Flashback: English Clocks in American Cases

March 9th, 2009

The following piece focuses on clockmakers in the U.S. and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, specifically the marks and materials they used and the regulations that were placed on them. It originally appeared in the December 1940 issue of American Collector magazine (Volume IX Number 11), a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

Tall case clocks represented two crafts; that of the clockmaker who worked in metal and that of the cabinetmaker who worked in wood. In 18th-Century England and Europe, the two were sometimes combined in one man. More often, however, the clockmaker merely supervised the making of the case.  These fine clocks, each one a masterpiece, were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them.  Yet there was a demand for them, both in the country of origin and over in America.

Dial Bearing 'Name of William Huston, Who May Have Learned His Trade in England

Dial Bearing Name of William Huston, Who May Have Learned His Trade in England

The century and a quarter that preceded the American Revolution saw about two hundred clock makers plying their trade in the important towns of the Colonies, but they apparently were not numerous enough to have made all the grandfather clocks of that period. Many were imported, either on direct order or as merchandise to be resold.

Case by Edward James, Philadelphia; 1775

Case by Edward James, Philadelphia; 1775

However, a clock complete with case was not only expensive to ship but unwieldy, especially in the small boats of the day. It was much more practical to have the movement, dial, weights, and pendulum packed in a small box and sent over at reasonable freight costs. The purchaser could have a suitable case turned out by his local cabinetmaker. Letters, diaries, account books, and private papers of both English and colonial merchants and ship owners indicate that this was the common custom. In fact, the shipment of a complete clock with tall case from England to the American Colonies previous to the Revolution was the exception to the rule.

Consequently, today we have as collectibles English tall-clock movements in American-made cases. Cabinetmakers in this country made them after the styles shown in the furniture books of Chippendale, Sheraton, and Hepplewhite. Many of these cases are masterpieces of cabinetry, just as fine in workmanship and design as any made overseas during those years.

But although it was not unusual for the 18th-Century American cabinetmaker to put labels on his furniture, he was apt to show undue modesty with the clock cases he produced. Consequently unless one knows the complete history of a tall clock and its case, it is difficult to determine the origin of the latter.

John Townsend Case

John Townsend Case

There are several notable exceptions. One is in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It is an early tall clock done in the best tradition. The mahogany case is in the Chippendale manner with block-front variation. On the elegantly engraved dial, in script, is William Tomlinson, London, executed with appropriate flourishes. Tomlinson made clocks from 1699 until his death in 1750. He was the Master of The Worshipful Clockmakers’ Company of London in 1733 and is generally included in that galaxy of great clockmakers working during the first half of the 18th Century.

As for the case, the block-front design gives a clue to its provenance and the printed label corroborates it. The label reads: “Made by John Townsend” and beneath, written with a pen, is “Newport, Rhode Island, 1769.” The label is damaged and the figure 6 is blurred. But if that date has been deciphered correctly, then here was a case made for an English movement in the Colonies nineteen years after the death of the clockmaker.

John Townsend Clock Case Label This is dated Newport, 1769. The clock movement was made by William Tomlinson, of London, about 1750.

John Townsend Clock Case Label: This is dated Newport, 1769. The clock movement was made by William Tomlinson, of London, about 1750.

It will be recalled that John Townsend was related by marriage to the Goddards, who are credited with creating the Rhode Island block-front interpretation of the style of Chippendale.

So much for a tall clock where the identities of both clockmaker and cabinetmaker are known. There are examples where neither are clear. My wife owns two tall clocks with cherry cases made by some unknown but skilled local cabinetmaker in Kentucky shortly after the Revolution. The eight-day brass movements are obviously English. The dials are sheet iron, painted or enameled, without the name of the maker. At the top is a cutout behind which revolves a disc showing the phases of the moon. On the edge of a smaller disc are the days of the month which show through a semi-circular slot located on the disc between, but below, the winding arbors. These clocks, with practically identical movements, have what is commonly called in the trade “false plates,” that is, a cast-iron skeleton frame or bracket which is fastened to the front, plate of the brass movement. The dial is attached to this false frame.

