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Grandfather Time
by Bob Brooke

A typical grandfather clock."My grandfather’s clock was too tall for the shelf so it stood twenty years on the floor..." So went the lyrics of a song , written by Henry Clay Work, a songwriter not a clockmaker, in 1876, that was to change how America looked at tall-case clocks. The name "grandfather clock" didn’t appear until Work wrote the song, so none of the men who actually made the clocks ever knew them by that name.

Tall case or grandfather clocks had their start when Christian Huygens, a Dutch scientist, applied the pendulum as the controlling element of a timepiece in 1656, inspired by the need for an accurate timekeeper to be used in making astronomical observations. The application of the pendulum to clocks revolutionized clockmaking and brought to timekeeping an accuracy that up to this time was impossible to achieve.

However, it was the invention of the anchor escapement by William Clement, an Englishman in 1671, using a "seconds" pendulum, 39 inches long and vibrating through a small arc, that cleared the way for making the weight and pendulum tall case clock practical. This invention plus another, the dead beat escapement, invented by George Graham in 1715, brought about the basic clock design that few could improve on for nearly two centuries.

Fundamentally, these clocks consisted of four parts: The weight, the source of power; the train, which transmitted the downward pull of the weight into the rotary velocity; the escapement, which transmitted the rotary velocity of the train into intermittent--or periodic--motion; and the pendulum, the controlling element associated with the intermittent motion of the escapement. The theory behind this was that the force of a weight is constant, while the force of spring may vary with its tension. Finally, a tall case provided for the full fall of the weight.

It was decided that the beginning and end of a week was a time not likely to be forgotten. One day was added for safety. Thus, the 8-day clock. There was ample room in the tall case to permit the weight of full drop for that length of time without complicating matters with additional wheels.

The earliest clocks in America were imported by the first settlers, who brought with them the skills of the Old World clockmakers. Though mainly English, but also Dutch and German from the Black Forest, and even a few Swedes, they followed the national styles that they had learned while apprentices. Therefore, there’s nothing to distinguish the Colonial American long-case clock from its European cousin.

Early Clocks
American tall case clocks were first made about 1695 in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and a little later in Connecticut. But there were probably more tall case clocks made in Pennsylvania than anywhere else. From the early days, two distinct schools of clockmaking emerged, one centered in Philadelphia, the other in Boston. Those of the Philadelphia School spread from New York down the Delaware Valley to Virginia and Carolina. Makers of the Boston School were scattered all over New England. Each developed its own recognizable style, although the first designs were European.

An early grandfather clock.Clock making flourished in the Philadelphia area from the mid-1700s to the 1840s. During this time, there were over 100 clockmakers who produced a large number of clocks, most of which are still around and still running, said, Bruce R. Forman, an Allentown, Pennsylvania, clock historian. "Many local clockmakers were self-taught and had little formal education," he said. "These were intelligent men with sound mechanical abilities."

It wasn’t easy for a clockmaker to succeed financially in making every part of his clocks. In England, he would have depended on brass casters, on dial-engravers, on makers of pinion wire, and certainly on case-makers. Tall case clocks represented the collaboration of clockmakers for the movements, cabinetmakers or joiners for cases to house the movements, carvers to ornament the cases and merchant importers to obtain the movements, dials, and tools Clockmakers in the Colonies therefore tended to settle in areas with access to ports and with other craftsmen, so that they could draw on their skills.

Many settled in urban areas and passed their skills onto their sons. Such was the case with Jacob Hagey, who trained his son Jacob, Jr. in the 19th century. George Hagey did the same for his son John.

Most built grandfather clocks, a smaller version of which became known later as a grandmother clock. Clocks often had 24-hour faces with a sweep second hand and "monkey wheel" escapement. On early clocks, only one of the winding holes, the one on the right, was functional. It was used for winding the clock while the other nonfunctional one presented a point of balance. The cost of a typical grandfather clock in the 1780s was $7.50, and few were produced compared to other furniture forms in the 18th century.

Until the Revolutionary War, tall case clocks closely resembled their English cousins. But when the war ended in 1783, casemakers began introducing their own styles which were firmly established by the end of the century. Those made to order in the 18th century were of superior craftsmanship and design.

