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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Antique Clocks

( Orginally published 1950 )



New England is good clock country, although in the beginning clocks and watches were almost as scarce as in Samuel Butler's Utopia, where they were prohibited. Except for a simple noon mark on the window ledge or doorsill, or an occasional sundial, or more rarely an hourglass, the first comers were generally without any means of measuring time accurately.

Old American hourglasses are now extremely rare. The early specimens were crudely made compared with the Jacobean glasses which were brought from overseas. The spindles of the native glasses were usually whittled, whereas those of the imported instruments were neatly turned. The New England makers favored the use of pine and maple, while the English craftsmen showed their usual partiality for oak, particularly for the larger glasses. On the Continent, particularly in Italy, walnut was the popular wood. Some of the European glasses which found their way to this country were decorated with inlay work.

Metal frames came later. Iron, copper, brass, and occasionally silver were used. The brass and silver hourglasses were generally engraved, often with mottoes about the fleeting quality of time similar to those seen on sundials. At times the frames were made of metal and wood. Since the pear-shaped glass bulbs were fragile and liable to break, the metal frames were sometimes made to slip apart so that new bulbs could be inserted, or the sand in the containers reached if the glass needed regulating by changing the proportion of the contents.

The flasks of the older glasses were not blown in one piece, but separately, and a leather or metal collar was placed around the necks, where they met, to keep them in line. Persons seeing old glasses of this kind have sometimes erroneously taken this for a defect, thinking the connection between the upper and the lower glass had been accidentally severed and a collar or band used to repair the break. A late order of hourglasses was made entirely of glass, with the bulbs united at their apices.

Foreign hourglasses of carved ivory are of rare occurrence in New England. They are generally small, sometimes made in pairs, and often beautifully wrought, and one wonders how objects of such delicate workmanship could have survived through the years intact. Their very scarcity shows, perhaps, that many became casualties.

Hourglasses may range anywhere from two inches to two feet or more in height, but size is not necessarily an indication of the length of time a glass was originally designed to measure, as this depended on the quantity and quality of the sand used, whether fine or coarse, and the size of the passage through which it passed from the upper to the nether glass. An old device was a rack containing a row of four hourglasses of identical size but running at different speeds, the sand in the first glass passing completely through in fifteen minutes, the second in thirty minutes, the third in forty-five minutes, and the fourth in an hour. By looking at this quartet of glasses one could tell approximately how many minutes of the hour had glided away. But it is impossible to say precisely what period most old glasses were intended to mark, as the grains of sand through friction have become finer and the aperture worn. In some cases mercury was used, but most of these old timekeepers were sand glasses filled with red, white, black, or purple particles.

The largest and smallest hourglasses were the nautical ones. The biggest ran for two hours and were used to divide the time on shipboard into watches, the glass running for four hours with only one turning halfway through the watch. The nautical expression "warming the bell" is a survival of the days when a sailor, in order to shorten his watch, made the sand run faster by warming the glass with his hands. Today a sailor who prepares to quit work well in advance of the expiration of his watch is said to "warm the bell." The small fourteen and twenty-eight second glasses, which were used when the lead was heaved to determine the vessel's speed, were called "log glasses."

Most hourglasses were made, as were the marine glasses, for certain specific uses rather than for marking time generally. One New England housewife who had a quaint antique three-minute glass inherited from her grandmother used it for years to time the family breakfast eggs. One night she handed it to a new maid with instructions to cook the eggs with it in the morning. The maid, who had never seen an hourglass before and did not know what it was, put it in the boiling water with the eggs and broke the heirloom. It was a double tragedy because the housewife also used the glass to time her long-distance telephone conversations with her daughter, to whom she would talk till the last grain ran out.

The sermon glass, which was almost as important an adjunct of the early colonial meetinghouse as the Bible, ran for twenty minutes, but the sermon did not end when the sand expired in the glass. Long sermons were then the fashion and a minister was to some extent judged by the number of times he turned the glass while preaching. One divine is reported to have said, as he reversed the timepiece on his desk, "Brethren, let's have another glass."

Many of the pulpit glasses were elaborately made. When the new meetinghouse was built in Hartford in 1739, Seth Youngs, a local clockmaker, was commissioned to make the sermon glass and also the gilded brass weathercock and ball for the steeple. His charge for the hourglass was six pounds, a sum which was thought to be exorbitant. The society remonstrated with him and the bill was settled for five pounds ten shillings.

