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A Penny-Sized History of the Tiny Jeans Pocket

It’s obvious that your little hip pouch was never intended for your Juul. But where did the tiny jeans pocket come from?

Y’know that itty-bitty pocket on your jeans that runs perpendicular to the curve on your much larger front pocket, and that has a max capacity of roughly one to two adult fingers? Fuck did that guy come from?

For years, I assumed that the tiny pocket was nothing more than a practical joke from some illustrious French fashion guy from centuries past, who got a bit high on hash one night and announced, in an extra phlegmy French tone, his intention to sew a tiny pocket onto his jeans to keep his cigarette fingers warm whilst they were out of commission. But alas, the tiny jean pocket was not, in fact, a gift from le French: Instead, it’s about as American as a pair of Levi’s (prior to all their denim being manufactured in China, y’know). 

Known as the “watch pocket,” according to Levi Strauss’ blog, “the first blue jeans had four pockets — only one in back and, in the front, two plus the small, watch pocket.” “Originally included as protection for pocket watches, thus the name, this extra pouch has served many functions, evident in its many titles: frontier pocket, condom pocket, coin pocket, match pocket and ticket pocket, to name a few.”

To that end, Levi’s historian Tracey Panek told HuffPost in 2016, “The pocket appears on the oldest pair of jeans in the Levi’s archives, which date to about 1879.” The design for the watch pocket, according to a 2018 report in Business Insider, first appeared in the patent that Levi Strauss and J.W. Davis “received for ‘Improvement in Fastening Pocket Openings,’ way back on May 20, 1873, and were first put into mass use in 1890 with the ‘Lot 501’ jeans, the model for Levis 501 jeans today.”

But even before Levi’s befitted the masses with the watch pocket — better known nowadays as the Juul pocket, considering the last person who carried a pocket watch probably died in Williamsburg some years ago — it already existed as accoutrement for other apparel. According to fashion historian Jessica Glasscock, the brand of tiny pocket “would have originally been located in the vest or frock coat.” Hence why, according to the same report from Business Insider, “you won’t usually find it on suit pants.” “Suit jackets already have pocket watches, which makes one on the pants superfluous,” writes Jacob Shamsian

It’s Glasscock’s understanding that the concept or design of the watch pocket, like so many sartorial details, likely stems from the military, who first put the watch pocket on their trousers, “or maybe the uniform for the railways,” she says, citing a 19th century uniform pant with a watch pocket.  

These days, as already noted, the initial utilitarian basis for the watch pocket is essentially defunct. Still, what was once a place to hold time is now typically used to store a vape, as one redditor noted two years ago. But since it’s not designed to be vape-shaped, if you use your watch pocket for this purpose, be careful: As a different redditor notes, he lost his first Juul when he sat down, not realizing that the force from his thigh was enough to push the rectangular device out from his tiny pocket and into the great big world, where it was never, ever seen again. 

Perhaps we should take note of the watch’s evolution and start strapping our vapes to our wrists — it just makes sense.