Glass pocket watch could have been used by medicine show hustlers

Published 8:16 pm Friday, July 12, 2019


Personal Effects

Question: Jerry, what is this? Is it a glass pocket watch? Why is there a glass pocket watch? Was it a toy?

Email newsletter signup

I thought at first it was an old perfume bottle but it doesn’t open.

I can see traces of gold on it and there are even holes that would have had a ring on it that it would have hung from. We’re stumped. Help us, antique master. Thanks for the time you took to look at this.

Answer: You know every once in a while, a really cool piece of glassware comes through my inbox. This is one of those times.

This is a really, really cool piece with a great bit of history. I had to reach out to a glass collector’s forum to find the answers.

What you have is a shill piece. Most of the stories that I found were dating from the early 1930s, but there were some references dating to the mid 1900s. All of the stories are charming, but sadly nothing can really be verified.

However, we have a glass watch that we’re looking at, so something has to be true.

One story is that these were used in jewelry store window displays. That way if someone busted out your window and did a snatch-and-grab, you were out the loss of your window and not hundreds of dollars in watches.

The second, and most intriguing story, is that this was a shill piece. An old-time medicine show hustler, or scam artist, would declare that a fine, gold watch was yours for the purchase of their product. Often, a real gold watch was passed around, to much admiration.

All you had to do was buy their special tea, medical powder, or whatever, and your free gift of a watch was inside.

Simple! But, when the container was opened, after the flim-flam man was long out of town, you discovered that you had a gilded glass pocket watch, that was gorgeous, but it sure wouldn’t tell time. You got hooked.

Glass collectors just love these pieces. Your piece has been loved and handled a lot over these 80-plus years, so most of the gold is gone.

Trust me, when it was new, it would have been quite easy to fool someone with its golden surface, and the heft of a quality timepiece.

You are missing the bail at the top that it would have hung from. This would have been gold plated too. Aside from that it’s great.

I didn’t find a lot of comps out in the marketplace, but I did find a few. I would say that this piece with its interesting history would be priced in a retail store for about $60. If the gilding on your piece was still bright and crisp I think the price would be double, or more. What a great story and thanks for sharing it.