Nearly a century before this, in 1640, a clock was left to the Hartford Church by the will of Henry Packs. It was an English brass lantern clock which was probably used by the drum beater or bell ringer to tell when it was time to summon the people to worship. In 1649 a similar clock was listed in the inventory of the estate of the Reverend Thomas Hooker, the first minister of the Church, but his successor to the pastorate, the Reverend Thomas Stone, had nothing but an hourglass when he died in 1663.

Sundials have been in use in New England ever since the first days, both the small pocket kind and the garden size. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, who came over in 1631, had a portable dial and compass, which he carried in lieu of a watch. Judge Sewall, another seventeenth-century New Englander, had a clock and a dial. These dials were doubtless of English origin. The inventory of the estate of the first Thomas Danforth, the noted pewterer of Norwich, Connecticut, who died in 1783, lists a dial mold. While pewter clock dials are not absolutely unknown, they rarely occur, and it is more than likely that the Danforth mold was designed for casting full-size sundials, though as far as I know none has come to light.

But with only hourglasses and sundials, how did people tell time in the middle of the night? If a person wished to be up and about his business before dawn, how did he know whether it was time to rise or not? The answer is that he looked at the stars. He had his almanac and he knew from the position of the constellations how far the night was gone. Even without an almanac, he was a pretty good judge of time, as he was habitually an attentive observer of the heavens.

Although New England, as already stated, is good clock-hunting territory, this is not to say that the searcher after extreme rarities will not do just as well in Pennsylvania, or nowadays perhaps among the dealers in the Middle West; but the vast numerical preponderance of all American clocks made before the Civil War was manufactured in New England, mostly in Connecticut, and the chances of picking up an attractive clock by a Yankee maker at a sensible price are much better than the chances of landing a seventeenth-century brass bracket clock or a grandfather by David Rittenhouse.

Scarcity raises the price of an antique. Fabulous rarity, on the other hand, simply discourages everyday collectors, who, though they may take un-Christian satisfaction in owning some piece that nobody else can have, are much likelier to take common ordinary satisfaction in a piece that they can have. And that means New England clocks.

An engaging feature of Yankee timepieces, furthermore, is that though there are thousands in existence, and perhaps hundreds available at any given moment, and though a lot of them are thirty-hour shelf clocks of the kind introduced by Eli Terry, even an inveterate clock fancier may go for years without ever seeing two exactly alike. This is easily explained.

In the first place, the competing manufacturers were innumerable. Nobody has fully straightened out even so limited a field as the Connecticut makers of woodenwheel clocks from 1816 to 1836. There were at least twenty firms or partnerships, for instance, which included members of the Terry family alone. Different labels immediately distinguish most clocks.

Second, though the movements or works are all much alike, even when made in different factories, the man who made the movement probably hired someone else to make the case. Around Plymouth and Bristol, Connecticut, movements passed current as money in trade for cases, or even real estate. And the cases, in turn, while probably either "pillar-and-scroll" or ogee in general style, varied endlessly with the whim of the case maker.

Supposing for the moment that you find two clocks by the same maker with identical movements and identical cases, which is most unlikely, you can still cover a small bet that the dial and the "tablet"-the glass panel below it-will be decorated quite differently. And if they aren't, you may offer a second small bet that some modern merchant has been cutting his losses by replacing broken glass.

Up to about 1790 all the Yankee clocks the ordinary collector stands any chance of owning were grandfather clocks, with weight-driven eight-day movements in tall wooden cases, nearly always with engraved brass dials. The movement might have lentil-shaped wooden wheels -these came from the Cheneys in East Hartford, Connecticut, and ran thirty hours at a winding-but much more likely the wheels would be of cast brass.

These clocks were never just alike. Each one was turned out as a separate undertaking by a clockmaker and his apprentices, if any. In the earlier parts of the eighteenth century he had to make his own tools and cast his own wheels, in which he then cut the cogs or teeth with a "clockmaker's engine." Even the engine was made by the clockmaker himself. It seems to have been the job of every apprentice toward the end of his time to make one of these machines for himself.

