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The Story Of Clocks And Watches - Part 3

[Clocks And Watches - Part 1]  [Clocks And Watches - Part 2]  [Clocks And Watches - Part 3]  [Clocks And Watches - Part 4] 

( Originally Published 1963 )

The first two really different cases were the steeple and the beehive, both of which appeared in the 1840's and remained popular for more than twenty years. They were made probably by almost all New England clockmakers. The steeple clock had a comparatively simple and elegant case, although its proportions and hence its beauty, depended on the skill of the woodworker. The case followed the outline of a Gothic point with steeple finials on either side. When a steeple clock was made of mahogany, with a brass knob on the door and brass frames around the dial glass and the smaller oblong glass in front of the pendulum, it could be a handsome mantel piece. Not all steeple clocks were as simply elegant. Some had finials with more turnings, and some had the lower part of the glass door painted.

The beehive clock was a little taller than most steeple clocks and the case looked heavier. The case was true to its name, coming to a softly rounded point at the top, like an old-fashioned beehive. Simple molding usually outlined the case.

After 1860, cases for mantel and shelf clocks became larger, heavier-looking, and sometimes almost fantastic. The names by which they were known described their shapes-acorn, hourglass, lyre, etc. Finally, by the 1890's, some could only be described as "gingerbread," so elaborate and complicated were the swirls, scrolls, moldings, and the like combined on a single case.

Other materials beside wood contributed to the fanciful and odd shapes. A few clocks had pressed glass cases, some from Sandwich, some from other factories. The popular Daisy and Button pattern, introduced in the 1880's, was used in both clear and colored glass. Some milk glass was used for clocks too. The glass cases usually were made for small clocks, possibly to hang on the wall or place on a table. China cases were popular for mantel clocks. Many of these were attractive, though

some seem almost too ornate now. Probably more clock cases were made of Delft and Dresden than anything else, but Haviland, Royal Bonn, and possibly other porcelain factories also turned to clock cases in the late 1800's. Cast iron, bronze, marble and bronze, and papier-mâché with mother-of-pearl insets were other Victorian favorites.

Cases for mantel and shelf clocks usually were not made by the factory that made the clock works. Instead, the cases were ordered by contract. Then, too, many clockmakers, including Eli Terry, supplied movements to firms that made cases. This was particularly true of odd clocks such as the Victorian china ones.

In the 1880's and 1890's, the Victorians became fond of mantel clocks with cases that combined marble and bronze or ormolu trim. Many of these resembled French clocks of an earlier era, with a lion, elephant, or rhinoceros in dark bronze as part of the decoration.

Somewhat later but still widely admired today are the small table clocks with glass sides. The four glass panels (one acted as a door) were mounted in brass frames and there was a small brass carrying handle on top. These clocks were made in several sizes, but all were quite small; probably the largest was no more than 6 inches tall.

Clocks made for specific places and purposes during the last century are goals for many collectors, particularly since so many of these have now been replaced by electric models. For instance, a large, plain but distinctive wall clock with an exceptionally clear face used to be mounted on the wall in every railroad station. The old schoolroom clock has now become another collecting specialty, as have striking clocks combining a chronometer with the traditional ship's bell, which were manufactured for ships by a Connecticut clockmaker in the 1870's. In later ship's clocks, a softer chime was substituted for the bell. A ship's clock divided the day into six periods of four hours each, starting with one bell at 12:30, 4:30, and 8:30 and progressing to eight bells at 4, 8, and 12 o'clock. Then, between 1850 and 1875, brass carriage clocks became fashionable.

Interest in old clocks is so strong that there is a National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors with several thousand members. Then, too, many persons who are not members like to get hold of an old clock because they enjoy tinkering with it and getting it to run again. In fact, more than one man has built up a hobby and small business on the side by scouring near-by places for nineteenth-century shelf clocks, putting them in running order and restoring their cases if necessary, and then selling them.

Any clock made during the 1800's and some of those from the early years of the twentieth century are salable. There is a ready market not just for special-purpose clocks but for fairly ordinary mantel or shelf clocks. The fact that a clock does not run is not necessarily a drawback-all it may need is oiling.

