S. in the mid-20th Century) would receive a gold watch from the company upon their retirement from the mill/railroad/factory etc. I'd like to know more about this: when and how often this happened, in what industries, when and how it arose and the circumstances surrounding its decline, the value & appearance of these watches, etc.

(I'm looking for a more comprehensive dive into the topic rather than anecdote(s). Many thanks for your time and your expertise.)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Here is a museum that has a gold watch given on retirement in 1975. It notes that it's a typical Weyerhaeuser retirement gift, so apparently these were given by the timber industry as late as the mid-70s.
posted by PussKillian at 8:56 AM on November 30, 2021

Here is a New York Times article from 2000 that gets into things just a little bit. The article variously suggests that the decline of the practice is less longevity at employers, more women in the workplace, 401(k)s, and the rise of more practical and useful gifts (e.g. a gift certificate to a bike shop for a cycling enthusiast).

Here is reference in a 1923 issue of "Industry Week" that mentions a foundry retiree after 40 years being "presented a gold watch by associates."

And here is a 1912 issue of Iron Trade Review noting a departing employee being presented with a gold watch chain.

(I noted those last two because my grandpa was presented with a gold watch on his retirement from a foundry in St. Louis after 35+ years of service.)
posted by AgentRocket at 9:17 AM on November 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

My father was a technology executive and retired sometime in the late 90s and got, if not a gold watch, at least a fairly fancy engraved timepiece from his workplace. He was, I should note, a serious clock aficionado so it's possible other people received different types of things who retired from the same workplace.

But you asked for actual dives into this topic, so I'll give you a quick review of titles that talk about this "gold watch retirement" where you can see it being mentioned as early as 1896 and by the 1960s it already seemed to be a trope. This issue of Inc. Magazine talks about how "retirement " was a Depression-era thing that was all about giving more younger workers jobs. It also mentions how fewer people have longevity at one company and also how more executives aren't really "retiring" per se the way they used to where you'd stop coming to work, have a big party, give a big speech and be replaced by another slightly younger white guy.
posted by jessamyn at 9:20 AM on November 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

My old man got his gold watch at the 25 year mark. Factory worker, United Steelworker. 25 years would have been around 1994. The watch was a Longines, engraved, and had two diamonds set in the company logo on the strap.

At retirement seven years later, he was given an Inuit sculpture. Also substantial, but the company's real investment would have been in the watch.

He valued the watch for what it represented. He never wore it much, as it's actually kinda ugly.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:28 AM on November 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

My father was a technology executive and retired sometime in the late 90s and got, if not a gold watch, at least a fairly fancy engraved timepiece from his workplace. He was, I should note, a serious clock aficionado so it's possible other people received different types of things who retired from the same workplace.

Around this period it was increasingly common for companies to provide employees retiring or reaching other milestones with a catalog of items to choose from. My father retired slightly earlier than yours, and selected a nice clock, too.

Here's an example of that currently still happening.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:30 AM on November 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

So it looks like the time period when you really got a gold watch at retirement was, if ever, between like 1910 and 1940. Note that AgentRocket's second link was to a gold watch chain: the prototypical "gold retirement watch" would be a pocket-watch and not a wristwatch.

One reason to doubt that too many people ever got honest-to-God gold watches at retirement is that gold is super expensive! That watch from 1975 that PussKillian references is emphatically not gold, or even gold-plated: it's gold-colored stainless steel, and a quartz watch to boot! You can tell that this is not meant to be a particularly valuable retirement gift but more a way to fulfill the trope of "gold retirement watch". Note that the price of gold also increased dramatically in the 1970s.

Looking through the Brooklyn Daily Eagle archives, I am seeing various political leaders and grandees being presented with real gold watches in the 1910s, and people who are like, factory foremen getting gold watch chains or charms. This could also be about whose retirement parties get in the paper, though.
posted by goingonit at 10:49 AM on November 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another thing to mention is that the bracelet alone of a gold Rolex has more than twice the weight of gold as a gold pocket-watch from 100 years ago. So the switch to wristwatches may have helped doom the idea of giving a gold watch as a retirement gift.
posted by goingonit at 10:51 AM on November 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Pocket watches, by the end of the 1800's were a must have item for two reasons. One was that we were making the transition to clock time from solar time, and responsible people were now expected to meet a stricter time table. Instead of "come and see me in the morning" you'd make an appointment for 10:00 AM. Public areas were being filled with important civic clocks. They put them on church spires and city hall and other buildings. Poor people had to rely on these still, but it's hard to make a 10 AM appointment punctually if the City Hall clock is nine blocks away.

So everyone who was rising out of poverty wanted a pocket watch. Children would get the stick for being late to school, and would use this hazard as a means of convincing their parents to get them a pocket watch. If you had a watch you had status and demonstrated that you were a responsible person, rising in society who had important commitments at specific times. You didn't have to linger on the street waiting for the church clock to strike before dashing inside for your appointment.

And once you had a watch you could impress people by getting a better one, or better accessories, rising from a nickle plated stem winder to a good solid brass watch to a gold plate to a solid gold one sold by a high end jeweler. Along the way you would indulge in the accessories - the watch chain and the fobs. Pawnshops had rows of watches for sale on display, drummers traveled from town to town with a suitcase full of watches, pick pockets and petty thieves went for watches because they had a guaranteed resale value.