Coffin Makers Made the Cases
Queen Anne tall case clock. Originally, cases for tall clocks were made by coffin makers and, therefore, a case became known as a sarcophocus. During the mid-to late 1700s, ninety percent were made of walnut, but after 1800, most were made of cherry and mahogany in the prevailing styles of the period---Sheraton, Hepplewhite, Chippendale, Queen Anne and Empire.

The power to move the cogs and wheels of this type of clock was produced by heavy weights that had to be wound up daily. The mechanism was encased in a wooden cabinet with a dial that told the time. Many of the dials illustrated the phases of the moon, the month and sometimes the day or the week.

After the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Colonists found themselves increasingly short of raw materials, including copper and zinc for the brass clock movements. Makers turned to wood for the plates and the toothed wheels of clocks, like the clockmakers of the Black Forest of Germany in the 18th century. From this time until about 1810, almost all American tall-case clocks were made by hand by clockmaker-carpenters.

"The cabinets that held the works and dials," said Forman. "Often the works, themselves, were imported from England until the supply was cut off by the War of 1812. The clockmakers then turned to local craftsmen to produce the needed components. After 1812, tall-case clocks sold for between $14 and $44."

By this time, a decline, which had begun in 1805, affected the making of tall case clocks until their eventual demise in the 1840s after 150 years. However, some were made after that period but were mostly mass produced and not of the same quality as the older ones.

The best clocks were made in Philadelphia. Scroll pediments atop a straight cornice and carved rosettes were hallmarks of Philadelphia clockcases. Other features included carved flame and urn finials, broken arch pediment with carved rosettes, floral, leaf, and a pierced shell carving in high relief, C- and S-scroll blind foot carving and ogee-bracket feet. However, the most common style of American long-case clock was very similar to the English provincial style after 1750, with swan-neck pediments on the hoods.

A cresting on the hood locally known as "whale’s tails" became typical of the clockmakers in Connecticut. Makers in Boston were fond of pierced fretwork cresting giving the illusion of a crown. The block and shell motif was popular with Connecticut clockmakers and was usually prominent on the case door.

During the 19th century, mahogany continued to be the wood of choice, either in solid form or as a veneer, but pine, walnut and birch were also widely used. The more expensive cases were frequently decorated with inlay of satinwood, cherry and maple, while the cheaper cases were given little or no decoration and were often made of pine or painted pine. Cases decorated with marquetry and Japanning were rare.

Clock Dials
Before 1780, nearly all tall case clocks were fitted with break-arch (broken-arch) dials, the majority of which were made of brass and elaborately engraved. Since the dials were expensive to make, clockmakers began importing handpainted metal and wood dials from England at lower prices about 1780. The lower edge of the hood pediment was correspondingly shaped. The shape of the top of the hood pediment was also break-arch or scrolls, both of which were frequently decorated with frets and finials of turned or carved wood or brass. At each front corner of the hood was a wood column which might have been plain, baluster, Jacobean or Corinthian. The Corinthian ones were sometimes fitted with brass capitals. Identical columns were frequently fitted at the rear corners of the hood and matching quarter columns on the front corners of the trunk and the plinth.

To gain access to the movement the hood had to be removed by sliding it forward off the trunk. A door in the trunk provided access to the pendulum and weights and lines. Clocks fitted with wooden pull-up movements were wound through the door opening.

Clock faces made of enameled or painted iron were on the market and in use at the time. Thomas, however, seems to have used only brass dials. The works, as well, were all made of brass and were imported from England.

Enameled dials were imported in large quantities at the end of the American Revolution. Up to this time the chapter ring, the circular band on a dial in which the numerals or chapters, in black against a background of white, were engraved or painted, contained only Roman numerals, but with importation came the introduction of Arabic numerals.

Spandrels, the space between the curve of a chapter ring and the corner of a square dial plate. were decorated with figures, flowers, birds, fruit, scrolls and geometric or foliage designs, while the lunette(area occupied by the dome-shaped top of the break-arch dial) often contained pastoral scenes, landscapes, seascapes, buildings and animals in a variety of colors.

A further embellishment was the use of automata in the lunette. Typical examples were a lady on a swing, a fisherman casting his line, a rocking ship and a blacksmith at this anvil, all of which were made to move by the action of the pendulum.

