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More Talk About Time
By L.W. Slaughter
( Article orginally published October 1960 )
When one has devoted as much time and energy to the task of trying to interest people in the laudable and satisfying hobby of collecting old time-pieces, as I have, it is well to stop and take stock of the results.
I have been writing articles for HOBBIES Magazine on a monthly basis for a period of nearly 10, years. The sum total of this effort amounts to nearly a million words which, if published in book form, would make a sizable library of 25 to 30 fullsized volumes.
The subject has been discussed in ordinary layman's language and from almost every conceivable angle. I must believe that this material has been widely read since there have been an uncounted number of letters from people who have said they enjoyed reading it.
When I read the letters that come to me every day of the year there seems to be very little difference in the tone of this correspondence from that which came to me in the earliest days of my writing.
This, of course, makes me wonder whether or not the things I have said in print have made any kind of impression on my readers. There still appears to be very little real understanding of the subject, or should I say, there is a great amount of misunderstanding of the subject.
I am well aware of the fact that to be a successful collector of old time-pieces there is a requirement for more technical knowledge than one must have in many other segments of the antiques business. It may be worthy of note that many consider clocks to be in the category of furniture. For instance, you will find that clocks are extensively dealt with in Wallace Nutting's "Furniture Treasury," and Miller's "American Antique Furniture."
It should not be so very difficult to attain a broad conception of the subject of collectable time-pieces. We know that mechanical clocks have been made from about 1400, and that watches were made soon after.
It has been customary to divide this long period, in which mechanical time-pieces have been made, into several different periods. These include the one-hand period, the twohand period, and other periods based on the changes and improvements that were responsible for considerable readjustments of the mechanical design and functioning of clock and watch mechanism.
It is, perhaps, an over simplification to reduce these periods to two, but that is just what I would like to do. The first period would be that in which all time-pieces, both clocks and watches, were pretty much made by hand, and the duration of this period would be from 1400 to about 1815. The second period would be from 1815 to the present, and in this period the time-piceces were manufactured in quantities, by factory methods.
It should be quite obvious that the items from the hand-made period would be most desirable as collectors items. These pieces, naturally, would be older. Since they were made in smaller quantities there certainly would be more and greater variations in mechanical design, workmanship, and construction.
As a matter of fact, this period provides an almost infinite variety in case design and decorations. This was inevitable, of course, because so many individuals were engaged, as principals in the industry.
It might be said that the first period was characterized by the fact that a great number of people, each making only a comparatively few time-pieces, were actively engaged. During the second period, a comparatively few manufacturers, each making time-pieces in great quantities, were so engaged.
Individual artistry or craftsmanship will always produce products or items of distinctive individuality. Mass production inevitably is conducive to sameness.
While we are discussing the relative merits of individual production and mass production, it should be noted that the older products of hand craftsmanship do present much greater problems in the matter of repair and restoration than do the later products of the machine age.
The possibility of fitting a part from one old clock or watch into another, even of the same age and general characteristics, is almost nil. This often can be done with modern mechanisms. Missing pieces from the cases of old clocks are very difficult to replace because in most instances, we do not know exactly what the original case looked like. With imagination and a knowledge of contemporary design we can come up with acceptable approximations. Since the later machine-made products follow designs of great similarity, this problem is not so acute.
I do not seem to be able to get across the immensity of this subject of old clocks and watches. It really does stagger the imagination. The most comprehensive list of European clock and watch-maxers (ana this covers the so-called hand-made period from about 1400 to 1840 or 1850) comprises more than 35,000 names, and every one admits that it is far from complete. The list of known American makers is well above 6;000 and it, too, is far from complete. The American list, incidentally, carries into the early part of the 20th century and includes the makers of manufactured clocks. The lists are so large. of course, because of the fact that so many people were engaged in the industry during the hand-made period.
During the first, or hand-made period in Europe, watches and clocks were made in all countries; in fact, one might also say, in almost every city and town in each country. These early products, in the main, were made for local consumption in the general area in which they were produced.
There was no mass market for time-pieces, and no means to satisfy a mass market if it had existed. Commerce between the various countries was not extensive.
As time went on, two countries did develop an export trade. In doing so, they found ways to produce in greater quantities, mainly through the use of more apprentices and the specialization of various people in making certain parts which could be assembled into complete time-pieces at a central point.
The work, however, was still handmade. In this period, there was only the faintest suggestion of quantity production methods.
The two exporting countries were England and Switzerland. English makers produced time-pieces for export to the Orient. Switzerland concentrated, more or less, on the Near and Middle East, and the Baltic countries.
The Chinese duplex escapement watches one sometimes finds were made in England for sale in the Orient. It is also possible to find Swiss-made watches with Turkish numerals on the dial. I once had a Swiss-made Calendar watch with the dial set up in Finnish.
These territorial divisions are only general. I have a very early English-made Lantern clock with Turkish numerals on the dial and Turkish decorations in the spandrels and the side doors.
The history of American time-pieces begins much later, of course. There were very few watches made in America during the first period, or prior to 1850. When one is found it should be held under suspicion until proved to be genuine.
It is not too uncommon to find a fusee and verge watch bearing the name of an American maker with a movement that is unmistakably of English origin. There are, of course, some watches that were hand-made in America, but be careful in authenticating them.
The first production of watches in this country by machine methods came about the middle of the 19t11 century. Subsequent to that, time, all American watches are factory made.
American clocks present a somewhat different picture. Hand-made clocks were made in this country from about the middle of the 18th century. These earliest American clocks were mainly Tall or Grandfather clocks. Comparatively small quantities of Shelf and Banjo clocks were turned out by the Willards, and some others. Almost every town and hamlet in the early Colonies had its clock-maker; some are known and others are not.
The products of these early American makers also must be considered with some caution. Not all of them were actually clock-makers. 'Many were merely cabinet-makers who made cases and fitted them with movements made by others, often movements imported from England.The first factory clocks were made about 1815 by Eli Terry, also Seth Thomas, and soon by many others. From that time on, nearly all American clocks were quantity production clocks.
There is no clear dividing line between the hand-made period and the machine-made period There is always overlapping in both production methods and in design.
One cannot say that all clocks and watches of the first period are good, and that all products of the second period are bad. It can be said only that the earlier hand-made time-pieces are, in general, more interesting.
Some of the factory-made clocks are very much in demand today, such as the early clocks by Terry, Thomas, and others. Even the much later Calendar clocks by Ithaca, Welsh Spring & Co., and others, are eagerly purchased by collectors. Many of the foreign clocks of the last half of the 19th century are quite popular because of the attractive designs and superb workmanship.
I do not believe that any one is qualified to say outright exactly what is collectable and what is not. The field is too immense in scope and the interests of collectors are too varied.
The new collector, however, must make a start somewhere. Just where to make the start is, of course, the problem. Probably. he or she, should start by picking up a few inexpensive items that appear to have some interest.
This will lead to further study and an increase in knowledge. Growing knowledge of the subject then, will set up guide-posts for future activities and acquisitions. There is no substitute for experience and knowledge, and no easy way to get it.
In these informal discussions of the hobby of collecting old time-pieces, I do not attempt to disseminate specific information that would be helpful with any particular problem. In this one rather, I am trying to create a perspective of the subject in general which may help some one to gain for himself, a concept that will guide him into a very satisfying hobby.