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Gardens - Sun Dials

( Originally Published 1901 )

"Tis an old dial, dark with many a stain,
In summer crowned with drifting orchard bloom,
Tricked in the autumn with the yellow rain,
And white in winter like a marble tomb.

" And round about its gray, time-eaten brow
Lean letters speak — a worn and shattered row : —
I am a Shade; A Shadowe too arte thou ;
I mark the Time; saye, Gossip, dost thou soe ? ' "


A CENTURY or more ago, in the heart of nearly all English gardens, and in the gardens of our American colonies as well, there might be seen a pedestal of varying material, shape, and pretension, surmounted by the most interesting furnishing in " dead-works " of the garden, a sun-dial. In public squares, on the walls of public buildings, on bridges, and by the side of the way, other and simpler dials were found. On the walls of country houses and churches vertical sun-dials were displayed ; every English town held them by scores. In Scotland, and to some extent in England, these sun-dials still are found ; in fine old gardens the most richly carved dials are standing ; but in America they have become so rare that many people have never seen one. In many of the formal gardens planned by our skilled architects, sun-dials are now springing afresh like mushroom growth of a single night, and some are objects of the greatest beauty and interest.

If the claims of antiquity and historical association have aught to charm us, every sun-dial must be assured of our interest. The most primitive mode of knowing of the midday hour was by a "noon mark," a groove cut or line drawn on door or window sill which indicated the meridian hour through a shadow thrown on this noon mark. A good guess as to the hours near noon could be made by noting the distance of the shadow from the noon mark. I chanced to be near an old noon mark this summer as the sun warned that noon approached ; -I noted that the marking shadow crossed the line at twenty minutes before noon by our watches—which, I suppose, was near enough to satisfy our "early to rise" ancestors. Meridian lines were often traced with exactness on the floors of churches in Continental Europe.

An advance step in accuracy and elegance was made when a simple metal sun-dial was affixed to the window sill instead of cutting the rude noon mark. Soon the sun-dial was set on a simple pedestal near the kitchen window, so that the active worker within might glance at the dial face without ceasing in her task. Such a sun-dial is shown on page 354, as, it stands under the " buttery " window cosily hobnobbing with its old crony of many years, the bee skepe. One could wish to be a bee, and live in that snug home under the Syringa bush.

Portable sun-dials succeeded fixed dials ; they have been known as long as the Christian era; shepherds' dials were the Kalendars " or " Cylindres " about which treatises were written as early as the thirteenth century. They were small cylinders of wood or ivory, having at the top a kind of stopper with a hinged gnomon; they are still used in the Pyrenees. Pretty little " ring-dials" of brass, gold, or silver, are constructed on the same principle. The exquisitely wrought portable dial shown on this page is a very fine piece of workmanship, and must have been costly. It is dated 1764, and is eleven inches in diameter. It is a perfect example of the advanced type of dial made in Italy, which had a simpler form as early certainly as A.D. 300. The compass was added in the thirteenth century. The compass-needle is missing on this dial, its only blemish. The Italians excelled in dial-making; among their interesting forms were the cross-shaped dials evidently a reliquary.

Portable dials were used instead of watches. There is at the Washington headquarters at Morristown a delicately wrought oval silver case, with compass and sun-dial, which was carried by one of the French officers who came here with Lafayette ; George Washington owned and carried one.

The colonists came here from a land set with dials, whether they sailed from Holland or England. Charles I had a vast fancy for dials, and had them placed everywhere; the finest and most curious was the splendid master dial placed in his private gardens at Whitehall ; this had five dials set in the upper part, four in the four corners, and a great horizontal concave dial ; among these were scattered equinoctial dials, vertical dials, declining dials, polar dials, plane dials, cylindrical dials, triangular dials ; each was inscribed with explanatory verses in Latin. Equally beautiful and intricate were the dials of Charles II, the most marvellous being the vast pyramid dial bearing 271 different dial faces.

