What Time Is It?

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Mark Twain’s Quest to Bring Affordable Watches to the Masses

by Stephen J. Mexal Smithsonian.com

Today, it’s common for celebrities to hawk products that seem to have little, if anything, to do with what made them famous in the first place. Although this phenomenon may seem recent, it’s actually quite old. American novelist Mark Twain, for instance, endorsed a lot of products. Some made him money; some didn’t.

But there was at least one product he genuinely loved. Twain loved watches. And like many watch enthusiasts, perhaps the only thing Twain loved more than owning watches was complaining about them.

In one piece published in the November 26, 1870, issue of the Buffalo Express, the 34-year-old told a story about getting a new watch. Wanting to make sure he was setting it to the correct time, he brought it to a watchmaker, who took one look and told him it needed to be adjusted. No, Twain explained, the watch was new—he only needed to know the correct time. The watchmaker refused to listen. Finally, Twain relented and let him adjust the watch. Sure enough, the watch, which had previously kept perfect time, began to gain several minutes a day.

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