The old-time Yankee clockmakers were versatile mechanics, many of them combining other trades with that of clockmaking. Some were goldsmiths, silversmiths, tinsmiths, blacksmiths, pewterers, bell founders, jewelers, joiners, and Jacks-of-all-trades. Others were instrument makers, specializing in surveyors' and mariners' compasses. They also made such articles as swords, buckles, brass trumpets, cannons, copper stills, weathervanes, walking sticks, and spurs. Some practiced dentistry. Ezra Dodge of New London, who died in the yellow-fever epidemic which ravaged that town in 1798, was described as "a watchmaker, clockmaker, gold and silversmith, brass founder, gunsmith, locksmith, and grocer." He was an apprentice of Thomas Harland, the famous clockmaker of Norwich, Connecticut, who came over in one of the Nantucket vessels that brought the tea that was dumped into Boston Harbor. In 1787, Harland built a fire engine for the town of Norwich. A few years later his shop burned down, with the loss of all his tools and material.

According to Penrose R. Hoopes, the leading authority on the eighteenth-century Connecticut clockmakers, "Harland was one of the most important single figures in the history of early Connecticut clockmaking. He was well educated and a very skillful mechanic, his clocks were superior in workmanship and were made in larger numbers than those of any of his contemporaries, but his greatest influence was in the number of apprentices trained in his shop." By 17 qo he is believed to have employed as many as a dozen apprentices, who assisted him in turning out forty clocks and two hundred watches a year. In the obituary notices printed at the time of his death in 1807, Harland was said to have made the first watch manufactured in America.

In 1797 a curious collection of clocks was exhibited at the Columbian Museum in Boston. The proprietor of the museum announced in the Boston Chronicle on December i qth that he had purchased a collection of concert clocks as a valuable and pleasing addition to his very extensive repository of curiosities. The collection included the following:

1. A Canary Bird, which sings a variety of beautiful songs, minuets, &c. natural as life.
2. A company of Automaton Figures, which dance to the Music of an Harpsichord.
3. Three Figures, which play the Organ and Clarinet in concert.
4. Three Figures, which play the Harpsichord and Hautboys, in concert.
5. King Herod beheading John the Baptist, and his Daughter holding a charger to receive the head.
6. A Chimney Sweep and his Boy on top of a chimney.
7. Three Figures which strike the hours and quarters.
8. A Butcher killing an Ox.

These clocks undoubtedly came from abroad, quite possibly from England. But musical clocks were also made by the New England clockmakers. Benjamin Willard, Jr., who was doing business in Roxbury in 1774, advertised for sale in the Massachusetts Spy, "A number of Musical Clocks which play a different Tune every Day in the Week, on Sunday a Psalm Tune." A year earlier Thomas Harland advertised himself as a musicalclock maker in Norwich, and there is still in existence a musical clock made by his former apprentice, Daniel Burnap of East Windsor, Connecticut.

Around 1790 a change took place in the clock trade. By that time the Doolittle Foundry in Hartford was selling most of the brass wheels and New England clockmaking had become a matter largely of buying, finishing, and assembling parts. But the dial had still to be put on; and nearly always the movement was sold by itself, without a case. The buyer might hang it up bare, as a wag-on-the-wall, for months or years before he could afford to have a joiner or cabinetmaker build a case. So there is no particular need to feel cheated if the movement and tall case which you buy didn't originally go together. These dials, incidentally, were usually imported, and often the cast-iron "dial plate" bore an English foundry mark; but that doesn't mean a clock isn't a real New England piece. A few years later somebody thought of pasting a paper dial on a wooden panel. If you find one of these over a wooden movement, and having pasted on that a paper disk signed E. TERRY, YOU will know you have one of the first batch of massproduced clocks in the world. More about that in a moment.

Grandfather clocks went on being made through the first third of the nineteenth century. One very prolific maker then was Riley Whiting of Winchester, Connecticut. But by then two other varieties had sprung up to catch the eye of later collectors.

First in time, scarcity, and price (then as now) came the "banjo clock" of the Willard family. Simon Willard of Roxbury, Massachusetts, patented in 1802 a kind of wall clock that was usually cased by the maker himself in a banjo-shaped housing, the part for the movement nearly always round; the neck flaring toward the bottom, because the pendulum needed room to swing; and the bottom either round or rectangular. Occasionally the neck would carry a lyre-shaped front. Since these were "timepieces," with no striking mechanism, they ran by one weight, which hung down behind the pendulum.