Those who wish to learn of English sun-dials should read Mrs. Gatty's Book of Sun-dials, a massive and fascinating volume. No such extended record could be made of American sun-dials ; but it pleases me that I know of over two hundred sun-dials in America, chiefly old ones ; that I have photographs of many of them ; that I have copies of many hundred dial mottoes, and also a very fair collection of the old dial faces, of various metals and sizes.

I know of no public collection of sun-dials in America save that in the Smithsonian Institution, and that is not a large one. Several of our Historical Societies own single sun-dials. In the Essex Institute is the sun-dial of Governor Endicott ; another, shown on page 344, was once the property of my far-away grandfather, Jonathan Fairbanks ; it is in the Dedham Historical Society.

All forms of sun-dials are interesting. A simple but accurate one was set on Robins Island by the late Samuel Bowne Duryea, Esq., of Brooklyn. Taking the flagpole of the club house as a stylus, he laid the lines and figures of the dial-face with small dark stones on a ground of light-hued stones, all set firmly in the earth at the base of the pole. Thus was formed, with the simplest materials, by one who ever strove to give pleasure and stimulate knowledge in all around him, an object which not only told the time o' the day, but afforded gratification, elicited investigation, and awakened sentiment in all who beheld it.

A similar use of a vertical pole as a primitive gnomon for a sun-dial seems to have been common to many uncivilized peoples. In upper Egypt the natives set up a palm rod in open ground, and arrange a circle of stones or pegs around it, calling it an alka, and thus mark the hours. The plough-man leaves his buffalo standing in the furrow while he learns the progress of time from this simple dial—and we recall the words of Job, "As a servant earnestly desireth a shadow."

The Labrador Indians, when on the hunt or the march, set an upright stick or spear in the snow, and draw the line of the shadow thus cast. They then stalk on their way ; and the women, heavily laden with provisions, shelter, and fuel, come slowly along two or three hours later, note the distance between the present shadow and the line drawn by their lords, and know at once whether they must gather up the stick or spear and hurry along, or can rest for a short time on their weary march. This is a primitive but exact chronometer.

There are serious objections to quoting from Charles Lamb : you are never willing to end the transcription—you long to add just one phrase, one clause more. Then, too, the purity of the pearl which you choose seems to render duller than their wont the leaden sentences with which you enclose it as a setting. Still, who could write of sun-dials without choosing to transcribe these words of Lamb's ?

"What a dead thing is a clock, with its ponderous embowelments of lead or brass, its pert or solemn dulness of communication, compared with the simple altar-like structure and silent heart-language of the old dial ! It stood as the garden god of Christian gardens. Why is it almost everywhere banished ? If its business use be suspended by more elaborate inventions, its moral uses, its beauty, might have pleaded for its continuance. It spoke of moderate labors, of pleasures not protracted after sunset, of temperance and good hours. It was the primitive clock, the horologe of the first world. Adam could scarce have missed it in Paradise. The 'shepherd carved it out quaintly in the sun,' and turning philosopher by the very occupation, provided it with mottoes more touching than tomb-stones."

Sun-dial mottoes stil] can be gathered by hundreds ; and they are one record of a force in the development of our literate people. For it was long after we had printing ere we had any general class of folk, who, if they could read, read anything save the Bible. To many the knowledge of reading came from the deciphering of what has been happily termed the Literature of the Bookless. This literature was placed that he who ran might read ; and its opening chapters were in the form of inscriptions and legends and mottoes which were placed, not only on buildings and walls, and pillars and bridges, but on household furniture and table utensils.

The inscribing of mottoes on sun-dials appears to have sprung up with dial-making; and where could a strict moral lesson, a .suggestive or inspiring thought, be bet-ter placed? Even the most heed-less or indifferent passerby, or the unwilling reader could not fail to see the instructive words when he cast his glance to learn the time.

The mottoes were frequently in Latin, a few in Greek or Hebrew ; but the old English mottoes seem the most appealing.







Scriptural verses have ever been favorites, especially passages from the Psalms: "Man is like a thing of nought, his time passeth away like a shadow." " My time is in Thy hand." " Put not off from day to day." "Oh, re-member how short my time is." Some of the Latin mottoes are very beautiful.