Marking of Osborne Manufactory, Birmingham

Marking of Osborne Manufactory, Birmingham

On one of these false frames in raised letters is “Walker and Hughes, Birmingham” and on the other, “Osborne’s Manufactory, Birmingham.” I have seen dozens of similar tall clocks with unmarked painted iron dial and the name of Osborne or some other name on the false frames.

One of our clock cases is quite handsome though extremely plain and simple. The other is more elaborate. Reeded columns flanking a sunken panel decorate the base; the front edges of the waist have quarter rounds, fine reeded, without capital or pediment; while the tapered columns on the bonnet are plain round. The history of both clocks, as we have family papers to check it, is as follows:

Another kentucky Clock

Another Kentucky Clock

A Kentucky Clock With English Works

A Kentucky Clock With English Works

In Russellville, Kentucky, between 1800 and 1810, Colonel Thomas H. Grubbs, a successful merchant and planter, “took them in trade.” He kept one and presented the other to his best friend, William Owens. In the course of time, William Owens’ son married Colonel Grubbs’ daughter. Thus the clocks passed down these two branches of the family for four or five generations, my wife inheriting the Owens’ clock from her father. Finally the Grubbs clock came into our possession from the last survivor of that branch and after one hundred and thirty years both are once more under the same roof.

As to the names on the false frames, I quote from a letter to me dated June 21, 1937, from the Pennsylvania Museum of Art: “The name Osborne is found quite frequently on the cast-iron bracket which fastens the dial to the front plate of the works, or on the back of the Moon-disc.  It indicates the name of a firm which manufactured clock dials for the trade from around 1805 onwards.

During the first half of the 19th Century clock making (in this country) declined from clock ‘making’ to turning out of an ‘assembly job.’ Instead of making a clock in his own shop, it was cheaper to buy the necessary parts from various manufacturers. The clockmaker then finished these parts and assembled the clock, placing his name on the dial.”

None of the standard reference works on English clocks list either Walker and Hughes or Osborne’s Manufactory as clockmakers. Britten shows “Osborne, Birmingham: on clocks, 1800-42.” Baillie lists a number of Osbornes, among them “Thomas Osborne, Birmingham. Astronomical and Musical Clocks, 1801.” There was a firm of Osborne and Wilson in the dial business in Birmingham as early as 1772. They separated in 1778 and evidently each man carried on independently for a number of years afterward.

Many other English firms made clock dials for export. In America, many hardware stores, dealers, and others, carried clock dials and clockmakers’ supplies and advertised them for sale. The same was evidently true of English firms which made cast-brass clock wheels, pinions, frames, and other parts for the standard eight-day brass movement. Doubtless these were semi-finished and “blanks” which American clockmakers bought “in the rough” and machined and finished.

Detail Showing Relation to Phyfe Cabinet Workmanship

Detail Showing Relation to Phyfe Cabinet Workmanship

The brass and copper industry was late in getting under way in America. The mother country was averse to the emigration of those skilled in the art and forbade the export of machinery. Both were smuggled out to some extent but it was early in the 19th Century before actual brass founding was practiced here to any extent.

However, let no one jump to the conclusion that before the Revolution American clockmakers imported all of their brass metal from England or imported plates, wheels, and other parts in semi-finished form. They did not. Many of them were proud to announce that they were recently of London and they fashioned their clock movements according to the rules and methods learned there. It was, in fact, after the Revolution and up to 1825 which marked the end of making tall, eight-day brass clocks here that American clockmakers drew more and more upon England as their source of supply.

There is a tradition, which I like to label “interesting, if true,” about the origin of the clocks without the name of the maker on their painted iron dials, of which our two Kentucky clocks are typical.

It is a well-known fact, of course, that in England the various types of master craftsmen who worked in gold, silver, metals, as well as at watch and clock making, were necessarily members of their respective guilds. Their handicraft had to be submitted for examination and be passed by their guilds before it could be sold. The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers exercised absolute control, not only over its members, but upon all clock making within a radius of ten miles of London. The penalties imposed by these guilds for infractions were drastic.

