Thanks for the great guesses about the March 2022 Crocodile Mystery! All were different, all were plausible, and all were incorrect. It would have been easier if I’d included other examples of the same type of print, because they’re always circular:
It also would have been easier if I’d included something for scale, because they’re all between about an inch and a half to two inches in diameter (4 cm to 5 cm). In other words, they’re all about the same size as a pocket watch. The mystery print, and others like it, are watchpapers (also known as watch papers and watch-papers)1
Watchpapers were meant to be cut out and used as liners in pocket watch cases. They helped create a tighter seal, so could just be a circle of plain paper or newspaper (and sometimes were) but where’s the fun in that? The genre arose in the 18th century and continued through the early 20th century, when wrist watches overtook pocket watches in popularity. At first, most printed watchpapers were decorative, and sold by printsellers as ornaments. These are the kind found at the Folger, where we have about two dozen. All were preserved because they were part of someone’s print collection rather than stuck inside someone’s pocket watch. For this reason, most are still untrimmed, showing the full margins and publication information.
Almost all the watchpapers in the Folger collection are portraits of performers, either in character or as celebrities. Several are listed among the sixty-three in Robert Sayer’s catalog of prints from 1774.
Number 15 in Sayer’s catalog, for example, is this print of James Quin as Falstaff:
Although the title page of Robert Sayer’s 1774 catalog declares that the contents “are chiefly new,” many of the watchpapers listed are quite old, as indicated by the publication information on surviving copies. Mr. Quin in the Character of Sr. John Falstaff bears the imprint “Sold at the Golden Buck opposite Fetter Lane.” Robert Sayer moved from that address in 1760. The plate may even date back to his predecessor at that address, Philip Overton, who died in 1745.
By the end of the 18th century, purely pictorial watchpapers had mostly fallen out of fashion. People weren’t interested in buying pretty pictures to put inside their watch cases anymore. Watchmakers and repairers, however, became very interested in ordering custom watchpapers to use as advertising. The vast majority of surviving watchpapers are this type, some with just a name and address, but many with pictorial elements. If you want to go down that rabbit hole, the American Antiquarian Society has a database of over 600, all photographed front and back. I haven’t found any Shakespeare imagery in there yet, but who knows.
- At the Folger we try to use the single word “watchpapers” because that’s the preferred term in the Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT), and AAT is now the preferred source of genre/form terms in Folger cataloging.