Banjo clocks were expensive when first made, partly, no doubt, because they were never sold uncased. Today they command so much money in the antique trade that all kinds of monkeyshines are profitable. Among the easiest is adding a maker's name. Many banjo clocks were not signed, perhaps, as Carl Dreppard has suggested in his book on American clocks, because they infringed on Simon Willard's patent; what more tempting, then, than to double their value by merely lettering S. WILLARD, PATENT On the panel?

After thus warning you that the name may be a fake, I will only remark that there were thirteen Willards in the clock business, nearly all in eastern and central Massachusetts; that Benjamin was the father of the tribe, having learned clockmaking from the first of the Cheneys, of Connecticut wooden-grandfather-movement fame; that Aaron and Simon made the banjo clock famous; and that Aaron's apprentice John Sawin (later Sawin & Dyar) and Lemuel Curtis produced banjo clocks as good as the Willards' own. Banjo clocks had cast brass movements.

Now we come to the clocks that the ordinary collector can afford, or at least find. The old Cheney grandfather clocks, made in East Hartford, with hand-carved wooden wheels, had brass dials, ran only thirty hours instead of eight days, and are scarcer than blackberries in winter. But the Cheneys may have given lessons in wooden clockmaking to a young neighbor from East Windsor. At all events, the young neighbor, already a practiced maker of brass movements, must have known the Cheneys and their product. His name, Eli Terry, is the greatest in the world's clock industry-as separate from the clockmaking craft. He first applied the new Connecticut principle of mass interchangeable manufacture to clockmaking.

Terry's career spanned all stages of Yankee clockmaking. Born in East Windsor, Connecticut, in 1772, he was apprenticed to a local clockmaker, Daniel Burnap, who taught him how to make his own tools and clock movements. Domestic clocks at that time were all of the tall grandfather variety, the best ones with cast brass movements, the cheaper ones with wooden works. Both kinds were equipped with brass dials, which young Terry learned to engrave with ornamental patterns.

When Terry finished serving his seven years' apprenticeship in 1792, he went into business for himself in East Windsor, making clocks to order, with either brass or wooden movements, depending on which his custom ers could afford, and these he fitted with silvered brass dials which he obtained from his old master, Daniel Burnap. Probably he did not get many orders for clocks, because a year or two later he moved to a community near Waterbury which in 1795 was incorporated as the town of Plymouth, Connecticut. That same year young Terry married, and the state of his affairs is shown by the fact that he and his wife are said to have gone housekeeping with only two chairs and two cups and saucers.

Terry at this period peddled his own tall clocks, or rather the works for them. Mounted on horseback, he could carry the movements of four grandfather clocks, one before, one behind, and one on either side of the saddle. As there were other makers on the road selling their clocks, Terry sometimes had to travel far afield to dispose of his own. He asked twenty-five dollars apiece for them, but was frequently obliged to take payment in country commodities, and often returned home loaded with salt pork. Sometimes he took the purchaser's note or sold his clocks on the installment plan. Collections were slow and difficult, but that was the way country clockmakers were obliged to do business.

One Yankee clockmaker, Gideon Roberts of Bristol, Connecticut, built up quite a trade peddling clocks in Pennsylvania and later in the South. While peddling in Pennsylvania he became interested in the Quaker way of life, joined the Society of Friends, and adopted their mode of speech and dress. Simon Willard was another famous New England clockmaker who liked to peddle his own wares, particularly after his wife's death. Wandering about the countryside seemed to ease his sorrow.

By about i800, handmade wooden movements were seriously crowding the more expensive brass movements. By 1802, when Simon Williard patented his banjo clock, Terry had the idea of producing wooden movements "for the wholesale trade" by water power, a dozen or two at a time. People in Plymouth, Connecticut, to which he had moved from East Windsor, thought this a "rash adventure." In 1807 he made a contract with two brothers in Waterbury to produce four thousand wooden grandfather movements in three years, at four dollars per movement. The brothers had to supply the wood. The native woods used were oak, apple, laurel, and cherry. The wheels were of cherry. These are the clocks with paper dials that have the appliqued T. TERRY label. If people thought twenty-five at a time rash, they couldn't decide whether Terry or the Waterbury brothers were the more dangerous lunatics to plan in thousands. Nevertheless the four thousand were produced on schedule and apparently paid for, which was worth remark in the clock trade of those days. It is not impossible that Terry's pay was at least partly a sixty-acre farm in Waterbury.