Poets have written special verses for sun-dials. These noble lines are by Walter Savage Landor :


The motto, Horas non numero nisi serenas, in various forms and languages, has ever been a favorite. From an old album I have received this poem writ-ten by Professor S. F. B. Morse ; there is a note with it in Professor Morse's handwriting, saying he saw the motto on a sun-dial at Worms : -

TO A. G. E.

Horas non numero nisi serenas.

The sun when it shines in a clear cloudless sky
Marks the time on my disk in figures of light ;
If clouds gather o'er me, unheeded they fly,
I note not the hours except they be bright.

So when I review all the scenes that have past
Between me and thee, be they dark, be they light,
I forget what was dark, the light I hold fast ;
I note not the hours except they be bright.


Washington, March, 1845.

The sun-dial seems too classic an object, and too serious a teacher, to bear a jesting motto. This sober pun was often seen : —


The sun-dial does not lure to " idle dalliance." Nine-tenths of the sun-dial mottoes tersely warn you not to linger, to haste away, that time is fleeting, and your hours are numbered, and therefore to "be about your business." In a single moment and at a single glance the sun-dial has said its lesson, has told its absolute message, and there is no reason for you to gaze at it longer. Its very position, too, in the unshaded rays of the sun, does not invite you to long companionship, as do the shady lengths of a pergola, or a green orchard seat. Still, I would ever have a garden seat near a sun-dial, especially when it is a work of art to be studied, and with mottoes to be remembered. For even in hurrying America the sun-dial seems — like a guide-post — a half-human thing, for which we can feel an al-most personal interest.

The figure of a sun-dial played an interesting part in the early history of the United States. In the first set of notes issued for currency by the American Congress was one for the value of one third of a dollar. One side has the chain of links bearing the names of the thirteen states, enclosing a sunburst bearing the words, American Congress, We are One. The reverse side is shown on this page. It bears a print of a sun-dial, with the motto, Fugio, Mind Tour Business. The so-called " Franklin cent" has a similar design of a sun-dial with the same motto, and there was a beautiful " Fugio dollar " cast in silver, bronze, and pewter. Though this de-sign and motto were evidently Franklin's taste, the motto in its use on a sun-dial was not original with Franklin, nor with any one else in the Congress, for it had been seen on dials on many English churches and houses. In the form, " Begone about Your Business," it was on a house in the Inner Temple ; this is the tradition of the origin of this motto. The dialler sent for a motto to place under the dial, as he had been instructed by the Benchers ; when the man arrived at the Library, he found but one surly old gentleman poring over a musty book. To him he said, " Please, sir, the gentlemen told me to call this hour for a motto for the sun-dial." " Begone about your business," was the testy answer. So the man painted the words under the dial ; and the chance words seemed so appropriate to the Benchers that they were never removed. It is told of Dean Cotton of Bangor that he had a cross old gardener who always warded off unwelcome visitors to the deanery by saying to every one who approached, " Go about your business!" After the gardener's death the dean had this motto engraved around the sun-dial in the garden, " Goa bou tyo urb us in ess, 1838." Thus the gardener's growl became his epitaph. Another form was, " Be about Your Business," and it is a suggestive fact that it was on a dial on the General Post-office in London in 1756. Franklin's interest in and knowledge of postal matters, his long residence in London, and service under the crown as American postmaster general, must have familiarized him with this dial, and I am convinced it furnished to him the notion for the design on the first bank-note and coins of the new nation.

An interesting bit of history allied to America is given to us in the finding of a sun-dial which gives to American students of heraldic antiquities another dated shield of the Washing-ton "stars and stripes."

In Little Bring-ton, Northamptonshire, stands a house known as "The Washington House," which gave shelter to the Washingtons of Sulgrave after the fall of their fortunes. Within a stone's throw of the house has recently been found a sun-dial having the Washington arms (argent) two bars, and in chief three mullets (gules) carved upon it, with the date 1617. The existence of this stone has been known for forty years ; but it has never been closely examined and noted till recently. It is a circular slab of sandstone three inches thick and sixteen inches in diameter. The gnomon is lacking. The lines, figures, and shield are incised, and the letters R. W. can be dimly seen. These were probably the initials of Robert Washington, great uncle of the two emigrants to Virginia.