American Case and English Works

American Case and English Works

It should be remembered that in the 18th Century in England every clock was made to order for a customer who wrote his bill of particulars. It took many months of time not only of the master, but also of his apprentice, to turn out just one clock. Every wheel and part spoiled by an apprentice, or not meeting the degree of perfection prescribed by the guild, was time and labor lost. Literally speaking, the parts of fine clocks were worth more than their weight in gold, because of the infinite time spent on them.

According to tradition, there were master clock makers who did not destroy defective parts, but set them aside. When enough had accumulated to make a movement, the master himself, away from the prying eyes of his apprentices, would assemble them and inscribe some fictitious name as maker and a place far removed from his residence. Such clocks were dependable, accurate timekeepers. Their only fault was that they did not measure up in every particular to the high standards exacted by the guilds.

Such clocks were gathered sub-rosa and smuggled into Holland where they were exported to a ready market in the American Colonies where Yankee peddlers sold them in turn to local silversmiths and jewelers in the various cities and towns. It is, of course, impossible either to prove or disprove this interesting tradition but the records of trials, fines, and punishments meted out to offenders of the rules of various guilds, make it plausible.

But whatever the origin of these nameless English clock movements, the importance of the Yankee peddler during the 18th and through the first quarter of the 19th Century as a distributor of clocks and other products is clear. He was in the van of the westward trek after the Revolution and tradition has it that through him English clock movements, such as our two Kentucky examples, found their way to every section of this country.

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

21 comments so far

  1. Lis More Cloutman Says:

    I am about to inherit my family’s grandfather clock…. the face was stolen as it was pretty old and rare. We remember that it had “Auckland” written on it, but I can find very little information to go on so that I can replace the face, etc. It looks a bit like the Kentucky clocks pictured on this page, but if anybody out there has any info. to offer I would love to hear from you….
    The clock was in England (possibly Scotland) when it was given to my father’s aunt…..

  2. Gordon Ross Says:

    I enjoyed reading your article and am hopeful someone may be able to help me identify the possible origin of my “Tall Clock”. Its only identifying mark is the name “Geo. Aitken, Edinburgh” engraved on the brass face. I am told it’s possibly late 1700′s – early 1800′s, but have no way of telling. If anyone may have an idea, I can e-mail pictures. Thanks.

  3. michael cassata Says:

    We purchased a 18 cent. tall clock when in bermuda in the 70′s.
    The only i,d. is the face has two names on it, xx Bucknell, under it is the name Crediton. The face has a ship with a large English pennant from the mast Can you give some info,please.
    Thanks.
    Michael Cassata.
    ,

  4. Victoria Chandler Says:

    Michael, there was a family called Bucknell who were jewellers and clock makers in the 18th and 19th century. Crediton is in Devon, England. You may start your enquiries there. I believe relatives also lived and worked in Sussex and in London. Hope you can find the information you need.

  5. Torrey Fioster Says:

    I am the 5th or 6th generation to inherit what I am told is an American grandfather clock with Osborne (English) works. There is no identification on the face plate. Is there any way to date this clock by the painting on the face plate?

    Torrey Foster

  6. Roy Coon Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I have a Tall Case Clock which looks somewhat like the John Townsend Clock shown in your article,case has inlaid wood,brass ornaments on top, brass ornamated face plate with the name Wm. Mayhew on the silent- chime dial and on the same plates Leeds below it. the movement consist of a total of nine (9) differant size bells, with the largest which strikes every quarter and on the hour. the others chime. Do you have any information on this maker? I was told the clock was built somewhere in the 1760′s in Leeds,England.

  7. TIM FOLEY Says:

    I purchased 10 to 12 tall case cases with around 6 dials and works (English)in 1989. They came from a barn in Kentucky mostly in pieces. The seller inherited these from a clockmaker. This clockmaker was trained by the US army after WW2. As the story goes he bought a number of these clocks while in England and shipped them back to the US for a new business. Whats left were never restored. I have restored most of the cases and married them with works and dials. Could this story be true or are these cases American made and married with english works. They are all 2 weight 7 day English movements.They all are from the 1700′s.

  8. Richard Fallows Says:

    Your article was very interesting and informative. As an clock hobbyist, I have repaired an English tall clock for a friend. The face bears the name “J.Jarvis” followed (underneath) by “Whitchurch”. Can you tell me anything about this clockmaker and his work?