Paper dials came into use about 1792. They were glued onto metal and wood plates and fitted to the cheapest clocks. Brass dials went out of fashion in favor of painted ones by the end of the 18th century when the use of Arabic numerals became widespread. Painted clock dials, in common use after the Revolution, were usually bought from dealers and weren’t made by the clockmakers themselves. A local artist was then engaged to add decorations. Tulips and other flowers were popular, as were birds, especially the turtle dove, a symbol of love and beauty. Stars were also used. Although 19th century dials continued to be break-arch in shape, the square portion increased in size to 10 ½ inches to 14 ½ inches.

Sunrise to Moonrise
A grandfather clock with moon dial.Many clocks began to display the phases of the moon through an aperture cut in the lunette. This arrangement consisted of a disk, with teeth cut in the rim that rotated behind the dial once in every two lunar months. Two full moons positioned diametrically opposite were painted on the disk. On the arch at the top of the main dial is a scale graduated in 29 ½ equal divisions. The bottom edge of the lunette aperture is shaped with two semi-circles, one at each side, which were sometimes painted to represent the east and west hemispheres of the globe.

When the disk rotated and the painted moon appeared from behind one of the semi-circles, it presented the appearance of a new moon which, as the days move on, gradually came further into view until it was completely visible, at which stage it represented a full moon. As the disk continued to rotate, the moon slowly disappeared behind the other semi-circle until it was out of sight, by which time the other painted moon was ready to appear on the opposite side to begin a new lunar month. Positioned at the top of each moon was a small pointer adjacent to the graduated scale from which the age of the moon could be read.

Colonial clockmakers were conspicuously date-minded. With few exceptions, clocks had one of two mechanisms to register the days of the month. One consisted of a hand and dial, counterbalancing with the shape of the hand measuring seconds. The other consisted of a small square or notch. Both of these date mechanisms had to be reset at the beginning of each month.

Most dials were painted with a small subsidiary dial for displaying seconds. Sweep-second hands weren’t common. Dial hands were individually cut by hand until about 1825. Craftsmen, who had set themselves up as clock had makers, carried out the delicate work of piercing and filing to shape. Since this was an expensive operation, clockmakers turned to the less costly and more productive method of stamping hands from thin sheet metal.

The number of key holes in a dial indicated the clock’s type of movement. One winding hole indicated that there was only a time train to wind. Such a movement was, strictly speaking, merely a timekeeper, not a clock. Two winding holes were for the time train and a strike train, and if three winding holes were present, the third or center hole was for winding a chime or musical arrangement. When there were no holes at all, winding was achieved by pulling on the weight line through the trunk door opening.

Identifying Tallcase Clocks
A round dial grandfather clock. In addition to gluing a printed label to the inside of the trunk, clockmakers usually had their name and town and sometimes the year of manufacture, painted on the dial. Clock papers, the starting point for identifying and aging a clock, were printed in about 1800. These gave the name and town of the maker, and instructions for winding and setting up, maintenance and sometimes announced details of after-sale service.

The movements of tall case clocks were either 30-hour or 8-day, depending on whether they were made of wood or brass. Wooden movements had oak plates and either leaf or lantern pinions. Only the escape wheels were of brass. Up until 1810, the most common type of movement was the 8-day brass with two weights. The 30-hour brass movement had an endless rope and one driving weight, while the 30-hour wood movement had two weights and a dial wind or pull up wind. The era of brass movements in tall case clocks was all but over by 1825.

Tall-case clockmakers didn’t inscribe their names at any particular place on their clocks. Some put it on the boss, some in the middle of the face, and some at the bottom of the face between and below the Roman numerals V and VII. As the clockmaker Isaac Jackson etched on to the face of one of his clocks: "Time Passeth Swiftly Away."

What to Look For
Three items affect the value of a clock: age, the intrinsic merit of the clock and case, and the name of the maker. Only the very oldest clocks are valuable for age alone. If a clock has great age, a movement of superior technical design and workmanship, a case of fine wood and workmanship and architectural beauty, then it has great value.

Between 1682 and 1750, clocks were found only in the homes of wealthier colonists, who called them "tall" clocks. Most were imported from England and the clockmakers were largely confined to Philadelphia and the adjacent counties of Chester and Bucks in Pennsylvania.

By 1750, the increasing wealth of the colonists brought about a demand for more clocks. Those who served apprenticeships, as well as European clockmakers who emigrated to Pennsylvania, now set up west of Philadelphia. For the next 25 years a clockmaking boom hit the region, only to be halted abruptly by the Revolutionary War. Even though there were a good number of clockmakers, clocks were still only for the relatively wealthy.

