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Banjo Clocks by Willard and Others
Inventing and perfecting what is now referred to as a banjo clock was just an incident in a clockmaking career of seventy-seven years. Its inventor, Simon Willard, began making clocks when he was thirteen years old and reluctantly laid down his tools at the age of ninety.
During this long career he made many types of clocks including turret, gallery, church, grandfather or tall case, and the popular banjo which he always referred to as his "patent timepiece." In designing it be probably had in mind the man of moderate means for it was a clear departure from the current tall-case type. The movement was brass, simple but accurate; the case was a practical covering that just happened to resemble a banjo. It was of a form and size that could be hung on a wall and the standard price for it was thirty dollars.
Simon Willard, who was born in Grafton, Massachusetts in 1753, completed his first experimental banjo clock late in the 1790's. A master craftsman and designer but quite lacking in commercial instinct, he made no effort to patent his timepiece until 1802 when his good friend President Jefferson finally persuaded him to do so. He called his new clock "Improved Patent Timepiece." It caught public favor immediately and his competitors were soon imitating it in spite of the patent. As the only action Willard took against the infringers was to refuse to speak to them, plenty of banjo clocks were produced in shops that were in no way connected with either Simon or his brother Aaron. There were probably thirty or more of the pirating clockmakers on Willard's black list. Among the known ones were David Wood of Newburyport, Reuben Tower of Hingham, William Grant of Boston, Nathaniel 1VIonroe and Samuel Whiting of Concord, and Zaccheus Gates of Charlestown.
None of them equalled Willard in craftsmanship or quality of design. He made four thousand of his "patent timepieces." All were finely proportioned and were of the best materials and finest workmanship. With its acorn finial, molded bracket beneath the pendulum box, brass "side boys" flanking the flaring neck, and simple decoration on the oblong pendulum box with the inscription "S. Willard's Patent."
His brother Aaron also made excellent banjo clocks, often more ornate in decoration, especially that of the pendulum door where a scenic pattern was favored. Simon's were without such pictorial effects and also eschewed the spread eagle as a finial motif.
Banjo cases and decoration varied, according to individual makers. One elaborate variation was the lyre clock, designed by Aaron Willard, Jr., a few years before he took over his father's prosperous clock business on Washington Street, Boston, when the latter retired in 1823. The Directoire furniture style was in high favor and one of its decorative details was the lyre motif which, with acanthus carving, was much used by Duncan Phyfe. Young Willard took the lyre motif and used it in a new case design for his uncle's timepiece. It was elaborate enough for the passing fashion but still possessed artistic merit. The work of making such cases of course went to local mirror and picture frame craftsmen who were experts in carving, gilding, and other ornamental details.
A good timekeeper in a handsome case, the lyre clock was well received and many were produced by the Willard family and other Massachusetts clockmakers between 1815 and 1840. These other makers were either former apprentices of the Willards or lived in nearby towns and were familiar with their methods. A good example is an early lyre clock made in Boston before 1820 which bears on its dial the name of "Sawin & Dyer,". The case is typical of the best made in this variation of the banjo. It is of mahogany. The lyre-shaped front is decorated with acanthus leaf carving and frames a glass panel painted to simulate the strings of the instrument. The pendulum box has an oblong door with a panel of mirror glass. An eagle, favored ornament of the day, appears as the finial.
Sawin and Dyer were partners from 1800 to 1820. Sawin had been trained in the shop of the elder Aaron Willard, was considered a fine clockmaker and often commissioned by the Willards to make clocks for them. Dyer, who was also a maker of banjo-clock movements, left Boston in 1820 and later settled in Middlebury, Vermont, where he continued as a clockmaker for some years. Sawin worked in Boston until 1863. His shop was at 33 C.ornhill where, according to his advertisements, he was a "Manufacturer of all kinds of clocks for Church, Gallery, Bank, Office, Factory; Watchclocks and common House Clocks."