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Tilson's Timepiece

Timepiece linked image pt.2

Full Hunter Case Pocket watch with watch chain, made of human hair. [Photo provided by Ashley Trainor, collections manager, Historical Huguenot Street]

Description

This gold pocket watch was owned by Harry C. Tillson and was donated the Historic Huguenot Street by the Tilson Estate(Oliver Tilson II, Grandson to Harry). The watch is a full hunter-cased style, the case can be opened with one hand, and is roughly two inches in diameter. This design has a latching front and back, which closes to protect the crystal, hands, and dial (face) from dust and scratches. There is a push bottom crown on top of the watch, which opens the outer casing and winds the watch. The front outside is elaborately engraved with finial design of the initials HTC. Inside the watch cover, there is also a simple scripted engraving that reads “California 1875.” Both front and back closures are hinged at the bottom, which aligns with 9 on the dial. The rim of the timepiece itself is grooved, which provides grip and acts as a decorative accent, and like the rest of the outer portion, it is gold. Immediately linked to the hoop surrounding the crown is a standard clasp, is a tightly woven chain of human hair, accented with gold, measuring approximately 7-½ inches. Connected on the opposite end, there is a latch which allows the watch to be connected, to something such as a button hole, a belt loop, pocket, so as not to lose the watch. In the center of the chain there is an additional accent, which may act as an added support, attached to this are two small charms or fobs, which have a design that has patinated and worn away, and is now indistinguishable.

Provenance

While it is not clear exactly how this watch got donated to Historic Huguenot Street. It is safe to assume that this piece of history as donated with the collection of Oliver J. Tillson Family Papers. These papers detail the life of Oliver J. Tilson’s involvement in the town and his records, and his families local history and movements in the area. 

Narrative

Based on the inscription inside the watch cover we can assume that this watch was made in California in 1875. While tracing the Tilson genealogy I discovered that no other member of the family carried theses initials at the date of the inscription. It was a practice for the maker to include his Name or Mark on the casing, above the creation date, as a sign of value or worth. Perhaps this has been worn away. Harry, himself, can be traced to California via his coal business, along with the house next to the family home “Lake Ledge,” in the former New Paltz Landing, on Vineyard avenue. In the 1908 listing of copper mines, it is established that Mr. Tilson was in the business of mining copper in New Mexico, placing him much closer to California. This is a seminal reason as to why May Tilson’s death had been reported in a Los Angeles newspaper May 4th, 1900. The tight braid connecting this watch to Harry himself may have been made to commemorate his wife’s death in 1900, and is very likely to be made of her hair, a token of his love for her. Although this is speculative, it is common practice during this time and being so far from home, it may have been his only resolve at the time. It is unknown at this time as to where Mrs. Tilson is at rest, further burying the mystery of the hair attached to the watch.

August 7th, 1863 Harry C. Tilson was born to Mary and Oliver J. Tilson, of New Paltz Landing (now known as Highland), NY. His father Oliver was a fruit farmer, Rosendale town supervisor, and established cartographer for the county of Ulster (“Oliver J. Tillson Family Papers (1787-1899)”). On October 13th, 1886, Harry married Mathilda “May” Allen, daughter of a methodist reverend. Their marriage was cut short by the sudden illness and subsequent passing of May. They had three children, the youngest being 5 years of age at the time of her death. Harry Tilson passed 53 years later, after suffering a heart attack, post-surgery, where he had relocated in the years following May’s death, in Deland Florida. His obituary in the Kingston Daily Freeman reported that he was active in the Presbyterian church and the ancient order of Good Fellows (a now defunct masonic group).

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Oliver Tilson’s Ulster County, 1853. {HRVH}

Provenance

Based on the inscription inside the watch cover it is safe to assume that this watch was made in California in 1875. In scaling the Tilson genealogy, it was determined to be Harry’s monogram, because any other Tilson carrying the HTC initials were born well after the date of the inscription. Although I was unable to see the engraving itself in picture or person (collection unavailable), I am pressed to believe it is in/or the backside of the hunter-casing, as a maker or jeweler’s marked inscription or inception. Curiously, it was a practice for the maker to include his Name or Mark on the casing, above the creation date, as a sign of value or worth. Perhaps this has been worn away. Harry, himself, can be traced to California via his coal business, along with the house next to the family home “Lake Ledge,” in the former New Paltz Landing, on Vineyard avenue. In the 1908 listing of copper mines, it is established that Mr. Tilson was in the business of mining copper in New Mexico, placing him much closer to California. This is a seminal reason as to why May Tilson’s death had been reported in a Los Angeles newspaper on May 4th, 1900. The tight braid connecting this watch to Harry himself may have been made to commemorate his wife’s death in 1900 and is very likely to be made of her hair, a token of his love for her. Although this is speculative, it is common practice during this time and being so far from home, it may have been his only resolve at the time. It is unknown at this time as to where Mrs. Tilson is at rest, further burying the mystery of the hair attached to the watch.

