Everyday items that came out of the First World War
There are many products that we use on a daily basis and don’t even think about where they originated and how they came to be a part of everyday life. The First World War was a time of great innovation – and not just in military terms. Products that owe their development to the war include items such as tea bags, wristwatches, zips and tissues.
A gold trench watch from 1916
Watches for the wrist had been around since the 18th century but were almost exclusively used by women. Any man wearing one would be seen as “effeminate”, however the war banished that sexual stereotype forever, turning them into a mass market product.
British army officers began using wristwatches on colonial service in the late 19th century but they were essentially pocket watches secured with a strap. Purpose-built wristwatches known as “wristlet watches” began to appear in the early 20th century.
Today smartwatches measure people's health and fitness, as well as telling the time
In 1914 it was still considered “improper” for civilian men to wear a wristwatch, but synchronization of military action made knowing the right time essential and the wristwatch was too practical to ignore. They were designed to withstand the rigours of combat, with luminous dials and “unbreakable” glass. One manufacturer even produced a “Trench Watch” and from 1917 the army issued them to lieutenants and captains.
Soldiers returning home normalised the wristwatch for civilians and by 1930, the wrist-to-pocket-watch ratio was 50 to 1.
Today tea bags make up a huge 96% of all tea sold, but did you know that the tea bag was inadvertently invented in 1908 by New York merchant Thomas Sullivan. As a sales gimmick he sent samples of his leaves in small silk bags to customers, who wrongly assumed they were meant to be popped into a cup of hot water. It worked; people loved the idea but some complained that the silk did not allow tea to infuse quickly enough.
During the war, Dresden tea firm Teekanne adapted the idea, sending hand-made gauze teabags to the front. Soldiers called them “tea bombs” and commercial production began in Germany and the US in the 1920s where gauze was replaced by perforated paper. However, the idea took decades to catch on in Britain, pioneered by Tetley in 1953, tea bags made slow progress, with just 3% of tea sold in bags by 1960.
A form of zip was first created in 1851 when sewing machine pioneer Elias Howe patented an Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure in Massachusetts, but it wasn’t until 1913 that the zip we know today was invented. Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American electrical engineer and head designer at the Universal Fastener Company in Meadville, Pennsylvania, came up with the Separable Fastener.
The US military quickly began using zips in boots and uniforms and they were first seen in Europe when America joined the war in 1917. Mass production began in the 1920s, mainly for boots, and Sundback’s firm Talon Zipper dominated the market for decades. Zips were slow to catch on in clothing; it wasn’t until the 1930s that Esquire magazine hailed them as the “newest tailoring idea for men”, preventing “the possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray”.
The idea for the paper tissue came about by accident when two years prior to creation, scientists at Kimberly-Clark produced a flattened form of Cellucotton while trying to develop filters for gas masks. The project ended when the war ended; but two years later they came up with the idea of ironing cellulose material to produce a soft tissue.
In 1924 the firm launched Kleenex, the first paper handkerchief, initially introduced as a cold cream remover for women. By 1929 they were marketed as an alternative to the handkerchief, especially good at stopping colds from spreading germs and a year later, sales had doubled.