In this interview Bill Stoddard talks about collecting antique Westclox Big Ben and Baby Ben alarm clocks, and discusses clock collecting in general. Based in Flora, Indiana, Bill can be reached via his website, clockhistory.com, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
How did I get interested in clocks? Something about them has always been ingrained in me. My mom’s father had a small collection of antique clocks and when I was a little boy he showed me how to wind them and regulate them. When I was eight we moved to a new house and my mom and I were looking in the attic and found an old octagon wall clock made by Waterbury, probably dated about 1880.
That was the first antique clock I owned myself. I hung it on my wall and we tried to get it fixed but the repairman couldn’t fix it. When I was 11 or 12, I started mowing lawns for money and paid another man to repair it for me, but when it came back it would run for a while and then stop, pretty erratic.
I took it back and the repairman told me it was like a large Timex watch and just not worth being fixed. So I brought it home and left it hanging and would wind it up every once in a while.
Once I was winding it and one of the main springs broke, so I decided to take it all apart and fix the main spring. I was looking at it and said, aha! there’s the problem, there were two gears that were in backwards. So I swapped them, and it’s worked perfectly ever since.
Collectors Weekly: And how did you get started with Baby Ben alarm clocks?
Stoddard: My grandma gave me an old Baby Ben alarm clock that didn’t work when I was seven. I took it all apart and asked my dad to help me put it back together, but he cut his finger on the spring. I think we threw it away.
A few years later my grandma gave me one that worked, and my aunt gave me another one. Then my friend and I went around the neighborhood asking people if they had anything they wanted to give away, like old clocks and cameras and tape recorders. That way I got myself another Baby Ben, bringing my collection to three by age 12.
For my 14th birthday I got a book called The Treasury of American Clocks and there was a picture showing the seven types of Baby Bens. I thought, oh boy, I just need four more and I’ll have them all! That summer at an antique store I came across one that wasn’t even in the book, and I thought that was exciting. Now I know that there’s probably 14 basic shapes, but a lot more variations than that depending on how far you want to take things. Not to mention there’s the Big Bens so that doubles it right there.
Collectors Weekly: Aside from these Westclox Baby and Big Ben models, what else do you collect?
Stoddard: Some of the old American pocket watches are just beautiful so I have several in my collection. They are just gorgeous watches and very well made. I love the Hamiltons in particular, probably some of the best watches made in America.
I also like some of the older American weight-driven clocks. They made them with wooden works until about 1840, then with brass gears and I like some of the early brass-geared American clocks. There’s a clock that came down the family, my great great granddad bought it used in about 1885, it was actually sold new in about 1839, one of the first of the weight-driven brass clocks. It’s got a round brass dial and a painting in the door, really neat. From that point on I really liked those.
I’m always interested in the history and the variations of clocks and how they fit in the scheme of things, what came before and what came after. I tend to be a nitty gritty detail kind of guy.
Collectors Weekly: It sounds like you’ve learned a lot about Westclox… did you ever see their factory?
Stoddard: I’ve been there several times. Their factory in LaSalle, Illinois closed down in about 1980 when they moved all their production down south, but the building is still there. One time a friend and I were down there behind the factory and we got talking to a man who was leasing the back half of the factory to make machinery for bakeries. He invited us in to look around, so we got to go up and down the big freight elevator and he found some old music boxes that were never used that he gave to us (Westclox made one or two little clocks with a music box in them). You just can’t imagine the size of this factory it’s just gigantic. At one time they employed about 3500 people, making about 35, 000 clocks and watches per day.
During World War II they had some fantastic ads that you can see on my website like, “Victory Won’t Wait for the Nation That’s Late,” and “Guard Your Big Ben” where they show a bulldog and a soldier with a gun guarding a Big Ben because during the war they stopped making clocks for the consumer market and totally switched over to military work.
There are also some other makers’ clocks I’ve gotten into, like the Seth Thomas 30 hour ogee, which is a weight-driven shelf clock. Also Telechron, which was a big maker of electric clocks. Henry Warren invented a little synchronous motor that could go inside a clock. When he made his first clock and plugged it into the wall it worked fine except it wasn’t accurate, it was off by plus or minus a half hour a day, because the 60 cycles were not regulated at that time, so it could vary quite a bit. His bigger job was to design a system so the power companies could regulate their generator so the clock could keep time. That’s another story.
Collectors Weekly: What about the Big Bens, are they battery operated or wind up?
Stoddard: The first Big Bens and Baby Bens went on the market in 1910 and they were wind ups. About 1931 they made the first electric Big Ben, and they were plug ins. But for years the majority were wind ups, they were so popular. Which is interesting because many of the electrics are scarcer but people just aren’t into collecting electric clocks. I tried selling some of my surplus electric Big Bens on eBay and they just didn’t go, you could get only about $0.99 for them.
In terms of my own collection, I’m still trying to find some of the really early Big Bens. They did some limited production (less than 200) in 1908, when they were still perfecting the design, then quite a few in 1909, but it really wasn’t nationally advertised until September of 1910. I like to find the ones before that and study their history. I try to get all the pictures I can and keep them all chronologically and study the history.
