Every Monday morning for forty-nine years, from 1892 to 1940, Ruth Belville rose early and traveled from her home outside London into the city and then to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. There her eighteenth century gentleman’s pocket watch, a family heirloom, was checked for its precision to one-tenth of a second. Every week, she received a certificate of its accuracy from the staff at the Observatory, and, thus armed, made her way back toward central London to sell the time to a number of subscribers. She’d begin in the East End docks and make her way westward, visiting the city’s commercial district; the clock and watchmakers’ neighborhood, Clerkenwell; and the luxury retail areas around Bond Street, Regent Street, and Mayfair, in the West End.
These were long and arduous days. She had about fifty subscribers in all, and visited about thirty per week. Most of her clients were watch and clockmakers, or large industrial firms that needed accurate time to do business. But Ruth also supplied a few luxury firms and private families, including two millionaires who paid for the kudos of owning time that was accurate to a T.
Ruth’s father, John Henry Belville, started the business in 1836, a half-century before time was globally standardized in the 1880s. Belville was an astronomer and meteorologist at the Royal Observatory whose time subscription service took Greenwich Mean Time on the road. Before then, individuals who needed to know GMT had to travel to Greenwich, knock on the door of the Observatory, and ask the Astronomer Royal or one of his assistants. Watch and clockmakers frequently did so, and it was in an effort to rid himself of this inconvenience that the Astronomer Royal hit on the idea of a time subscription service. He duly gave Belville a chronometer, made in 1794 by John Arnold, a top clockmaker and inventor who had been the first to design a portable watch that was both practical and exceptionally accurate, capable even of determining longitude at sea. With it, Belville went on to build up a business on behalf of the Observatory of about two hundred subscribers to whose doors he or his assistants delivered the time on a weekly basis. After Belville’s death in 1856, and with the consent of the Observatory, the business was carried on by his much younger widow, Maria, until her retirement in 1892. Then their daughter Ruth took over the business and ran it until she retired in 1940, three years before her death.
The family story is told by Ruth’s biographer David Rooney in his 2008 book Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady (it is also pithily summarized in his Science Museum blog). Rooney argues that Ruth was far from an anachronism, though she continued to provide her services even after the introduction of the electric telegraph clock in the 1850s, the BBC radio pips in 1924, and Tim, the “speaking clock,” in 1936. Progress is neither seamless nor rational, as Rooney writes; new and old technologies often overlap, coexisting side-by-side over several years, and old habits die hard. He points out that the newer systems were not always as dependable as the punctual Ruth—who turned up with her reliable timepiece and its certificate of accuracy at exactly the same time each week or fortnight. She operated, as they say, like clockwork.
While reading Ruth’s story, I became intrigued by who her clients might be, especially the West End ones. I soon discovered that these included Mappin & Webb, luxury retailers of fine jewelry and watches, and “Jiggumbob,” the Old Bond Street branch of the clock and watchmaker Benson (“Jiggumbob” was the company’s telegraphic address at that time). As a fashion historian who has written extensively on the subject of time in fashion, I wondered how and why this professional woman extended her sales to such a fashionable West End elite alongside the artisanal and industrial businesses that formed the bulk of her customers.
Ruth herself was far from fashionable, though she lived in an era in which women’s appearances determined how they were treated in public spaces, so she was neatly and respectably dressed, as befitted a professional middle-aged businesswoman who had to traverse the city streets. But Ruth’s work ran parallel to important changes in the fashion industry. Her sales coincided with a period in which the standardization of international time had a transformative effect on fashion and commerce.
In 1880, Greenwich Mean Time had become the legal standard across Britain, and in 1884 at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, DC, time was standardized internationally with zones based on the Greenwich meridian. Although this standardization was developed partially to enable the coordination of railway timetables across national borders, it also benefited the global fashion industry, with its important links to Paris.
European fashion had been seasonal since the seventeenth century, but the standardization of time in the later nineteenth century facilitated the development of new technologies and goods, and engendered new tastes and sensibilities. The expansion of commercial telegraph networks in the latter part of the century allowed American retailers to steal a march on French fashion designers, by telegraphing ahead the details of their exclusive Paris collections before they hit the US stores. In the early twentieth century, new media like wireless radio and newsreel film overturned conventional notions of time and space, bringing simultaneity into daily life and consciousness as effectively as avant-garde music and literature. Suddenly, French fashion models strolling at the Paris races could be seen in cinemas from Buenos Aires to Buffalo. At the same time, due to the telegraph, an expanding international fashion press regulated both trade and publicity across continents. From approximately 1860 until 1920, the seasonal organization of the modern fashion system was cemented by the production of biannual fashion shows, which still structure the fashion industry today. Even “fast fashion,” a new industry model in which a product can go from factory to shop floor in under a fortnight, has not completely erased this prescribed annual timetable. No other industry since has had quite such a rigid schedule, with the possible exception of the twentieth-century automobile industry.
Today’s links between fashion, time, and globalization have their origins in the nineteenth century colonial era. In 1908, when the above photograph was taken, the immediacy of fashion, and its ability to bridge continents, positioned it at the vanguard of future sensibilities, as an engine of modernist change. The political theorist David Harvey has argued that modernism was a consequence of changes in the social perception of time and space (which are themselves linked to new technology and capitalist innovation), changes that began in the mid-nineteenth century and peaked just before the First World War. The birth of time as a commodity is linked to the birth of the modern fashion system in the late 1800s. And the image of Ruth Belville, an independent one-woman business, is but a tiny visualization, albeit an eloquent one, of how time had both become a commodity and was linked to commodity culture.
What did it mean for Ruth to sell (and buy) time? Her family history suggests that time was a commodity as early as 1836, when her father first began to sell it. Or perhaps it is better described as a service, one of the earliest of the modern service industries. The watch, which Ruth called “Arnold” after its maker, she always carried with her. I imagine her traveling through the city with time in her handbag—metaphysics compacted in a piece of machinery, bounded by the mechanism of a pocket watch and displayed by the revolution of its hands across its face.
Such organic language to describe a piece of machinery: “hands” and “face.” Unlike flesh, a mechanical clock doesn’t decay—“Arnold” told the time as accurately in 1940 as it had in 1794, yet in giving the watch a name, Ruth attempted to anthropomorphize its movement. Likewise in fashion, the rhythms and patterns of the human body are often used to make an explicit link to time and seasonality, to bring together the organic and the inorganic. In a 1927 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, the latest fashions are drawn on a clockface; a circle of 12 women with linked arms are arranged around the central hub to represent the hours. The image relies on the convention that different dresses were appropriate for day, afternoon, and evening wear, while also suggesting the inexorable passage of time in an industry predicated upon rapid change.
During that long moment of modernity, time itself could be sold—as it was by the Belvilles, and as it was by the fashion industry. The hands of the clock that marked time in seconds and minutes became marketplace commodities, just as, in fashion, the turning of the natural seasons from spring to summer, and autumn to winter, became half-yearly markers of commercial culture. While Ruth Belville sold time by the second, and to the second, the fashion houses scaled up the commercial proposition, selling it in six-monthly chunks.
Ruth’s mother, Maria, had walked the London streets selling time. When Ruth took over, a number of forms of public transport—tram, bus, electric train—had become available. But she would still have walked considerable distances. I imagine her footsteps, regular as the movement of a clock—this human chronometer who walked from office to office, selling time anew wherever she stopped. Ruth’s bubble of microhistory reveals global narratives, while her steps echo the tempo of the industrial world, in which time, commerce, and fashion marched to the same beat.