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Swiss Watchmaking: The View from 1861

Frederika Bremer gives the following picture of watchmaking in Geneva
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Courtesy of Exelon

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the April 1861 issue of Scientific American.

I was introduced into the watchmakers workshops by M. Vlande, one of the merchants of Geneva, a man of great humanity, and also of rare amiability of disposition and character. I could not have had a better guide, even with regard to the moral inquiries which I wished to make.

We began with the schools of pupils, where young girls learn, for a term of three years, to make every part of a watch. After this time, they select that particular part for which they have most inclination, or in the doing of which they are most expert. Te perfected pupils may be sure, on leaving the school, of obtaining immediate employment among the watchmakers. Young girls from 12 to 18 years of age appear very healthy and well cared for. Each one has her own little table and her own window niche for her work.

The manufacture of pocket-watches is, at the present time, carried to a great extent in Geneva. An immense number are required for the Chinese market. A well-equipped Chinaman, I have been told, carries a watch on each side of his breast, that he may be able to regulate the one by the other. Wealthy Chinese cover the walls of their rooms with watches. These watches are of a more ornamental character, and have more filigree work upon them than those made for Europeans. Long live the Chinese!

At one of the greatest and best conducted manufactories of Geneva nothing but watch faces are prepared, and elderly, well-dressed and well-looking women sat by twenties and thirties in clean, well-warmed rooms, working upon watch faces.

'Do you not get tired of always doing the same work?' I inquired of some of them.

'Oh, no!' replied they, and showed me that each little dial had to pass through fifty different operations before it was finished. This kept the attention awake, and prevented any sense of monotony. They work here from eight o' clock in the morning till six or seven in the evening, and thus earn about 50 francs a month.

'Are you able to lay by anything for old age, or in case of sickness?' I inquired from a mother who had worked there with her daughter, side by side, for ten years.

'On, no!' they replied, 'we have no longer been able to do that, since provision have been so dear.'

'Nor yet for a little journey of pleasure of holiday in the summer?'

'We never think of such a thing. We should be that means lose, not only our money, but also our time, and possibly our place.'

'Is not such a life as this heavy and void of interest?'

'We have Sundays for rest and refreshment, and the evenings for reading or occupation of another kind. Besides which, we need not, during our work, be continually thinking about it.'

The seemed perfectly satisfied.

The workwomen who are able to execute certain more difficult parts of the watch get higher wages, and can earn from five to ten francs a day.

In the meantime, this great division of labor causes the great part of the women not to earn much more than their maintenance.

'My grandmother made whole watches!' said an old woman, with a sigh who was now sitting at home with her daughter, employed in one single operation in a little cog for the great manufactory, 'and at that time women were much higher in the work than they are now, and also got higher payment. They were few in number, but extremely dexterous. Now they are innumerable, but their dexterity is employed upon a mere nothing--a very crumb.'

And this was true as far as the old woman was concerned, for the whole of her work consisted in drilling one little hole in a small steel plate, with a little machine which resembled a tiny spinning wheel. Her daughter was seated at another little machine, and was merely making a little alteration in the hole which her mother had drilled; and six hundred of such holes must be made before they could earn three francs.

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