The handmade tall case clock enjoyed a revival in 1800, as prosperity returned. There were few communities that didn’t have at least one and sometimes two or three clockmakers. Even farmers had clocks. The revival continued until about 1830, when the New England shelf clock, costing only a fifth as much as a handmade tall case clock, appeared in Pennsylvania. In the absence of records, it’s most likely that any tall case clock made in Pennsylvania would most likely have been made from 1800 to 1830.

Tall case clocks carried a great sentimental value for their original family owners. This is why many were originally sold at sales, rather than at public auction.

The Tallcase Market
"Tall case clocks have three distinct markets:" said Phillip Bradley, Jr., an antique dealer who specializes in tall case clocks at Phillip Bradley Antiques in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. "Clock collectors, who are interested in tall case clocks as time pieces like the members of the National Clock and Watch Association; the serious collector, who’s interested in them as antique objects, themselves; and the general public, who appreciates them because they link the present to the past and have a distinctive presence in a house. They ring and tick. They’re big. They stand out. They ask to be noticed."

He noted that tall-case clocks are working objects that serve a purpose. Restoration people look to these clocks to establish dates, since many of them were signed. Those that Bradley sells range in date from 1760 to 1810 and, currently, are mostly local Mid-Atlantic examples.

Pricing for tall-case clocks varies between 30-hour and 8-day varieties. "A rare 30-hour clock can be expensive," added Bradley. "The rarity and desirability of the maker and the stylistic consideration of the case and works are most important. The amount of gadgets in the works like moon dials are less important."

According to Bradley, the main difference between an antique collector and a clock collector is the degree of elaboration and success of design of the case. "A clock collector is more into the mechanics of the clock. The antique collector, on the other hand, looks at tall-case clocks as complicated objects, for which the person who made the works and case are usually different. The third part of the equation of value is the originality of the whole design. To me, the working condition is the least important. I can always send a clock out to be repaired. I’m selling an artifact from a previous era."

Antique collectors seem to be most interested in not only who made the clocks but also where they were made. "An old clock cannot be divorced from its maker, for no clock can be better than the skill and patience of the man who made it," Bradley said. An average Pennsylvania clockmaker might construct only four or five clocks a year.

Famous Makers
The most famous clockmaker of the colonial era was David Rittenhouse of Philadelphia. He established himself as a clockmaker in 1749 a the age of 17. Later he specialized in astronomical clocks, some of which showed the motions of the planets. Other clockmakers included Edward Duffield and John Wood, Jr. All had a distinctly American flare

Usually the original owner of a clock and the clockmaker knew each other personally and lived together in the same community. The clock, more than anything else, was a symbol of family stability in Pennsylvania. Sometimes, when faced with selling off the family possessions, a family kept its clock. They were often mentioned in wills as possessions of importance to be handed down from generation to generation.

The entire life of a colonial farm was regulated by the timepiece in the kitchen. The care and winding of the clock, since most were of the 24-hour variety, became almost a ritual. If a clock had a secret device for controlling the face door, it most likely came from a rural home. In these, the only way to open the face door was usually by reaching up through the panel door and releasing a catch. The panel door, in turn, was fitted with a lock and key. However, to open the face glass and regulate the hands, it was usually necessary to know the secret method for opening the door. City clocks, usually regulated by a servant, didn’t have this feature.

Early clocks like those made by Abel Gottey, who emigrated with William Penn and set up shop in Philadelphia in 1682, were plain, with flat-topped hoods. Even though decorations were added to the hoods and faces, the cases continued without decoration. The curly horns of the English provincial style appeared on the hoods of American clocks and remained until the turn of the century, when a simple band inlay was added to the cases. Free standing corner pillars on the hood were fashionable from 1760 to 1820.

Break-arch top hoods began to appear in 1790. They had their outer edge decorated by a crest or band of irregular outline, commonly known as "whales tails." Later this cresting became a little wider and pierced and produced a very tasteful effect.

After more than two and a half centuries, the weight-and-pendulum clock in a tall case is still the best designed mechanical device for accurate timekeeping. Some of the best collections of original colonial tall-case clocks can be seen at the University Museum of Clocks and Watches in New York City, at the American Clock and Watch Museum, Bristol, Connecticut, and at the Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, PA.

To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site.

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