Through the kindness of Mr. A. L. Y. Morley, a faithful antiquary of Great Barrington, I have the pleasure of giving, on page 367, a representation of this interesting dial. It is shown leaning against the " pump-stand " in the yard of the " Washington House " ; and the pump seems as ancient as the dial.

In this book are three other sun-dials associated with George Washington. At Mount Vernon there stands at the front of the en-trance door a modern sun-dial. The fine old metal dial face, about ten inches in diameter, which in Washington's day was placed on the same site, is now the property of Mr. William F. Havemeyer, Jr., of New York. It was given to him by Mr. Custis; a picture of it is shown on page 368. This dial-face is a splendid relic ; one closely associated with Washington's everyday life, and full of suggestion and sentiment to every thoughtful beholder. The sun-dial which stood in the old Fredericksburg garden of Mary Washington, the mother of George Washington, still stands in Fredericksburg, in the grounds of Mr. Doswell. A photograph of it is reproduced on page 369. The fourth historic dial is on page 371. It is the one at Kenmore, the home built by Fielding Lewis for his bride, Betty Washington, the sister of George Washington, on ground adjoining her mother's home. A part of the garden which connected these two Washington homes is shown on page 228. These three American sun-dials afford an interesting proof of the universal presence of sun-dials in Virginian homes of wealth, and they also show the kind of dial-face which was generally used. Another ancient dial (page 350) at Travellers' Rest, a near-by Virginian country seat, is similar in shape to these three, and differs but little in mounting.

In Pennsylvania and Virginia sun-dials have lingered in use in front of court-houses, on churches, and in a few old garden dials. In New England I scarcely know an old garden dial still standing in its original place on its original pedestal. Four old ones of brass or pewter are shown in the illustration on page 379. These once stood in New England gardens or on the window sills of old houses; one was taken from a sunny window ledge to give to me.

Perhaps the attention paid the doings of the American Philosophical Society, and the number of scientists living near Philadelphia, may account for the many sun-dials set up in the vicinity of the town. Godfrey, the maker of Godfrey's Quadrant, was one of those scientific investigators, and must have been a famous " dialler."

On page 373 is shown an ancient sun-dial in the garden of Charles F. Jenkins, Esq., in German-town, Pennsylvania. This sun-dial originally be-longed to Nathan Spencer, who lived in Germantown prior to and during the Revolutionary War. Hepzibah Spencer, his daughter, married, and took the sun-dial to Byberry. Her daughter carried the sun-dial to Gwynedd when her name was changed to Jenkins ; and their grandson, the present owner, rescued it from the chicken house with the gnomon missing, which was afterward found. Its inscription, " Time waits for No Man," is an old punning device on the word gnomon.

At one time dialling was taught by many a country schoolmaster, and excellent and accurate sun-dials were made and set up by country workmen, usually masons of slight education. In Scotland the making of sun-dials has never died out. In America many pewter sun-dials were cast in moulds of steatite or other material. A few dial-makers still remain ; one in lower New York makes very interesting-looking sun-dials of brass, which, properly discolored and stained, find a ready sale in uptown shops. I doubt if these are ever made for any special geographical point, but there is in a small Pennsylvania town an old Quaker who makes carefully calculated and accurate sun-dials, computed by logarithms for special places. I should like to see him "sit like a shepherd carving out dials, quaintly point by point." I have a very pretty circular brass dial of his making, about eight inches in diameter. He writes me that " the dial sent thee is a good students' dial, fit to set outside the window for a young man to use and study by in college," which would indicate to me that my Quaker dialler knows another type of collegian from those of my acquaintance, who would find the time set by a sun-dial rather slow.

