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Old Time Clocks

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THERE is something quaintly pathetic about an old colonial clock. Its sociability appeals to all home lovers, as it cheerily ticks the hours away, with a regularity that is almost human.

The first clocks, if so they might be called, were composed of two bowls connected by an opening through which water trickled, drop by drop, from one to the other. Next came a simple contrivance consisting of a greased wick tied into knots. The smoldering of the lighted wick determined the flight of time.

The first clock, which was made in 807, was given as a present to the Emperor Claudius. It was a small clock of bronze inlaid with gold, and was fitted with twelve small doors. Each one of these opened at a given time, and allowed tiny balls to roll out, differing in number according to the hour represented. Promptly at the strike of twelve, toy horsemen came prancing out, and closed every open door. This was a marvel of clock-making that attracted a great deal of attention.

In 1335, a monk, Peter Lightfoot by name, constructed a wonderful clock, which he presented to Glastonbury Abbey. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many and varied kinds of clocks were made, and we are assured that this was a successful venture, even in the early ages, from the fact that in 1500 a clockmakers' union was formed.

To one who is interested in the history of clocks, there is no better place to view them than in Europe, where the most skilled clock-makers lived during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Marseilles, Exeter, and Westminster Abbey are the homes of some of the most wonderful clocks in the world.

Some of the most beautiful of these were made by Chippendale and Sheraton, the former manufacturing specimens that stood nine feet high and measured twenty-five inches across. On the door was placed a reliable thermometer, while on the inner circle, the signs of the Zodiac were marked, the outer circle showing the movable features by means of a sliding ring.

The manufacture of clocks in America began early in the eighteenth century. Among the earliest clockmakers was one Benjamin Bagnall, who learned his trade in England and settled. in Boston in 1712. A record of a meeting of the selectmen of the town on August 13, 1717, reads : "that Mr. Joseph Wadsworth, William Welstead, Esq., and Habijah Savage, Esq., be desired to treat with Mr. Benjamin Bagnall about making a Town Clock," and according to the record in September of that year he was paid for it.

The earliest Bagnall clock on record is of the pendulum type, in a tall case of pine ; on the inside of the lower door was written : "This clock put up January 1o, 1722." Another, very similar to this type, belongs to the New England Historical Genealogical Society of Boston. The case, though plain, is handsome and unusual, being made of solid black walnut. Most of the cases, however, were made of pine, veneered. The use of this wood was characteristic of old American-made cases, while those of old English make were veneered on oak.

A particularly fine Bagnall clock is in the Hosmer collection at Hartford, Connecticut. It is a black walnut veneer on pine. A peculiarity of the Bagnall make is the small dial, only twelve inches square. Above the dial is an arched ex-tension, silvered and engraved with the name of the maker. Samuel Bagnall, son of Benjamin, has left a few good clocks, thought to be equal to the work of his father.

The clocks of Enos Doolittle, another colonial maker, are not numerous enough to give him a prominent place among the great manufacturers. Nevertheless, he deserves much praise for the few good clocks which he has left behind. One of them is at Hartford, Doolittle's native town. The case is of beautifully carved cherry, ornamented with pilasters on the sides of the case and face; the top of the case is richly ornamented with scrolls and carvings. A circular plate above the dial has the legend "Enos Doolittle, Hartford."

There were many small clock-makers in colonial days, one, we might say, in every town, who left a few examples of their work; but none of them left the number or quality produced by the great clock-makers, the Willards. Benjamin Willard, who had shops in Boston, Roxbury, and Grafton, made a specialty of the musical clock, which he advertised as playing a tune a day and a psalm tune on Sundays. Aaron Willard, a brother, made tall, striking clocks. One of his productions, owned by Dr. G. Faulkner of Boston, has run for over one hundred and twenty years. On the inside of the case is written : "The first short timepiece made in America, 1784." It is a departure from the ordinary Aaron Willard clock, because it is so short. The case of mahogany stands only twenty-six inches high ; and there are scroll feet, turning back. A separate upper part, with ogre feet, which can be lifted off, contains the movements. Simon Willard, another brother, in 1802 patented the "Improved time-piece" which later was known as the "banjo" because of its resemblance in shape to that instrument. The "banjo" which Willard manufactured had a convex glass door over the face, a slim waist with brass ornaments running parallel to the curve of the box, and a rectangular base, which was sometimes built with legs for a shelf, sometimes with an ornamental bracket on the bottom, in which case the clock was intended for the wall. The construction of these clocks was simple; the works were of brass, and capable of running eight or nine days. There was no strike, but this clock was a favorite, because of its accuracy.