To a collector, these clocks have chiefly association and scarcity value; they are not handsome, or good timekeepers. As a matter of fact, all wooden movements tend to split off a cog here and there and in wet weather they swell up and stop. Wood was deliberately chosen as a cheap substitute for brass, and the buyer took this as part of the bargain.

Terry, a very conscientious workman, evidently thought no better of his first four thousand clocks than I do. He spent the years 1812 and 1813 experimenting on a complete novelty to the clock trade-a woodenmovement shelf clock, to be sold complete with case. Grandfather clocks had eight-day movements, but the short shelf case, a little over two feet high, did not allow the weights to fall far enough for this. Terry ran the lines over pulleys at the top of the case, thus gaining fall enough for a thirty-hour movement.

He fooled around with experimental models that did not satisfy him, one a simple wooden box with a curved top shaped like the dial of a grandfather; another having a plain glass front with the dial figures painted on; a third having the brass escapement wheel in front of the dial, and the pendulum hanging from it, likewise visible until it disappeared behind the painted tablet. These attempts, dating from around 1814 or 1815, are way out of our class; I have seen examples, so I know they exist, and that's all.

Then came the deluge. Terry and the other clockmakers around Plymouth took the wooden thirty-hour shelf movement as Terry perfected it (his patent was finally dated June 12, 18 16) and cased it in an Empire box with pillars at the front corners and a bonnet or "scroll" on top. That was the TERRY PILLAR-AND-SCROLL CLOCK, a convenient, meaningless label perhaps devised by an auction cataloguer.

Much ink and temper has been wasted arguing over who "invented" the pillar-and-scroll case. (Who invented the Empire bureau?) In all probability, Eli Terry neither knew nor cared; the "Terry's Patent" movement was what interested him. He licensed his former employee Seth Thomas to make shelf clocks under Terry's Patent, and Eli and his brother Samuel Terry supplied movements for thousands of clocks cased by other manufacturers, in addition to those issued with the labels of Eli Terry, Eli Terry & Sons, and Eli & Samuel Terry. Eli Terry, Jr., who died before his father, was also in business, first as one of the Sons, then for himself.

Along with the thirty-hour shelf clock came the custom of pasting on the inside back of the case a large label, called the "paper," which usually gave the maker's name, the promise WARRANTED IF WELL USED, and directions for winding and oiling.

To be really desirable as an antique, a shelf clock must have its original paper, pendulum, and weights. I know of one collector who got a New England clock with a particularly interesting paper for under thirty dollars, and has been congratulating himself ever since on buying the paper so cheap; he figures the clock was just thrown in. The dealer, on the other hand, knew he was selling a fairly late clock in nice condition at a reasonable price; he threw in the paper.

Differences of standpoint like this are what make Yankee antiquing inexhaustible fun. Connecticut shelf clocks, furthermore, offer a particularly wide field for such differences. If you must have an unmistakable Eli Terry Senior clock in prime -condition, you will spend some time and a fair amount of money getting it. But if you can be satisfied with a good clock of the type, there are no rules and few difficulties. You just spot a clock you like, make sure it's whole, and there you are. Whether the paper says SETH THOMAS, PLYMOUTH, or PRATT & FROST, READING, MASS., Or SEYMOUR HALL & Co., UNIONVILLE, CONN., does not affect the look of the clock on your mantel.

The next step in Connecticut clockmaking was the return of brass movements. Cast brass wheels had to be shaped and filed down individually. Rolled sheet brass was substantially an English monopoly until 1823; up until then, a clockmaker trying to build a movement out of sheet brass had to cut up old kettles. But soon the brass supply outran the needs of the button industry, which had called it forth; and in 1832 Joseph Ives, a clockmaking genius at Bristol, Connecticut (the next town to Plymouth, where Terry, Thomas, Sihs Hoadley, and Chauncey Jerome all got their start) patented an eight-day movement of sheet brass.