There have been those who truly loved sun-dials. Sir William Temple ordered that after his death his heart should be buried under the sun-dial in his garden — where his heart had been in life. 'Tis not unusual to see a sun-dial over the gate to a burial ground, and a noble emblem it is in that place ; one at Mount Auburn Cemetery, near Boston, bears a pleasing motto written originally by John G. Whittier for his friend, Dr. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, and inscribed on a beautiful silver sun-dial now owned by Dr. Vincent Y. Bowditch of Boston, Massachusetts. A facsimile of this dial was also placed before the Manor House on the island of Naushon by Mr. John M. Forbes in memory of Dr. Bowditch. The lines run thus : —


A sun-dial is to me, in many places, a far more inspiring memorial than a monument or tablet. Let me give as an example the fine sun-dial, designed by W. Gedney Beatty, Esq., and shown on page 359, which was erected on the grounds of the Memorial Hospital at Morristown, New Jersey, by the Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, to mark the spot where Washington partook of the Communion.

What dignified and appropriate church appointments sun-dials are. A simple and impressive bronze vertical dial on the wall of the Dutch Reformed Church on West End Avenue, New York, is shown on page 346. The sun-dial standing before the rectory of Grace Church on Broadway, New York, is on page 364.

There is ever much question as to a suitable pedestal for garden sun-dials : it must not stand so high that the dial-face cannot be looked down upon by grown persons ; it must not be so light as to seem rickety, nor so heavy as to be clumsy. A very good rule is to err on the side of simplicity in sun-dials for ordinary gardens. What I regard as a very satisfactory pedestal and mounting in every particular may be seen in the illustration facing page 8o, showing the sun-dial in the gar-den of Charles E. Mather, Esq., at Avonwood Court, Haverford, Pennsylvania. Sometimes the pillars of old balustrades, old fence posts, and even parts of old tombs and monuments, have been used as pedestals for sun-dials. How pleasantly Sylvana in her Letters to an Unknown Friend, tells us and shows to us her cheerful sun-dial mounted on the four corners of an old tomb-stone with this fine motto cut into the upper step, Lux et umbra vicissim sed semper amor. I mean to search the stone-cutters' waste heap this summer and see whether I cannot rob the grave to mark the hours of my life. Charles Dickens had at Gadshill a sun-dial set on one of the pillars of the balustrade of Old Rochester Bridge. From Italy and Greece marble pillars have been sent from ancient ruins to be set up as dial pedestals.

If possible, the pedestal as well as the dial-face of a handsome sun-dial should have some significance through association, suggestion, or history. At Ophir Farm, White Plains, New York, the country-seat of Hon. Whitelaw Reid, may be seen a sun-dial full of exquisite significance. It is shown on page 375. The signs of the Zodiac in finely designed bronze are set on the symmetrical marble pedestal, and seem wonderfully harmonious and appropriate. This sun-dial is a literal exemplification of the words of Emerson : —

"A calendar
Exact to days, exact to hours,
Counted on the spacious dial
Yon broidered Zodiac girds."

The dial-face is upheld by a carefully modelled tor-toise in bronze, which is an equally suggestive emblem, connected with the tradition, folk-lore, and religious beliefs of both primitive and cultured peoples ; it is specially full of meaning in this place. The whole sun-dial shows much thought and aesthetic perception in the designer and owner, and cannot fail to prove gratifying to all observers having either sensibility or judgment.

Occasionally a very unusual and beautiful sun-dial standard may be seen, like the one in the Rose gar-den at Yaddo, Saratoga, New York, a copy of rarely beautiful' Pompeian carvings. A representation of this is shown on page 86. Copies of simpler antique carvings make excellent sun-dial pedestals ; a safe rule to follow is to have a reproduction made of some well-proportioned English or Scotch pedestal. The latter are well suited to small gardens. I have drawings of several Scotch sun-dials and pedestals which would be charming in American gardens. In the gardens at Hillside, by the side of the Shakespeare Border is a sun-dial (page 378) which is an exact reproduction of the one in the garden at Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott. This pedestal is suited to its surroundings, is well proportioned ; and has historic interest. It forms an excellent example of Charles Lamb's " garden-altar."

