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Antique Clocks (Part 3 Of 3)


For purposes of convenient and comprehensive classification I will divide these early American clocks into four somewhat arbitrary groups: miscellaneous tall clocks, clocks by the Willard brothers and their imitators, Connecticut clocks by Terry and others, and the shelf or mantel clocks of the early nineteenth century.

During the eighteenth century the American tall clocks were of many styles and grades, from the cheapest pine cases and wooden works to expensive ones with finely engraved brass faces, brass works, the moon's phases in the arch above the dial, and fine mahogany cases. The best of these old American tall clocks are much prized by collectors. The faces were usually square, with circular dials; the arch above is variable.

The finest of these clocks were made just prior to the Revolution. After 1790 fewer expensive clocks and more cheap ones were made, to conform with post-bellum hard times. After 1790 the tall clocks almost invariably bore plain metal or wooden faces, painted or enameled in white, with colored decorations. Elaborate brass faces were seldom used. Wooden works became more common, for the same reason, often improved by bearings made of hard bone or horn. Painted pine cases became far more common than mahogany.

In these old days clock-makers frequently made the works alone, and these were sold about the country by peddlers. Local cabinet-makers were hired to make the cases. This accounts for the wide variety in style, quality, and materials. Sometimes the clock-maker's name is found, sometimes the owner's, and sometimes the local carpenter's; a study of American tall clocks by style and signature is at times far from satisfactory. These tall clocks were made in America up to 1815 or 1820, and were then discontinued until the recent Colonial revival.

In the South but few clocks were made. Tall clocks were in general use, but they were chiefly English. In some cases the works were brought from England or the North and the cases made by Southern cabinet-makers.

A few miscellaneous types of American clocks of this period might be mentioned in passing: miniature grandfather clocks, three or four feet tall; inlaid, lyre-shaped clocks after the style of Sheraton, and brass-mounted mahogany clocks in the Empire style. During this time several towns in Connecticut were gaining a reputation as centers for the manufacture of ingenious, cheap Yankee clocks.

Eli Terry was the most famous of the Connecticut clock-makers, as well as one of the first. He began clock-manufacture as a business in 1793. James Harrison made clocks in Waterbury as early as i']qo, and Daniel Burnap made brass clocks at East Windsor at an early date. Their work does not begin to rank in importance with Terry's, however. Eli Terry was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, in April, 1772, and, while a boy, showed a marked mechanical bent. Before he was twenty-one he had made several wall clocks of wood. In 1793 he went to Plymouth, in Litchfield County, Connecticut, and began making wooden clocks as a business.He also made works for tall clocks and sold them to peddlers. By 1800 he had some help, but no machinery, making his clocks entirely with saw, jack-knife, and file. He was able to make and sell only a few each year, at about $25 apiece.

In 1807 Terry bought an old mill in Plymouth and got a contract for five hundred clocks from some men in Waterbury. The first consignment of clocks made by machinery in this country was turned out in 1808, the whole five hundred having been started at once. In 1810 Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadley bought out the Terry factory and continued the manufacture of works for tall cases. There were then similar establishments in Waterbury.

Terry made several styles of clocks. Most of them had wooden works which were so well made that some of them are still good timekeepers. They were peddled all over New England.

There were many other successful clock-makers of lesser importance in Connecticut. About 1818 an excellent eight-day clock of brass was invented by Joseph Ives, and later brass clocks were made in large quantities by Chauncey Jerome and exported to England. He also made a very cheap clock with an octagonal face.

In the meantime, Massachusetts manufacturers had been proceeding along slightly different lines. The most famous of them were the three Willard brothers, who made clocks at Grafton, Massachusetts, as early as 1765. Later they manufactured also in Boston and Roxbury. They made tall striking clocks at first, and about 1784 they designed a mahogany shelf or bracket clock about twenty-six inches high. Another form of Willard clock stood two or three feet high, with the lower portion slightly larger across than the upper.

The famous banjo shape is usually attributed to Simon Willard, though it may have been designed by his brother Aaron. It was a graceful and conveniently arranged form of pendulum clock for the wall; it dates from about 1790, and was made in Boston up to about 1820.

The works were of brass, ran for eight days, and kept good time. There was no striker in most of the banjo clocks. A few were made with strike and alarm attachments, but I have heard of only half a dozen of these in existence today.The cases were made of various combinations of mahogany, gilt wood, decorated glass, and brass. There were some elaborate ones made about 1815-1820, but at first they were neat and comparatively plain.Banjo clocks were selling as low as $10 in 1807-due, no doubt, to sharp Connecticut competition.

In 1814 Eli Terry introduced a short shelf or mantel clock which was, in principle, a tall clock compressed, though not in the form of the miniatures.It was a wooden clock, with shorter pendulum and weights than were formerly in use.It had pillars at the sides twenty-one inches long, a square base, and a dial eleven inches square. This clock became very popular and sold for $15.

Terry made other styles, and other makers made various forms of mantel clocks for both kitchen and parlor. Many of them were oblong in shape with square corners. Some were in frames of plain mahogany molding; some were of rosewood and inlay; some had Colonial pillars of wood or composition at the sides, with gilt bands or ornaments. The front generally consisted of a glass door, sometimes plain but usually painted. Often a landscape and occasionally a portrait appears on the glass below the dial. Sometimes we find mirrors in the lower part. Some of these mantel clocks are handsome, but for the most part they are extremely plain and sensible. A paper notice giving the name of the maker is often found pasted on the inside of the case, behind the pendulum.Prior to 1820 the date is seldom given.

By 1837 practically all clock works were made of brass, and were much improved and cheaper.With this date ends the period of old clocks.

There are several collectors in this country who make a specialty of clocks, and a delightful specialty it is.Any suggestions that I can offer, however, will be for the owner of one old clock, or at most a specimens, in connection with other Colonial possessions.

Of course antique clocks can be counterfeited, like everything else, but a little study of genuine specimens in museums and elsewhere will help the purchaser to know what to look for in case, works, and dial. The greatest danger is in paying an eighteenthcentury price for a nineteenth-century clock with an eighteenth-century dial, or some similar fraudulent combination. It is wise to examine and compare all the parts.

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