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Concerning Old Clocks
OF ALL the outfittings in the home there is surely none more dear to the household than the family clock. The modern time-piece has ticked its way down from those far-away days when the only method of telling time was by the sun, or, at a later date, by means of the hourglass and sundial. An old clock which has been in a family for generations seems almost human. One of them is preserved in an old New Hampshire farmhouse, and the clock repairer who has kept it in order for many years says, ". . . seven generations have come since the old clock first ticked off the passing of time. Five of the seven generations have passed on; how many more will come and go, before the old clock stops, never to go again, is a question none can answer, but we do know the old clock has lulled to sleep the babe in the cradle and then lulled the same to everlasting sleep in their old age. It has witnessed the delights of childhood, the joys of the young men and women in early married life and the sorrow of the old at their parting as they journeyed to the worlds unknown,-believing all is well, and the old clock goes `tick-tock, tick-tock."
In its simplest terms, the clock is a timepiece composed of a collection of wheels. There are old records of the clock of St. Paul's Cathedral, put up in 1286, and of another placed in Canterbury Cathedral in 1292. It was somewhere in the vicinity of 160o that the household clock came into use. Various descriptive names as lantern, birdcage, and bedpost clocks were applied to it. All of these types were designed for shelf or bracket and were wound by pulling down the ropes on which the weights were hung.
When speaking of old clocks, we at once think of the grandfather clock as the long-case clock was popularly called. The introduction of the pendulum into clock construction, brought about by Freemantel toward the end of the seventeenth century, made it necessary to contrive a case to contain it. Hence the change from the bracket clock and the brass chamber clock with wooden hood.
The first few clocks in the American colonies were brought from England, but, as commercial life developed, clock-makers established themselves and advertised their products. Among the early names are those of James Batterson of Boston, William Davis, and John Ent. Their wares included bracket clocks and "wag-on-the-walls." Later, the grandfather clock, like the Windsor chair, became an American institution, and no home of any degree of affluence was considered furnished unless it contained one of these long-case timepieces. Alice Morse Earle tells us that the first mention in New England records of a clock is in Lechford's note-book, and that he states that in 1628 Joseph Stratton had of his brother a clock and a watch. Joseph acknowledged this, but refused to pay for them and was sued in payment.
About the year 1720 mahogany came into use in England and clock cases of the better kinds were made from it and from walnut. In many cases inlay was a form of decoration much in vogue, and, when the trade with the Orient brought the influence of the East into the realms of European craftswork, Oriental lacquer was applied on clock cases as well as on furniture. Many cases for tall clocks were also made of oak. Cabinetmakers in America turned to the woods of local trees for material, and so we find that clock-makers of the early eighteenth century designed cases from maple, chestnut, pine, oak, cherry, and butternut woods.
In an old homestead on the Oxbow in Newbury, Vermont stands one of these old butternut clocks. The works were brought on horseback through the forest from Tewburyport, Massachusetts, and the case was manufactured by a home cabinet-maker from the wood taken from butternut trees on the farm.
Decorations for grandfather clocks were varied, and generally characteristic of the period in which they were made. Columns and pilasters adorned the sides of some cases, and scrolls and brass ornamentations of different kinds surmounted them. Sometimes clock-faces were square; more often they were round. They were frequently decorated with moons and ships, engraved borders, paintings of flowers and of birds. Often different members of the clock-maker's family assisted with the decorative work, and in one case at least the daughter painted the moons on the dials of the timepieces her father constructed. Spandrels, applied at the corners were characteristic ornamentations. They often serve as a clew to the age of the clock and were fanciful and dainty in form. Angels' heads were popular, as well as two cupids holding a crown, reminding us of the days of Queen Anne.
If you are the least bit interested in clocks you already know that the inscription of the maker's name is an important mark. During the early part of the eighteenth century, makers began to inscribe their names on the dials, usually writing the Latin form and sometimes adding a Latin proverb. Sometimes two names are found on old clocks-one the name of the maker and one the name of the dealer.
Styles of figures, hands, and keyholes differed to some degree. The works were of wood or brass. The brass works ran eight days without winding, while the wooden works ran only one day. Mr. Walter E. Burtt describes one old clock made in 1765 which he kept in repair for forty years. "It has one weight and a braided rope line, to pull down when you wind up the weight. This one weight runs time and striking. The movement is made wholly of iron, and stands on four iron legs that rest on a board that goes across just above where the bonnet or hood rests. The dial is brass, ornamented with a silver circle on which the hours are cut in, and filled with black wax. At the top of the dial is a round polished brass plate with the following engraved upon it: Made by David Blaisdell in Amesbury MDCCLV1"
The History of Salisbury, New Hampshire, refers to this same David Blaisdell by stating that he was born in 17I2, that his home was in tlmesbury and that his son Isaac, who followed his father's trade, was a resident of Chester.
