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Lincoln’s Pocketwatch: Watchmaker Graffiti

President Abraham Lincoln's Pocketwatch.  English movement in Us-made gold hunter case.  Photo: National Museum of American History

President Abraham Lincoln's Pocketwatch. English movement in Us-made gold hunter case. Photo: National Museum of American History

As reported by the Washington Post, what had survived only as a little-known bit of family folklore in an Irish family was recently discovered to be fact: in 1861 watchmaker Jonathan Dillon engraved his own bit of personal graffiti inside the watch of the President of the United States.

Apparently in the opening days of the civil war US President Abraham Lincoln had sent his watch in for a service. The watch contains an English movement in a gold US-made hunter case.  While to the uninitiated such a configuration might seem odd, it’s very fitting in the historical context.  In this time prior to the advent of the “American system” of mass-produced interchangeable parts that rose to prominence later in the 19th Century and made makers like Waltham famous, handmade English movements were regarded as among the best in the world.  At the time the common practice was for jewelers to offer a selection of grades of cases and movements for the customer to choose from, with the movement being cased only at the time of sale.

Watchmaker Jonathan Dillon's private inscription under the dial side of Abraham Lincoln's English Pocketwatch.

Watchmaker Jonathan Dillon's private inscription under the dial side of Abraham Lincoln's English Pocketwatch. Photo: National Museum of American History

To mark the significance of the historical occasion rather than just the typical simple service mark inside the case, Dillon the watchmaker was inspired to commemorate the initiation of the shelling of Ft. Sumter with his own inscription on the dial side of the main plate.  Since its viewing would have required removing the hands and dial, it is unlikely anyone but subsequent watchmakers ever saw it until just recently when it was opened to investigate the validity of the fable.  It’s likely Lincoln himself never even knew it was there.

At least one of said subsequent watchmakers was apparently inspired to make his own markings as well.  Inscrutablly, the plate also bears an inscription of the name “Jeff Davis” as well, inscribed in a different hand, and a subsequent 1864 date.

For more on the story also see this post at the Watchismo Blog, the story at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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One Response

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  1. jim moose says

    The inscription was never found till a little known politician from
    Illinois was elected president? And this watch has been a prize of
    the Smithsonian Institution for how long? It wouldn’t surprise me
    if they found Obama’s name in the back of it……………………..
    jim