On a lawn or in any suitable spot the dial-face can be mounted on a boulder; one is here shown. I prefer a pedestal. For gardens of limited size, much simplicity of design is more pleasing and more fitting than any elaborate carving. In an Italian garden, or in any formal garden whose work in stone or marble is costly and artistic, the sun-dial pedestal should be the climax in richness of carving of all the garden furnishing. I like the pedestal set on a little plat-form, so two or three steps may be taken up to it from the garden level ; but after all, no rules can be given for the dial's setting. It may be planted with vines, or stand unornamented ; it may be set low, and be looked down upon, or it may be raised high up on a side wall ; but wherever it is, it must not be for, a single minute in shadow ; no trees or overhanging shrubs should be near it; it is a child of the sun, and lives only in the sun's full rays.

In the lovely old garden at the home of Frederick J. Kingsbury, Esq., at Waterbury, Conn., is a sun-dial bearing the motto, " Horas non numero nisi serenas," and the dates 1739-1751,-the dates of the building of the old and new houses on land that has been in the immediate family since 1739. Around this dial is a crescent-shaped bed of Zinnias, and very satisfactory do they prove. This garden has fine Box edgings ; one is shown on page 173, a Box walk, set in 1851 with ancient Box brought from the garden of Mr. Kingsbury's great-great-grandfather.

The gnomon of a sun-dial is usually a simple plate of metal in the general shape of a right-angled triangle, cut often in some pierced design, and occasionally inscribed with a motto, name, or date. Sometimes the dial-maker placed on the gnomon various Masonic symbols — the compass, square, and triangle, or the coat of arms of the dial owner.

One old English dial fitting we have never copied in America. It was the taste of the days of the Stuart kings, days of constant jesting and amuse-ment and practical jokes. Concealed water jets were placed which wet the clothing of the' unwary one who lingered to consult the dial-face.

The significance of the sun-dial, as well as its classicism, was sure to be felt by artists. In the paintings of Holbein, of Albert Dürer, dials may be seen, not idly painted, but with symbolic meaning. The mystic import of a sun-dial is shown in full effect' in that perfect picture, Beata Beatrix, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I have chosen to show here (facing page 380) the Beata Beatrix owned by Charles L. Hutchinson, Esq., of Chicago, as being less photographed and known than the one of the British Gallery, from which it varies slightly and also because it has the beautiful predella. In this picture, in the words of its poet-painter : —

" Love's Hour stands.
Its eyes invisible
Watch till the dial's thin brown shade
Be born — yea, till the journeying line be laid
Upon the point."

Andrew Marvell wrote two centuries ago of the floral sun-dials which were the height of the gardening mode of his day : —

" How well the skilful gardener drew
Of flowers and herbs this dial new.
When from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run ;
And as it works the industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we !
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers!"

These were sometimes set of diverse flowers, sometimes of Mallows. Two of growing Box are described and displayed in the chapter on Box edgings.

Linaeus made a list of forty-six flowers which constituted what he termed the Horologe or Watch of Flora, and he gave what he called their exact hours of rising and setting. He divided them into three classes : Meteoric, Tropical, and Equinoctial flowers. Among those which he named are : —

Dandelion 5-6 A. M. 8-9 P.M.
Mouse-ear Hawkweed 8 A.M. 2 P.M.
Sow Thistle 5 A.M. 11-12 P.M.
Yellow Goat-beard 3-5 A.M. 9-10 (?)
White Water Lily 7 A.M. 7 P.M.
Day Lily 5 A.M. 7-8 P.M.
Convolvulus 5-6 A. M.
Mallow 9-10 A.M.
Pimpernel 7-8 A. M.
Portulaca 9-10 A.M. 1 P.M.
Pink 8 A.M.
Succory 4-5 A. M.
Calendula 7 A. M. 3-4 P.M.

Of course these hours would vary in this country. And I must say very frankly that I think we should always be behind time if we trusted to Flora's Horologe. This floral clock of Linnæus was calculated for Upsala, Sweden ; De Candolle gave another for Paris, and one has been arranged for our Eastern states.

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