Watches were the gift given to a young man when he graduated high school, or when someone sponsored him to start a responsible position. Doctors used them for timing your pulse and your heart beat - it was so very reassuring to see his thoughtful face with his eyes on a precision, high tech state of the art scientific instrument. "Humm, 104 beats per minute. I don't think we have anything to worry about, Mrs. Jones. Keep taking the tonic and don't miss any of those daily walks, no matter what the weather." You knew you were in better hands than old Dr. Smith who, if you didn't have a kitchen clock, would make you go out in the back garden so he could look up over the laundry lines to squint at the almost visible church clock in the distance. You wanted to be trusted and respected? You needed a watch!

There was one industry where having a watch was CRITICAL. That was railway industry. The signalman in his box, had a time table he had to meet to prevent carnage. He would reset the signals and the switches after the 2:45 Southbound passed his box at 2:57, and then the 1:05 Northbound would take the same tracks to arrive at the station the Southbound had just left. Switching the tracks wasn't automated in any way. Sometimes the signals and switches had to be changed without seeing a train using the tracks. If the 1:05 didn't go steaming past at 3:03 as expected, the signalman still had to change the switches and the signals back to stop it no later that 3:11 or there might be a collision with a west bound train he couldn't see but knew would be carrying freight on that track.

It was not a good thing when the signalman had to pawn his watch to cover the doctor's bills or to provide a funeral for one of his children, but it happened. And when it happened it would very likely result in the signalman being dismissed without a character and not retrieving his watch from the pawnshop. It was therefore in the railway company's interest to make sure that their employees had good reliable watches, and that they joined a burial club and a doctor's club and had salaries sufficient to cover other expenses.

One of the perks of working for a railway was the benefits that came to be available, group insurance plans of various sorts, that included a modest contribution by the company and lower group rates. Another perk was the increasingly nice watches, starting with a Reliable brand nickle plate at the lowest level, when you passed probation and got to stand in a signal box without anyone else keeping tabs on you, then the two year watch with a case - the front cover that protected the glass, the five year watch and a train engraved on the back and that only had to be wound once a day, all the way to the ten year brass watch, and at your eventual retirement after fifty years on the job - which made you seventy years or older - the unparalleled gold watch.

So important were retirement watches in the railway industry that the practice was adopted in other industries. You had to be really well off to afford a solid gold watch - well off enough to not need to work, pretty much. You could easily finance a modest retirement by selling a gold watch, if you had to. Prosperity was defined as having a bay-window belly with a watch chain stretched across it. Receiving a gold watch meant you had it made.

That was the eighteen hundreds. By 1920 or so it was tradition, not utility that had things still going, and like many traditions it was the working class that carried it. You couldn't finance a retirement by selling a gold watch anymore, but that had been the retirement gift the railway gave you for the last fifty years, so of course you didn't expect anything better. They guy who got it had probably first started his calculations of the probability of receiving it back round 1880 when it had been significant, and he hadn't recalibrated his expectations because his values had been set back then in the earlier century.

I have my great grandfather's gold plated retirement watch - it has a stand to display it that has a glass dome. For four generations the memory of how significant that watch was has been handed down. It was the pinnacle of a life's achievement; for the first hundred years of its life it stood in place of honor. It's worth about thirty bucks now, though they try to sell them on e-Bay for a lot more than that. They don't have much of a resale value because there are so very many of them.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:13 PM on November 30, 2021 [29 favorites]

I am familiar with a company that still awards gold Rolexes upon 25 years of continuous service. I understand that historically this company has been one of Rolex's largest customers. Shorter employment durations at such companies, at least part due to a broader pattern of workers switching jobs and careers at an increasing pace when observed over decades, are actually a threat to this segment of Rolex's business. You might dig into whatever corporate presentations or industry reviews you can find on Rolex and similar brands that comment on these trends.

You might also consider reaching out to the folks at Hodinkee.com in the course of your research.
posted by Last_wave_by at 12:14 PM on November 30, 2021

In Australian railways, retirement gifts were often the actual operational clocks:
By the 1970s there were more than 3,000 mechanical clocks and 6,000 watches working alongside several hundred synchronous clocks, impulse, electrical and mechanical time recorders in the railway system.

An order in the 1980s by then railways chief executive David Hill restricted the selling or gifting of clocks to retiring staff which increased the value of items already on the market.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:59 PM on November 30, 2021

One reason to doubt that too many people ever got honest-to-God gold watches at retirement is that gold is super expensive!

Not only, but FDR's Executive Order 6102 forbade private ownership of gold in the US starting 1933 (although jewelry, dental and watches were exempt) until Nixon abolished the gold standard.

I believe my grandfather's gold pocket-watch was a parting gift from the Kansas-based Frisco railway, but I don't have it, nor any details.
posted by Rash at 9:29 AM on December 1, 2021

Response by poster: [Thanks to all for the considerable insight; I'll be following these bunny trails all morning with delight. Appreciate you.]
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 5:20 AM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

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