The use of human hair as adornment and memory begins in France and England in the 1700’s, popularized by, Queen Victoria. This trend began with wig makers, and eventually became another parlor craft of home makers and funerary momentos throughout Europe and the United states in the following century (Lutz 132).This home craft extending beyond mourning, to include ornamental hair samples of lineage from children of the women weaving, keeping a very personal family album, an estrangement from bible cover lineage. In the United States this practice may have been adopted not only in craftwork, but to make special, as the sentimentality of the losses of the very recent Civil War and the onset of the manufacturing boom of the Industrial Revolution.

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Women’s bracelet made of intricate hair work, American, 1850-1899 (Artstor)

The hair mourning jewelry typically worn by women can range from elaborately woven laces to simple lockets containing a small snippet of hair. Being so popular towards the end of the 19th century, it was common for many jewelers to have in-house hair weavers, custom fitting precious metal (predominantly silver and gold) to chains. This particular chain, and many like it often had charms accenting the rest of the metal work and clasps. These accents were customized for the owner of the watch, and often a piece of jewelry belonging to the deceased (Holm).

Men’s accessories were not as elaborate of their counterpart’s however, the sentimentality remains, as an embodiment of the hair-owner’s soul, forever in functional capacity with the bearer. In the cases of long braids, such as this example, it would be necessary for the hair to be long, and tightly woven so as to minimize fraying. The hair is often taken from the body before burial and for such a memento, it is likely to be conditioned to minimize its deterioration, as it is likely to be touched and used more than that of a women’s piece of jewelry, such as a brooch, pendant, or bracelet. It would be sensical then, for Harry to display his mourning practice and love for his deceased in this manner. As a businessman, it would be important for Harry to keep time, and secondly, to have adequate remembrance of his wife. New Paltz’s rich history includes many items of hair-craft. It would befit the cultural practices at the time and his hometown if he were to display such a mourning practice.

 This piece of Harry C. Tilson’s life traveled from California to his home town New Paltz. The story of an object’s return is popular in local archives and institutions. We have heard of objects returned to New Paltz from auctions, attics and garages, this is yet another example of how far local New Paltz history can go, and still return to its home.

~Jessica Schrufer

Works Cited

American. Bracelet. 1850-1899, Woven hair, ARTstor. Web, 18 April 2017.

Holm, Christiane. “Sentimental Cuts: Eighteenth-Century Mourning Jewelry with Hair.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, 2004, pp. 139–143. 

“Los Angeles– Mrs. Harry C. Tilson”. May 4 1900. XIV, Local Obituaries, Elting Memorial Library, New Paltz. 11 April 2017, pp.226.

Lutz, Deborah. “The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, And Death Culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 39, no. 1, 2011, pp. 127–142. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41307854?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3A705b743ea13e61e55d7ccd61ce400079&seq=12#page_scan_tab_contents 

“Obituaries.” Kingston Daily Freeman 1 May 1953, Notices sec.: n. pag. Print. “Harry C. Tilson”

“Oliver J. Tillson Family Papers (1787-1899)”. Historic Huguenot Street. Huguenot Historical Society, 17 May 2004. https://www.huguenotstreet.org/oliver-j-tillson-family-papers?rq=Oliver%20J.%20Tillson%20Family%20Papers%20(1787-1899 

Stevens, Horace J. The Copper handbook: a manual of the copper industry of the world. Vol. VIII. Houghton (Mich.): H.J. Stevens, 1909. p. 1431.

“Tilson: Mathilda”. October 13 1886. VII, Page 125. Local Marriages, Elting Memorial Library, New Paltz. 11 April 2017.

Tilson, Mercer V. The Tilson Genealogy. Vol. 1638-1911. Baltimore: Gateway Press, Inc., 1982. 

Tilson, Oliver J. “Map of Ulster County, New York.” The Library of Congress.1854. https://www.loc.gov/item/2001621181/