Hardly less famous than the Willards was Eli Terry, born April, 1773, in East Windsor, Connecticut. Before he was twenty-one, he was recognized as having unusual ingenuity at clockmaking. He had learned the trade from Thomas Harland, a well-known clock-maker of the times, had constructed a few old-fashioned hanging clocks and sold them in his own town. He moved to Plymouth and continued to make clocks, working alone till 'Soo, when he hired a few assistants. He would start about a dozen movements at a time, cutting the wheels and teeth, with saw and jack-knife. Each year he made a few trips through the surrounding country, carrying three or four clock movements which he sold for about twenty-five dollars apiece.

Felt tells in his annals that "in 1770, Joseph Hiller moved from Boston to Salem and took a shop opposite the courthouse on the exchange." Later on, in 1789, we learn that Samuel Mullikin made an agreement to barter clocks for both English and West Indies goods, and also in ex-change for country produce.. So popular did they become that we learn that in 1844 there were in Salem ten clock-makers and eleven jewelers all working at this trade.

While the colonists still imported many of their clocks, yet in 1800 clock-making had become such a thriving industry that wooden cases were constantly being made, the manufacture of the works being a separate field.

One of the most interesting is a tall grandfather's clock, showing the moon above the face, at the Stark house in Dunbarton. This clock formerly stood in the old Governor Pierce mansion at Hillsboro. It is very handsome, showing fine inlaid work on the case.

Varied in shape and size were the numerous clocks which were found in colonial homes in New England. They ranged from the tall grandfather's clock to the smaller wall and bracket pieces. One kind that was in use, though rarely seen today, is the table clock, a type highly prized by the colonists, and recorded as a fine timekeeper.

By the early nineteenth century we find the making of American clocks had become so universal that they were to be found not only in many New England houses, but throughout the South and Middle states as well. Many of the rarest and oldest were at the plantation manors of Virginia and Kentucky as well as in New England.

There are today in many houses colonial clocks valued not only for their worth, but for association's sake. One of these is in the home of Mr. John Albree at Swampscott, Massachusetts. It is considered one of the oldest of its kind in the United States, and was brought from England in the year 1635 by one John Albree, and has been in the family ever since. It is known as the weaver's clock, and has one hand only. These clocks are very rare, only a very few being known of.

Singularly enough, few people, even those who are the most interested in clocks and their making, know much about their early history and construction. The purchase of a clock at the present time means not only the case, but the entire works as well. It was, however, far different in the early days, at least while the tall clocks were so popular. Transportation was difficult, so the clock peddlers contented themselves by slinging half a dozen clock movements over the saddle and starting out to find purchasers. After the works were purchased, and the family felt they had twenty pounds to spare, they called in a local cabinet-maker, and often the whole of the amount went into the making of the case. Naturally, a certain-shaped case was made to fit a certain movement, so that definite types of clocks were found, but it must be remembered that the case gave no indication of the period of the maker of the movements.

One of the first types of clocks made in America was the wall clock. This was set on a shelf through which slits were cut for the pendulum and weight cords to fall. These were known as "lantern," "bird cage," or "wag-at-the-wall," later replaced by the more imposing "Grandfather," which served a double duty as timekeeper and as one of the "show pieces" of furniture.

The first known Terry clock was made in 1792. It was built with a long, handsome case and with a silver-plated dial, engraved with Terry's name. This clock, just as it was when Eli Terry set it going for the first time with all the pride which he must have had in his first accomplishment, is now in the possession of the Terry family.

There was an interesting clock of this type in the General Stephen Abbot house on Federal Street, Salem, and another is still in the possession of Mr. Henry Mills of Saugus, Massachusetts.

