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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

American Clocks

( Originally Published 1940 )



When the Sons of Liberty dumped good British tea into the Boston Harbor in the celebrated "Boston Tea Party," two great American craftsman-patriots passed each other, probably without so much as a nod. These were Paul Revere and Thomas Harland.

Harland moved to Norwich, Connecticut and began making clocks. He had learned his craft in England. He first manufactured, or "assembled," a type of clock with brass works, imported from England.

Harland's clock, in common with most others of its period, had a one-second pendulum, approximately forty inches long. These clocks were usually in cases about six feet tall. The ped dlers of the era often sold only the clock-works and the buyer had the case made to order by his local cabinetmaker. Sometimes, in the interests of economy, the purchaser did not order a case, merely fastening the bare works to the wall. These were called "wag-on-the-wall" clocks.

Among Harland's many apprentices was one Eli Terry, who subsequently, in about 1793, started business for himself in Northbury, Connecticut. Terry had also been apprenticed to Daniel Burnap, from whom he learned engraving. Burnap had worked in Andover, Massachusetts, and in Hartford, and East Windsor, Connecticut. Burnap's clocks were especially distinguished for their intricate calendar and moon attachments, and for their lack of spindrels.

Terry encountered considerable difficulty when he first started in business. He was forced to support himself and his large family by the repairing of clocks and watches. He also did engraving, and the repairing of spectacles, to scrape up extra money.

It was Terry, although the idea was not original with him, who undertook the first extensive manufacture of clocks with wooden works. These were much cheaper than those built with imported brass parts. For a certain combination of his wooden clock-works he took out what was probably the first clock patent in America, in 1797- Several times a year he went forth in his wagon to sell his clocks, while his two apprentices continued to make them. With their wooden works and various mechanical shortcuts, his clocks sold marvellously well. They were priced from $18 to $70. At this rate his business expanded so rapidly that he became the first to employ waterpower in the cutting of clock parts.

In 1807 he sold his original factory to an apprentice and bought an old mill where he began one of the earliest attempts at what may be called mass-production. He signed a contract with a retailing firm in Waterbury, Connecticut, undertaking to provide them with 4000 of his clocks, at $4.0o each, within a span of three years; the retailers to furnish the materials. This was an enormous contract, unprecedented in its time, but Eli Terry fulfilled it. Thereafter he again sold out, this time to two of his employees, Silas Hoadley and Seth Thomas. By that time the retail price of the average clock, without cabinet, had dropped to about five dollars.

Eli Terry never withdrew from one successful business without a tremendous scheme with which to begin the next. In this case it was a new clock-works which made possible the first cheap and practical shelf-clock. These could be vended by Yankee peddlers without benefit of local cabinetmakers, and were accepted with a fortune-making speed. Terry died in 1852, a wealthy man, at the age of eighty.

Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadley were two other examples of the early American self-made man. They represented the combination of craftsman, inventor, and business man, in whom all three elements seemed to balance without conflict and to produce an astonishingly capable and versatile personality.

Both Thomas and Hoadley had entered Terry's shop as humble joiners. Neither had any formal education; both came from poor families, and had served their long apprenticeships to learn the trade of joining. Yet in 1810, when Hoadley was twenty-four and Thomas was twenty-five, they were able to buy Terry's clock manufactory, which was the largest in America l

Seth Thomas founded a long line of clock makers, and a firm which is still in business manufacturing one of the superior clocks of America.

Silas Hoadley, after leaving the partnership with Thomas in 1814, prospered almost as well as his friend. He became a High Mason, a Democratic State Assemblyman, and State Senator before his death in 1870.

Another employee of Eli Terry, who rose to be a great American clockmaker, was Chauncey Jerome. The story of his life, told in his History of the American Clock Business, was one of courage, personal integrity, and ingenuity.

Competing with the clockmakers of Connecticut was another group in Massachusetts. Outstanding among these was the Willard family. The first of the line, Benjamin Willard, advertised in Boston in 1773 that he made clocks that "play a new tune every day of the week and on Sunday a psalm tune." Benjamin's two younger brothers were Simon and Aaron. Simon was the better clockmaker, but Aaron the superior business man. Simon Willard invented the "banjo clock," so called because of its shape. This new wall clock was an instant success and in 1 802 he had it patented.

About 1805 Simon gave up his previous peddling tours to take care of his increasing business. In 1801 he made a magnificent clock for the United States Senate, for which he was paid $770. It was destroyed when the British burned Washington in 1814.

Simon Willard is best remembered for the banjo clock, which was quickly imitated despite his patent, and for his large public clocks, of which he made about thirteen. He retired in 1839, at the age of eighty-seven, but spent his remaining nine years puttering about the shop of his son, Simon, junior, and that of a former apprentice, Elnathan Taber.

Simon's brother Aaron began business in 1780. (Curiously enough none of the Willards were ever partners.) His clocks were inferior to Simon's but, by dint of his business abilities, he made and sold more. Another Willard brother, Ephraim, was also in the clock business. Several of Simon's descendants carried on the tradition. The Willard clocks always had brass works and were more expensive than those of the Connecticut craftsmen.

It was the Connecticut group which was responsible for the unusually early industrialization of clockmaking. As a single group they transformed clockmaking from a simple local craft into a large-scale commercial activity.



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