In 1838 a volatile young man named Chauncey Jerome, who had started in as a casemaker for Eli Terry, Sr., made the first sheet-brass thirty-hour movements in mass production. He later tangled with P. T. Barnum, bankrupting both parties, and in his old age he wrote a little book that all collectors of Yankee clocks should have: History o f the American Clock Business for the Past Sixty Years, and Life of Chauncey Jeroyne (New Haven, 1860).

Eli Terry flooded the United States with clocks; Jerome and his competitors flooded the world. By 1840 Bristol alone was producing over thirty thousand clocks a year, at an average of eight dollars apiece, and Connecticut was producing a million dollars' worth. England and other foreign countries imported them at a tremendous rate.

An amusing situation developed when Jerome made his first shipment of clocks to England. The British customs officials could not believe that the value of the clocks stated in the invoice was correct. Nobody over there had ever heard of clocks that cheap. They thought the Yankee clockmaker was trying to evade payment of duty by fraudulently undervaluing his merchandise. Accordingly, they seized the clocks and exercised the government's right under the law of paying for them at the declared value plus ten per cent. Jerome was delighted. He had without expense sold all the clocks in one lot at a profit for cash. Another large shipment was dispatched and again the clocks were bought by the British government. By the time the third cargo arrived it dawned on the officials that Jerome's valuation was honest and the shipment was accepted in the normal way. The sale of the seized clocks by the British treasury had advertised Jerome's trade-mark, so that he found it easy to dispose of later shipments made in the ordinary course of trade.

This, naturally, is almost the end of the timepiece trail so far as New England antiques go. Some of the brass movements went into pillar-and-scroll cases, more into ogee mahogany veneer cases; there were fanciful designs like the acorn silhouette from the Forestville Manufacturing Company; but anyway the brass clocks grew so plentiful that there is not much triumph in finding them. Seth Thomas still makes some models strongly reminiscent of the Jerome era.

The Yankee clock collector should know, however, that the brass industry contributed another big change when Silas Burnham Terry discovered how to temper steel springs. Joseph Ives had already made a number of rather homely clocks driven not by weights but by an elliptical steel "wagon spring," and several contemporaries took out licenses under his patents. But the Connecticut-made steel coil spring, introduced about 1862, revolutionized cheap clockmaking and the whole industry of central Connecticut to boot.

From then on the chief interest in New England clocks centers on the preposterous cases the manufacturers contrived. For many years the old inn at Windham, Connecticut, told time by a cast-iron Connecticut clock in the shape of a Negro dancing girl with the dial over her stomach, who rolled her eyes as the pendulum swung. "Minstrel Sambo" and a Continental soldier were also equipped with rolling eyes by the Waterbury Clock Company. Inanimate figures included ballplayers, horses, sunflowers, and Heaven knows what else.

One frequently sees nowadays old shelf clocks without dials or works which have been converted into wall cabinets. This is perhaps justified when one finds a clock with a well-designed case and the works in a state of helpless disrepair. But many people have a secret sense of discontent with these clock cabinets, as it is obvious what they were originally, and one cannot help regretting that they are no longer used for the purpose they were intended to serve. Also, it is not difficult to find a 154 The Romance o f New England Antiquei second clock with repairable works in an unhappily designed case. By transferring the works to the better case an assembled clock is created which is more desirable than fitting the good case with shelves and converting it into a cabinet.

Most people who enjoy restoring antiques like to tinker with old clocks. They are easily picked up at modest prices, and there is great satisfaction in restoring the case, replacing shattered glass, and repairing and cleaning the works. The last is the most difficult part of the operation, but if worse comes to worst and the clock cannot be made to run, it can always be taken to a professional clock man.

It may be wondered how the old clocks of New England have been kept going all these years, particularly in the hundreds of small towns which have never had a clockmaker. Most of these places have rarely been without some mechanically gifted Yankee who, among other things, understood old clocks and could put them right when they went wrong. Henry D. Thoreau seems to have been one of these, because when he and Ellery Channing visited Cape Cod and stayed with the old oysterman of Wellfleet they fixed his clock. "After breakfast," Thoreau wrote, "we looked at his clock, which was out of order, and oiled it with some `hen's grease,' for want of sweet oil, for he could scarcely believe we were not tinkers or pedlers; meanwhile he told a story about visions, which had reference to a crack in the clock-case made by frost one night."