Terry introduced a patent shelf clock, with a short case. This made the clock much more marketable, because it was short enough to allow of easy transportation and at the same time offered the inducement of a well-made and inexpensive case.

The patent shelf clock was a surprise to the rivals of Terry, because this change in construction had produced an absolutely new and improved model, an unheard-of thing in clock making. The conservatism before shown by the colonial makers had stunted the growth of clock improvements in many ways, hence Terry's new invention produced a sensation.

The change was such as to allow the play of weights on each side and the whole length of the case. The placing of the pendulum, crown wheel, and verge in front of the wheels, and between the dial and the movement, was another space-saving device, as was also the changing of the dial wheels from the outside to the inside of the movement plates. The escapement was transferred by hanging the verge on a steel pin, instead of on a long, heavy shaft inside the plates. This allowed the clock to be fastened to the case in back, making the pendulum accessible by removing only the dial. Thus Terry fairly revolutionized small-clock making, by introducing a new form, more compact, more serviceable, and cheaper than any of the older makes.

In 1807 Terry bought an old mill in Plymouth and fitted it up so as to make his clocks by machinery. About this time several Waterbury men associated themselves to supply Terry with the materials, if he would make the clocks. With this steady income from machine-made clocks, and the profits from extra sales, he made, in a very short time, what was then considered quite a fortune.

In 1808 he started five hundred clocks at once, an undertaking which was considered foolhardy. People argued that there weren't enough people in the colonies to buy so many clocks, but nevertheless the clocks sold rapidly. In 1810 Terry sold out to Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadley, two of his head workmen. The new company was a leader in colonial clock manufacturing for a number of years, until competition brought the prices of clocks down to five and ten dollars.

All these years Terry had been experimenting, and in 1814 he introduced his pillar scroll top case. This upset the clock trade to such an extent that the old-fashioned hanging, wooden clocks, which hitherto had been the leading type, were forced out of existence. The shape of the scroll top case is rectangular, the case, with small feet and top, standing about twenty-five inches high. On the front edges of the case are pillars, twenty-one inches long, three quarters of an inch in diameter at the base, and three eighths at the top, having, as a rule, square bases. The dial, which takes up a half or more of the whole front, is eleven inches square, while below is a tablet about seven by eleven inches. The dial is not over-ornamental and has suitable spandrels in the corners. The scroll top is found plain as well as highly carved, but always the idea of the scroll is present.

Terry sold the right to manufacture the clock to Seth Thomas for a thousand dollars. At first they each made about six thousand clocks a year, but later increased the output to twelve thousand. The clocks were great favorites and sold easily for fifteen dollars each.

Another conservatism of the colonial clock-makers was the sharp division which they made between the use of wood and brass in the manufacture of the movements. The one-day clocks were made of wood throughout, and this pre-vented their use on water or even their exportation, because the works would swell in the dampness and render the clock useless. The eight-day clocks were made of brass, but the extra cost of the movements sufficient to make the clock run eight days excluded many people, who had to remain content with the one-day clock.

It was not till 1837 that it occurred to any of these ingenious makers of timepieces to produce a one-day clock out of brass. To Chauncey Jerome, the first exporter of clocks from America to England in the year 1824, the honor was re-served of applying the principle of the cheap wire pinion to the brass, one-day clock. Thus began the revolution of American clock manufacturing, which has placed this country before all the world as a leader in cheap and accurate watch and clock making.

"The whirr and bustle of hundreds of factories of to-day, which manufacture watches and clocks at an output of thousands per year, is a strong contrast to the slow and laborious construction of the old colonial clocks. And not only is there a contrast in their manufacture, but when one compares the finished products of the year 1700 and 1900 side by side, one is conscious of conflicting emotions. There is naturally a decided feeling of admiration for the artistically designed timepiece of the twentieth century on the one hand, and, on the other, an irresistibly sentimental sensation when standing before a dignified, ancient, tall clock, on the door of which one reads :

" I am old and worn as my face appears,
For I have walked on time for a hundred years,
Many have fallen since my race began,
Many will fall ere my race is run.
I have buried the World with its hopes and fears
In my long, long march of a hundred years."



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