Collectors Weekly: How many Big Ben or Westclox collectors are there?
“The first Big Bens and Baby Bens in 1910 were wind ups.”
Stoddard: It’s really hard to say. Quite a few who try to get every basic model, but fewer who get into the rarer models and do research. There’s a seller on eBay now who’s doing some really outstanding restorations of Big Bens. For me it’s kind of an inexpensive hobby because as a boy I could find them for about a dollar a piece, sometimes in good condition. But he’s taken some that are really rusty and had the backs replaced beautifully and reproduced some dials, and he’s actually had some selling for several hundred dollars, so that’s a totally different thing. Some people just want one or two that they remember from childhood in good condition, so that’s just the thing for them.
Also, it’s not just Americans who collect, its worldwide. Westclox set up a factory in England in the 1940s and also in Scotland. They had one in Brazil for a while and I think also in Hong Kong.
Collectors Weekly: When did you discover that there were other clock collectors?
Stoddard: I was pretty much on my own until college. I met somebody then who told me about the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors and then I joined that and in their bi-monthly magazine I found a man looking for early Westclox information, he is now one of the foremost Westclox researchers. When I got out of college I started going to the watch and clock conventions and met a man who was giving a program about the history of Big Bens and Baby Bens. Eventually we became best friends and started researching together. They asked me to give some programs myself at some of the chapter meetings so I became a little bit better at being a public speaker, and it’s been great meeting people.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the key things a collector should be looking for with antique and vintage clocks?
Stoddard: The main thing is the originality of the dial and if it’s a wooden shelf clock, having the original painting in the door would be really important. A lot of the American Shelf clocks from the 1820s up to 1900 have reverse paintings in the door, on the backside of the glass.
Condition is important, but clocks can be restored. If someone has restored it in the past, make sure the correct dial was put on it and the movements, which have probably been repaired a lot, have been done nicely. People did some bad things over the years just to get them running. A lot of American clocks have veneer over the base wood so if that’s starting to peel it can be really expensive to get fixed. Sometimes extensive casework can be more time consuming than getting the movement running.
With alarm clocks, they were so common that when people repaired them they did whatever they could to get them going. So you find clocks where parts have been switched, so that’s one challenge, determining originality. I’ve been trying to compare lots of different clocks to find out what original parts go together. Sometimes getting parts is tough, too, although it turns out Westclox made lots and lots of spare parts. They’re just scattered in different places all over the country, little collections of hands, springs, screws, and things like that.
Collectors Weekly: How is clock collecting changing today?
Stoddard: The prices for larger wall clocks, three feet tall and up, have increased dramatically, while prices on some of the more common clocks have remained the same for the past 20 years. The other thing is reproductions. There’s a clock called a Crystal Regulator which is about a foot tall with a brass case and glass on all four sides. They’re making some really nice reproductions of it in China and if you don’t know what you’re looking for you could be fooled easily.
Another thing people do is make fake advertising clocks. They’ll take an old Big Ben from 1930 and make a new dial that says Indian Motorcycle or Victola, and put it on eBay. Sometimes I’ve seen them for 300 to 600 dollars. Westclox did make a couple of documented advertising clocks, but very few.
I wonder if the younger generations are as interested in the older things as we are, although there are some younger collectors out there learning how to do clock repair. Recently I’ve seen people taking an old Baby Ben that’s worth a few bucks or so and gluing rhinestones around the bezel on the clock. They call it Shabby Chic and sell it on eBay for 60 to 80 dollars. They aren’t hurting it permanently, it’s just kind of weird. In a way they’re preventing clocks from being thrown away so I can’t totally condemn it, but it still seems like a funny thing to do.
Collectors Weekly: What are the best resources out there for clock collectors?
Stoddard: The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC) is headquartered in Pennsylvania but has chapters throughout the country. They have meetings every two months, and educational programs, so that’s a really great way to meet collectors and get all kinds of advice.
The internet is fantastic, you can find out anything about just any kind of clock, exchange pictures easily, correspond with people and work together on research. The NAWCC has an online forum with a lot of different categories. There are also some specialty chapters, like an alarm clock chapter and a 400-day clock chapter, one that specializes in wristwatches and one on early American pocket watches. 400-day clocks are also known as anniversary clocks, they would run 400 days on one winding. They typically have a round brass base with a glass dome over them; they were made in Germany from the 1890s up through the 1970s, and a lot of people collect them.
Collectors Weekly: Any other advice for new collectors, about clocks in general or Westclox Big and Baby Bens in Particular?
Stoddard: Pay attention to quality. People will still look for a good wind up but the quality declined in the later years just because the companies tried so hard to keep the prices low. If you look at a Baby Ben in the 1959 Sears catalog, they sold for about nine dollars and if you go to a Wal Mart today you can still buy a Baby Ben for about nine dollars, but the quality isn’t the same.
(All images in this article courtesy Bill Stoddard, www.clockhistory.com)