  9. Bill Northrop Says:

    We have a tall clock with the name on the hand painted face “Pope and than Birmingham.

    It is very tall and of simple design, made of what appears to be pine.

    The weights are cast as is the weight on the pendulum.

    Can you tell us any thing about it?

    Thank you,

    Bill

  10. Mack Says:

    To Tim Foley.

    Late 18th. and early 19th. century Ky. clocks mostly used English works installed in Kentucky made cases. Ky. cases are nearly always made from cherry or walnut with poplar secondary woods. By 1815, a case might enjoy a splash of mahagony veneer.

    I am interested to know if any of the clocks you purchased from the Ky barn are made of cherry or walnut? If so, I would enjoy seeing images of the clocks. I have an extensive data base of Ky made clocks and may be able to provide you more information.

    Thanks
    Mack

  11. LaRue Burton Says:

    We have aquired a LeGant Regulator clock. We cannot find any other ID marking on it. Any information on it would be appreciated. Also the clock works except the “dongs” are off from the time. Example-if it is 3 o’clock it dongs 7 times. Any suggestions on how to get the time and “dongs” together.

    Thanks

  12. phil keaton Says:

    Hello. I have a mahogany tall case clock with a painted dial……the works are brass and marked Wilkes and sons…..anyone have any ideas?

  13. peter baar Says:

    Just aquired “WILSON” tall case clock no other marks can you advise as obtaining more info thanking you in advance pdb

  14. Terrence Hurst Says:

    I have inhereted a tall case clock that has been in the family since 1740(?) Wm Huston is on the face and the name Dunwoody is scrawled in chalk on the inside of the cabinet. Dunwoody was the name of the Father who had the clock made for his daughters wedding present. I have taced the origin to Philadelphia where Huston was a clockmaker working in that period. Can you tell me any more about the clock. I is not museum quality as it has been in many home as a working clock for many years. Thank You

  15. Elizabeth Haight Says:

    I have a Seth Thomas clock- it looks to be art deco. It is red with white numbers & has Seth Thomas in white on the bottom portion of the face. I have a very old home & this was found in a cabinet, it has an envelope with a warrenty by Cornwall Clocks. The item number is 3600 on the warrenty. Can you tell me the value of this clock? Sincerely E. Haight

  16. Dianne Blanchard Says:

    Just inherited a grandfather clock with a clockface with the name Mosley Peniston. It also has the moon faces on it. Can you tell me how I can determine its value?

  17. Bruce GilchristBruce Robert Gilchrist Says:

    Have a complete Osbourne Manufactory Birmingham movement assembly with face. Interested in finding a part for replacing pendulum hanger above moving assembly. Any help would be great as I am almost finished repairing all other function of this clock for my Mother. Clock was knocked down on accident by Father on a night raid to the kitchen soon after they inherited clock.

  18. Christopher Berry Says:

    Mr GilChrist,
    The part you are eferring to is called the suspension hanger. you should be able to come pretty close to the original in terms of size of holes for attaching to the movement and the pendulum leader. A slight variation in length is ok, you just don’t want to bind the crutch.

  19. Christopher Berry Says:

    Mr Burton, this is a simple fix. wait until the clock strikes the hour. Then place one finger in front of the minute hand so that it cannot advance. Use the other hand to gently advance only the hour hand to the correct hour indicated by the chime. That’s all there is to it. If the minute hand is not exactly on the 12 when it strikes, the hand must be removed, and the “Collar” moved so that it does line up. It may take a few tries, but you will get it.

  20. Christopher Berry Says:

    Mr. Hurst,
    Simply being handed down and moved multiple times does not in and of itself mean that something is not museum quality. Have it checked out by a really reputable clock dealer, or call some of the famous museums with furniture collections, they can assist you.

  21. Bob Bigham Says:

    We are helping a relative acquire information on what appears to be a tall English clock in an American case. The Wanamaker Antique Clock Repair Co in Philadelphia serviced the clock in 1968. The clock has been in the family for over 70 years. They noted that the clock came from Osbornes Manufacturing in Birmingham England originally. The wood case appears to be cherry or walnut. We would appreciate any information regarding the clock or it’s value today.


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