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Clocks give life to a room, but the tall clocks of the peculiar form that is now 300 years old have a special dignity. A tall clock needs a good setting. Where space is limited, the end of a narrow entrance hall is a better place for a clock than at the side. Sometimes a vista may be arranged so that the clock may be seen through a doorway. The time-honored position on the stair landing generally provides a grandfather clock with proper perspective and also allows the face to be seen and the chimes to be heard from two floors.
Although most of the old clocks and also those made today have cabinetwork of mahogany, clock cases of the past disclose almost every kind of finish known to the cabinetmakers of that time. In true Chinese lacquer finish, green, blue or vermilion, decorated by Chinese in their own fashion with pagodas, snow-capped mountains and tea houses under twisted pine trees, a tall clock can be a thing of beauty.
Cabinetmakers expended excellent marquetry work upon tall clocks. There is a richness unobtainable in any other manner in intricate patterns of satinwood inlay of scrolls and tendrils and leaves. One of the popular types was known as the "seaweed" pattern-a tiny, leaflike pattern that covered the entire surface of the woodwork.
The first pendulum clock, the ancestor of all tall clocks, was made by a Dutchman, Christian Huygens, in 1657. Like the Cromwellian or lantern clock and the wag-on-the-walls, the clock rested on a shelf, with the pendulum and the weights suspended below. But a case to cover the pendulum and weights soon came into being. Its form today still carries, in the phases of the moon and sometimes dates of the month and days of the week, a reminder that in the past the function of the clock was not restricted to merely telling the hours, but offered a variety of astronomical information to him who would look it in the face.
The making of tall clocks for a time nearly ended in this country about 1815, with the introduction of the handier shelf clocks of Simon Willard and of Eli Terry. Before that time the making of expensive grandfather clocks was the backbone of the clock business. Most of the cases were made to order after the works were selected. Clockmakers of the time had to combine ability in making works of wood or brass with skill in handling cabinet wool. The crudity of some cases that have come down to us is explained by the fact that thrifty householders would buy the works separately and build the case themselves. Clockmaking in Colonial days was one of the popular crafts in Connecticut and Massachusetts. A grandfather clock was no small purchase, especially if a really elaborate one which gave astronomical information was bought. Up to about 1800 the tall clock was about the only clock used. Then Yankee ingenuity began to turn out the shelf and banjo clocks which made the names of Simon Willard and Eli Terry famous.
The skill of the Colonial clockmaker who made all the many parts of the works of a clock by hand was remarkable. It was said of Simon Willard that he never needed to mark out the cogwheels of brass, but trusted to his eye as he filed them. Some of the clocks that he made are still going, in spite of their hundred and a quarter and more years of life.
New England clockmakers were conservative in those days. As in other furniture, they strove for simplicity. Ornate "regulateurs" in ebony and carved and gilded decora tions or covered with fine marquetry work came from France. Dutch clocks with bulging bases, as well as tall timepieces of Germany, found their way to this country. Yankee sailors occasionally fabricated cases on long voyages and had them decorated in Chinese ports.
The tall clock was the last type of clock made under the old one-man craft system, for, with the advent of the smaller shelf clock at the beginning of the nineteenth cen tury, quantity production and national distribution appeared for the first time in America. But the grandfather clock was too intimately a part of the early American domestic scene to be permanently superseded. Today in dining room, living room or hallway it has reappeared.