Many a 75- to 200-year-old clock still ticks off the minutes, strikes or chimes the hours, and keeps remarkably accurate time. Even if a clock has not run for years, it can be made to do so again by a skilled repairman. However, no one should attempt to repair the works or restore the finish on the case unless he knows how to handle a clock. An unskilled repairman can do more harm than good, To begin, there is a right way to remove a clock from its case. Cleaning it can be tricky, and the restoration of a dial, particularly one from a tall-case clock, is not a job for an amateur. Sometimes a dial needs no more attention than a careful washing to remove accumulated dust. If restoration is necessary, it should be done by an artist who confines the work as much as possible to retouching.

A clock that still tells time may need to be regulated for accuracy. Directions for starting and adjusting a clock usually were printed on a paper that was glued to the inside of the case.

The age of a clock does not necessarily have too much bearing on the price for which it can be sold now. The clockmaker's signature may, just as does the condition of the clock and its case.

Three things increase the value of a clock. Most important is the printed sheet of paper pasted inside the case. This paper identifies the maker and the period or approximate age of the clock. Next in importance is knowing whether or not the movement and the case are from the original maker. When a case made in the 1840's has had a more recent movement installed, it will not interest collectors, although it might be sold to a noncollector who simply likes the clock. The value of many an old clock has been reduced by the fact that the original movement has been replaced by a later and less valuable one. Equally important is the presence of the original tablet-that is, the painted glass panel on the door. If the original tablet is still intact and has not been replaced by a recent artistic effort, the value is enhanced.

Occasionally an expert clock repairer may suggest substituting electrical works. This happened when a Virginia couple who owned a hanging wall clock decided they wanted to have it tell time again. The clock was in poor shape, with the case and many parts of the works broken. An expert clock repairman in Norfolk suggested that, instead of the time-consuming and perhaps not completely successful search for authentic replacement parts, a small electrical movement, which would not be visible, should be installed. The dial needed only washing and a slight retouching of its decoration. The hands were missing, so a search was made to find some in the right style. A cabinetmaker repaired and restored the original mahogany case. The finished job is shown in one of this book's illustrations.

Any old clock, even a banjo wall clock, has had its sale value as an antique reduced if it has been electrified. Any tampering with movement, dial, or case, or replacement of any original parts, means some reduction in the sale price. The clock that needs a great deal of repair and refinishing is not going to sell for nearly as much as a similar clock in fairly good condition. There is no basic standard price to be placed on any clock, not even those made entirely by hand before the 1830's. The price range for any style can be a broad one, as broad at an auction or an antique shop as in a person-to-person sale. By the way, if you're buying a clock, be sure the key to wind it is tucked away in the case.

Gongs, bells, or chimes, metal decoration around the face, painted dials like the Pennsylvania German Fraktur style, little figures-all these are individual touches that may add to the monetary value of a clock. So may any unusual decoration or attachment.

If a local jeweler, clockmaker, or repairer cannot help you to place your clock historically, there are other possibilities. A horological group or a branch of a clock and watch society may be active locally or nearby. A visit to a museum or restoration also may be helpful. There is a Clock Museum (with library) in Bristol, Connecticut. Other notable exhibits of clocks are to be seen in the Springfield, Illinois, State Museum of Natural History and Art; Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts; the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan; and the New York University Gould Memorial Library in New York City.

Since tall-case or grandfather's clocks were handed down from one generation of a family to another, sometimes a reliable history of a clock is available from the time the clockmaker sold it to its first owner. This, naturally, would be influential in its sale today. A tall-case clock may be sold for any amount from $50 to several thousand dollars. Where a particular clock fits in this scale depends upon its condition, the presence of replaced parts, the amount of restoration needed, the maker, and the clock's history. An uncased weight-and-pendulum clock would probably be toward the bottom of the price scale. An early-nineteenthcentury grandfather's clock in a pine case might bring no more than $150 to $300. Even one with a mahogany case and a dial topped by a cartoucle with a painted landscape or seascape might bring no more than $200.

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