"These clocks were of brass," the old book says, "and heavily made, and run but one day without winding up. One line and one weight operated as a mainspring for both time and striking."
Clock-making in the American colonies did not develop extensively until the eighteenth century was w-ell under way, and the craft centered in New England. The industry was strongly indebted to Thomas Harland who organized it. Like many other clockmakers, he learned his trade in England. He came to_ America in the ship made famous by the Boston TeaParty and settled in Norwich, Connecticut, where he made clocks for thirty-five years. He taught his trade to many young men, among them Eli Terry, who became a greater craftsman than his master. Terry's apprentice, Seth Thomas, was a master clock-maker, and, while they worked together, they developed a plan to turn out four thousand clocks. It was Terry's idea of using water-power that made possible the seemingly stupendous plan. Terry was a hard-headed business man as well as a fine craftsman, and he rode over the New England countryside, carrying the works of clocks in his saddle-bags, to sell to the outlying trade. Many of these works were enclosed in cases of native woods by local cabinet workers. Terry and Thomas, Silas Hoardley, Herman Clark, and Asa Hopkins were the predecessors of the great industries now located at Waterbury, Ansonia, Terryville, and Thomaston.
In 1814, Terry invented the mantel clock by shortening the pendulum and making the works more compact. Mantel clocks usually had brass works and were often decorated with pilasters of polished wood and with pictures of eagles, flags, ships, scenery, and flowers painted on glass.
Clock-making in Boston antedated the industry in Connecticut by almost a generation. The most important name connected with Massachusetts clock-making is that of the Willard family. Simon Willard was one of a family of twelve children, and of the nine boys four became clock-makers. He worked in Grafton, Massachusetts, and is said to have made at least four thousand timepieces. Of him Mr. Charles Messer Stowe speaks as follows, "Of all the clock-makers in America none has left so highly prized examples of his workmanship as Simon Willard. Authentic specimens of his work are becoming scarcer each year, and the demand is far greater than the supply. A real Simon Willard clock, whether a tall clock or a banjo, a lighthouse or shelf clock, is a treasure to find and a prize to sell."
In 1801, he invented the banjo clock. The name, by the way, was not applied by its maker, but was given to it later because of its characteristic shape. A type of banjo clock of the period was made of plain mahogany, decorated with gilt ornaments and a painting on glass. The designers of the paintings on Willard clocks seem not to have used pictures of naval battles, landscapes, designs of the American eagle or flags, but confined themselves to festoons of flowers, a geometrical design, usually inside a border of gold leaf or color, or both, a design of crossed lines, or bands of color surrounding an open space in the center of the glass. Aaron Willard also made clocks, but they were more ornate than those designed by Simon Willard.
One of the loveliest of the banjo clocks is the "presentation" clock. Picture, if you please, a beautiful object, enameled white, and the glass covered with heavy gold designing and adorned with gold-leaf bands! The presentation clock may be of cherry or of mahoganythen the carvings are gilded.
Many small New England towns other than those where the well-known clock-makers worked produced timepieces. Just as an example let me mention the little New Hampshire village of Boscawen. Here, at one time, were two establishments for manufacturing eightday clocks of the type showing the days of the week and the changes of the moon. The cases were usually of cherry and were ornamented with brass knobs and rings.* Daniel Pratt, Sr., of Reading, Massachusetts, manufactured the wooden movement clocks that are inscribed with his name and scattered far and wide over New England.
The lighthouse clock was invented by Simon Willard. It had a glass bell over the dial and stood on a pedestal. This type, however, was not popular and few were made.
Recently a woman told me of a clock which she had admired as a child. It was made in the shape of a fat man, and she added an amusing touch to her description by saying that the clock strongly resembled the country storekeeper who owned it. Another unusual clock is described by Eliza Nelson Blair. She says, "Two windows look southerly, and a curious clock tick-tocked in the corner by Mrs. King's room. Above the dial was a dome-shaped arch, central in which, a figure of Time, clad in long red tunic ower white Turkish trousers, walked barefooted through the snow, his glistening hair streaming out behind in a February gale."
I cannot close this chapter without referring to that important personage in the community life, the oldtime clock-repairer. Like the country doctor, he is fast disappearing. He had his steady customers and kept the same family clocks in repair from year to year that they might tick steadily on from one generation to another.