Tales that Hang on Gentlemen’s Watch Chains: 1890




Men Help Themselves to Remember Incidents in Their Lives by Preserving Trinkets of Little Intrinsic Value

If a man could get all the stories suggested by watch charms worn in the city, he would have a book of narratives bigger than the Doomsday Book in London. Many a man who would disdain anything like weakness in personal adornment will wear a watch charm from one year’s end to the next when there is no possible excuse for it beyond some legend of which he alone is the possessor. One of the conductors on the Pennsylvania Road wears a miniature lantern with a red glass, and gold wire frame, in the center of which is a bit of phosphorescent light that glows brightly however dark the night may be. But a lantern in such a place is not especially remarked, for many men on the road wear them in one style or another. The story about this particular one would never come out if we waited for the conductor to tell it himself. But it has a story.

Years ago, when this same conductor was a brakeman, in the days when a brakeman was really expected to attend to the brakes even on a passenger train, there was a collision and four men in the sleeper were killed. That was serious enough, but it would have been vastly worse had it not been for the fact that this man, ten in a more humble position, heard the train coming behind him, clearly out of her time, snatched a red lantern and ran back there to give the warning. The engineer of the trespassing train saw him just in time to turn off the steam and put on the brakes, but he could not prevent the accident. Right at the prow of his engine, when the wreckers came to the place, lay a rich man who had long been an invalid, and who considered himself indebted to the brakeman for his life. He made him a present of the little lantern and now each Christmas he sends to the vigilant trainman, who has since risen to the ranks of the conductors, a present which marks in some measure the gratitude even a suffering man can feel for one who has saved his life.

A board of trade man, not often left on the wrong side of the market, wears a little gold grain of corn at the end of a pensile swing of his watch chain. It commemorates the fact that in a memorable squeeze which occurred some years ago he had a sudden inspiration that it would be a good time to sell at the very instant when all the men on the floor seemed raving crazy to buy. He unloaded all the corn he had on hand, and the very next turn of the dial showed a notable falling off. Things grew worse very rapidly, and before the day was done the corn pit was simply one crowd of howling, losing speculators. It seemed that none of them had been able to save a dollar, and this one man was nearly alone in the fortunate inspiration that had saved him thousands of dollars.

One of the best known men around the city hall wears a cluster of bear’s claws as his talisman. He ever talks about them, but when someone who knows he was once a Californian directs the conversation for him this man can tell of some very thrilling experiences in the Sierra Nevadas, not the least interesting of which is an encounter with a bear one morning when himself and wife were alone in the camp and when nothing but good luck and the courage of the woman in the case would have averted disaster for all of them. He lived to see the brute laid out cold and stiff in death, and then he drifted into a delirium that lasted for weeks. When he regained his strength he found the bear’s skin tanned and spread upon his rude bed in lieu of better covering from the bitter cold of the mountains. He lay there in his weakness and worked away at the claws till he had taken all of them from their proper resting place and when he recovered he had a watch charm made of them. He wears it yet, and is proud to say that he was never since been compelled to work for himself. From the day he reached the mines he has been called upon to serve the public in some capacity or another, and so long as that good fortune attends him he will never give up his bear’s claws.

One man, now at the head of a big baking establishment, has a common looking bullet swung to his chain. Some people think it is a homely sort of a thing to wear, and he does not quarrel with them, but if you ask him for the reason of such a strange fancy he will tell you it is because he owes all the good fortune he ever had in life to that lead bullet. Years ago, when he was a driver and hired to deliver bread for the firm that he has since bought out and made bigger than the founder ever believed it could be made, he was going his rounds, delivering bread, when he came to the home of a patron who lived away up-stairs in a dark court. Right at the door of the patron was another door which led to a dwelling that had long been vacant. The bread boy wearily climbed the stairs and was just about to deposit the regular order of bread on the table prepared for it the night before, when the door to the adjoining home was thrown open, and a man poked a pistol straight out and fired. The bread boy tumbled from the top to the bottom of the stairs, and when he reached the foot he heard the angry voice of the girl in the house he served scoring roundly the man in the newer domicile, who had fired the shot.

“What did you mean, shooting at him?” demanded the girl. “He is the bread man and he has as good a right to come here as you have.” The householder had never killed a man in his life, but he thought this early morning visitor could mean no good, and he shot at him. He was as badly frightened as was the bread boy, which he found out the true state of affairs, and came down to apologize. The girl, rather too thinly clad for the street came down also, and assured herself that her favorite bread man was in no wise the worse for the shot, though he had the bullet in his pocket where it had lodged after passing through his coat. He won the lady and she won a husband who might never have noticed her had it not been for the bullet that she thought had closed his career. So he wears the battered leaden thing, and every time he sees it he thinks how fortunate he was to get shot for a burglar and get saved for a friend in one and the same moment.

One of the tugboat captains who earns his employers a pretty penny every year, wears a rake—a regular farmer’s rake—on his watch guard. It seems a little out of place on so nautical a waistcoat, but it is there, and if you want him to he will tell you a story about it. He will tell you a much better and a longer story than this, but the facts are about the same. When he was a younger man than he is to-day, and was only an ordinary hand on the tugboat—for he has followed that business for the past fifteen years—he started with his craft one stormy night to tow in a large steamer that was lying in the lake and that had been disabled. There was a high wind on, and for some reason or another the tug refused to obey her rudder, a thing that tugs very seldom do. When they came near enough the steamer they tried to turn and get a line, but the little vessel refused to do anything of the kind and went jamb up against the bow of the bigger craft. She was slewed around so suddenly that every man aboard the tug, excepting the engineer was thrown into the lake. This particular fellow managed to fall right between the vessels, and as he rose from his involuntary bath he saw the tug and the tow coming together, with him between them. He saw no earthly chance to escape and had about made up what little mind he had left that the end was come, when he saw a rake reached down to him from the lower deck of the steamer. He grasped it without asking any questions and just as the two vessels crashed against each other he was landed safe on the bigger boat. He scrambled to his feet and saw that his rescuer was a young woman, not often seen on the lower deck of vessels, but who explained that she had been thrown down the stairway when the tug first struck. She looked over the side and saw the man in the water and reached for him with the first thing that came in her hand. Then she saw the necessity of lifting him out of the water and was frightened by the very gravity of the case into lifting him clear herself and giving him a chance to clamber on the boat. Did he marry her? Well, no. You see, she was already the wife of one of the passengers; but he thanked her with all of an honest man’s heart, and got a rake made of gold and hung it to his watch charm. Then he went to work again harder than ever, and has finally risen to a place where he says he can offer her a home if it should ever happen that she wants one.

A member of the city council wears a nugget of gold in his chain. It was taken by his father from the “Chimney diggings” in the days of gold mining up at Mount Shasta, Cal. “The old man knocked it out the very first thing he done when he went to work in the morning,” says the legislator, “and it was the only dime he made at the business all the time he was there. And it is the only thing any of his family ever made outside of a saloon in the world. That’s why I wear it and it’s why I won’t part with it. See?”

Chicago [IL] Herald 16 October 1890: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: We have previously read of the gruesome souvenirs and lucky mascots cherished by ladies; it is refreshing to see exhibited the more conventionally sentimental charms of the gentlemen.


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