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The Collation

18th-century watchpapers

Thanks for the great guesses about the March 2022 Crocodile Mystery! All were different, all were plausible, and all were incorrect. It would have been easier if I’d included other examples of the same type of print,  because they’re always circular:

Six watchpapers (and two other prints) mounted on page 88 of Garrick and his contemporaries, compiled by George Daniel (1789-1864). Folger ART Vol. d94 no.88a-h.

It also would have been easier if I’d included something for scale, because they’re all between about an inch and a half to two inches in diameter (4 cm to 5 cm). In other words, they’re all about the same size as a pocket watch. The mystery print, and others like it, are watchpapers (also known as watch papers and watch-papers)1

Example of a watchpaper from

Watchpapers were meant to be cut out and used as liners in pocket watch cases. They helped create a tighter seal, so could just be a circle of plain paper or newspaper (and sometimes were) but where’s the fun in that? The genre arose in the 18th century and continued through the early 20th century, when wrist watches overtook pocket watches in popularity. At first, most printed watchpapers were decorative, and sold by printsellers as ornaments. These are the kind found at the Folger, where we have about two dozen. All were preserved because they were part of someone’s print collection rather than stuck inside someone’s pocket watch. For this reason, most are still untrimmed, showing the full margins and publication information.

Composite image of watchpapers from ART Vol. d94 (clockwise from upper left: 90a, 90b, 91g, 91i, 131a, 135a)

Almost all the watchpapers in the Folger collection are portraits of performers, either in character or as celebrities. Several are listed among the sixty-three in Robert Sayer’s catalog of prints from 1774.

Beginning of the watchpapers section in Robert Sayer’s new and enlarged catalogue for the year MDCCLXXIV (Image of the Huntington copy, from Eighteenth Century Collections Online,
Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.)

Number 15 in Sayer’s catalog, for example, is this print of James Quin as Falstaff:

Watchpaper depicting James Quin as Falstaff, engraved by Louis-Philippe Boitard. Folger ART File Q7.4 no.1

Although the title page of Robert Sayer’s 1774 catalog declares that the contents “are chiefly new,” many of the watchpapers listed are quite old, as indicated by the publication information on surviving copies. Mr. Quin in the Character of Sr. John Falstaff bears the imprint “Sold at the Golden Buck opposite Fetter Lane.” Robert Sayer moved from that address in 1760. The plate may even date back to his predecessor at that address, Philip Overton, who died in 1745.

By the end of the 18th century, purely pictorial watchpapers had mostly fallen out of fashion. People weren’t interested in buying pretty pictures to put inside their watch cases anymore. Watchmakers and repairers, however, became very interested in ordering custom watchpapers to use as advertising. The vast majority of surviving watchpapers are this type, some with just a name and address, but many with pictorial elements. If you want to go down that rabbit hole, the American Antiquarian Society has a database of over 600, all photographed front and back. I haven’t found any Shakespeare imagery in there yet, but who knows.

  1. At the Folger we try to use the single word “watchpapers” because that’s the preferred term in the Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT), and AAT is now the preferred source of genre/form terms in Folger cataloging.


Possibly a silly question, but are there any documents that might indicate what exactly was the appeal of putting an ornamental bit of paper in a place where it would normally be concealed by the watch? Was it so you could get a kick out of knowing it was there even if it was invisible to others, while you would get to see it every time you had to rewind your watch (in which case perhaps naughty pictures would have made more sense than Shakespeare actors)? Or was the main point to casually show off your pretty and/or unusual watchpaper at every opportunity by making it a point to rewind your watch while in society? (‘Oh, so you think my watchpaper looks pretty? Why thank you. That’s Mr Barry in the character of Hamlet, don’t you know. Saw him myself a couple of years ago and thought he was *amazing*, so when I spotted the watchpaper at the stationer’s, I just had to have it…’)

Elisabeth Chaghafi — March 1, 2022

The next page of watchpapers in Robert Sayer’s 1774 catalog include titles such as “A Venus bathing” and “The Charms of the Garter” so you’re not wrong about there being naughty pictures!

We know from contemporary accounts that they were sometimes given as gifts, so I can easily imagine the point being that the recipient has warm thoughts of the giver whenever winding their watch (especially if it’s a print of “A Cupid”, no. 34 in Sayer’s catalog, from your sweet-heart).

It probably helps to think of them as full-size trifles rather than as miniature works of art. Just as you could use any scrap of paper to keep your watch from rattling around in its case, you could use any scrap of paper to mark your place in a book, but people still buy funny or pretty bookmarks as souvenirs and for token gifts. Actually, bookmarks are a pretty good analogy for watchpapers: they’re given away as free advertising when you buy a book, but you can also buy nice ones, and in either case they’re pretty much only seen by the person reading the book.

Erin Blake — March 1, 2022

Thanks, Erin!

Elisabeth Chaghafi — March 2, 2022