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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Five O'Clock Club Again

Author: Silvio A. Bedini

( Article orginally published September 1960 )

The publication of the article on "The Five O'Clock Club" a few months ago brought a number of interesting letters from readers all over the country. There has been an interesting correspondence with "a collector of odds and ends." W. Latta Hammersley of Colorado Springs, Colo., for instance. Mr. Hammersley had lived in Philadelphia for over 60 years, and his father had been an occasional dinner guest at the club.

Of particular interest was the dinner held on the 16th Anniversary of the Five 0'Clock Club, when both Mr. Hammersley's father and Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley U.S.N. were guests. From his collection of odds and ends Mr. Hammersley unearthed a copy of the special menu printed for the occasion, and which Admiral Schley had inscribed for his father.

A letter from another reader, the well-known clock collector, Dr. Robert L. Ravel of Philadelphia, took this writer to task for not having identified the clock that appeared on the menus and souvenirs of the Club.

Coincidentally, we spotted the clock in George H. Eckhardt's Pennsylvania Clocks and Clockmakers (New York; Devin-Adair, 1955). Appropriately enough, the clock of the Five O'Clock Club turned out to be one of the most important time-pieces ever produced in this country and one which has a most interesting pedigree.

The clock was made in the early 1770s by David Rittenhouse (1732-1796) one of America's foremost scientists of the Colonial period. A wealthy forge owner named Joseph Potts ordered a clock to be made for his home. When Rittenhouse offered him the clock, which was priced at $640.00, Potts refused it, because, he said, it was too elaborate for his simple tastes and too expensive.

Rittenhouse compromised by making a "half clock" for Potts. This was a wall clock, the only one which he is known to have made.

Meanwhile the elaborate clock did not remain unsold for long. Early in 1774 it was purchased by Thomas Prior.

During the British occupation of Philadelphia the clock was coveted by none other than Sir William Howe. He offered Prior 120 guineas for it, but Prior refused the offer. Later, the Spanish Minister offered $800 for the clock and again Prior refused.

When Prior died in 1801 the clock became the property of Professor Barton, the biographer of Rittenhouse. The next owner was James Swain. Upon Swain's death, in October, 1879, the clock was sold once more. This time it was acquired by George W. Childs.

The Rittenhouse clock was one of Child's most cherished possessions. It is not surprising, therefore, that the clock became the symbol for the Five 0'Clock Club.

When the artist, Dreka, produced the engraving which was to be featured on the Club's menus and souvenirs, the Rittenhouse clock was the dominant motif. In spite of the liberties which Dreka took in the portrayal of the clock, there is no possible doubt regarding its identity. You may recall that the Five O'clock Club was organized in 1883, five years after Childs acquired the clock. Childs died in 1894, and four years later, in 1898, Mrs. Childs presented the Rittenhouse clock to the Drexel Institute of Technology, where the clock has remained on public exhibition to the present time.

As is readily apparent from Figure .2, the clock is a most unusual and complicated time-piece. In importance it ranks second only to the two orreries which Rittenhouse produced.

The case is more than 9 feet high, 2 feet wide, and 15 inches deep. It represents one of the finest pieces of Philadelphia cabinet-making of the 18th century.

The dial-plate serves many purposes. The large, central chapter ring marks time in hours, and minutes. An inner ring indicates the current month. And the days of the month appear in an opening below the hands. The positions of the moon and stars is shown in a crescent-shaped opening above the center of the chapter ring.

A planetarium is featured within the arch of the dial. Of the four subsidiary dials one indicates seconds, another is an indicator for the sun, still another is a selector for the musical attachment of 16 sets of chimes, etc.

Almost as fabulous as the clock was the career of its famous publisher-owner. George William Childs was born May 12th, 1829, in Baltimore. At I13 he joined the Navy and spent 15 months at Norfolk.

By the time he was 15 he was working in a stationery bookstore in Philadelphia. In 1848 he started a confectionery business under the name of George W. Child- & Co., but after several months he abandoned it to sell toilet articles and preparations in the Ledger Building.

In July, 1849, he became asroriated with the book-selling firm of R. E. Peterson. The firm's name was eventually changed to Childs & Peterson.

When the Partnership dissolved in 1860, Childs became associated with J.B. Lippincott. After little more than a year, he retired to take up publishing, in his own right, specializing in tracts on the war.

In January, 1863, he took over the Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine. He then proceeded to found the American Publisher's Circular and Literarv Gazette which continued until 1870.

In December, 1864, he bought the Public Ledger in partnershin with Anthonv J. and Francis A. Drexel. When he bought it, the newspaper was losing $3000 weekly, but in a short time the circulation zoomed.

In 1876 the Ledger was selling 90,000 copies daily and it brought much Publicity because of Childs' high standard for accuracy, decency, and enterprise. Among his other projects, Childs authored the Recollections of General Grant , in 1885.

It is interesting to note that a souvenir spoon was issued to commemorate Childs and the Philadelphia Public Ledger. The handle terminates in a bust of Childs with the words: "Public Ledger, Philadelphia," in a riband around the stem. The bowl illustrates the interior of his fabulous office, where, among many other important events, the Five O'Clock Club was born.


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