Cuckoo clock clichés are hard to avoid: Say the word “cuckoo” and people instantly picture kitschy dark-wood relics hanging in the homes of aging relatives. Justin Miller is painfully aware of this stereotype, but his fascination with primitive cuckoo technology long ago spread to the more obscure history of Black Forest clocks. Miller’s interest in the clock-making region of southwestern Germany began innocuously enough with a childhood gift from his grandfather, whom he actually called “Grandpa Clock.”
As the first truly comprehensive English-language guide to early Black Forest horology, Miller’s new book, “Rare and Unusual Black Forest Clocks,” features particularly interesting examples of clocks with automata, or moving mechanical features. These range from timepieces used as mini-jukeboxes to play different tunes to clocks with animated figures who dance, eat, or even murder each other. You can see more of Justin’s personal collection on his Show & Tell page as well as his website, blackforestclocks.org.
Collectors Weekly: Where did the cuckoo clock originate?
Miller: One of the biggest misconceptions is that the first cuckoo clock was a product of the Black Forest. We know that’s not true. A lot of cuckoo clock manufacturers today who are producing these things new for the tourist trade still make that claim. The cuckoo clock had its origins long before the Black Forest region was even producing clocks, but in the Black Forest, the first cuckoo clock was made somewhere between 1740 to 1760. It’s thought that the cuckoo became so popular because the bird’s call was heard frequently in the wild in Europe, and with just two simple notes, it was an easy sound to reproduce.
“It was kind of like the auto industry in Detroit, where lots of individual businesses contribute to the same product.”
The earliest Black Forest cuckoo clocks were very primitive. They used what resources they had locally, so the movements were made almost entirely out of wood, with a very minimal amount of iron. The earliest cuckoo design is called the “shield style” where you have a movement that hangs on the wall with a flat decorative shield that’s attached to the front. It doesn’t have a case; there’s no carving; there’s no elaborate inlay. They are very primitive.
The first cuckoo clocks are called “wood-wheel paper-shield cuckoos” because all the wheels and the movements are made out of wood, and on the front of the shield, they would glue or fasten a piece of paper, which then would be decorated with watercolors. Up until 1844, these clocks were all powered with weights. The earliest examples used ropes that were strung over the lower wheels of the movement, with a weight on one side and a counterweight on the other side, so the rope doesn’t slide off the wheel and fall on the floor. The earliest Black Forest clocks had a much shorter running duration, maybe 12 hours, and then they advanced up to 24 hours. By the end of the 18th century, they did have 8-day running clocks, but most weight-driven Black Forest clocks only run for one day.
Collectors Weekly: Why is the cuckoo clock so closely associated with the Black Forest area?
Miller: There are two primary reasons: The first is what the Black Forest did to the cuckoo clock design. Yes, the cuckoo clock was originally made elsewhere, but the Black Forest clockmakers refined and improved them. When people think of a cuckoo clock today, with a pitched roof, carved façade, and pinecones hanging down, that all came from a Black Forest design.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that the first cuckoo clock was a product of the Black Forest.”
If you look at the industry as a whole, there was a big change around 1850—a shift from a cottage-made clock where different members of the community worked together, each making an individual part, to much larger factories and mass production. The 1840s were difficult times for Black Forest clockmakers: war, famine, disease, and increased competition from the Americans caused great problems for the industry. Also, the fact that many traditional clock designs were no longer as popular created great concern about the future of Black Forest clocks.
To combat these issues, a new clock-making school was set up in Furtwangen, Germany, to train future clockmakers and reinvigorate the industry. The school held a competition, calling on the patriotic artists of Germany to submit clock designs that could be made in the home yet looked professional. One of the most memorable designs submitted was called the Bahnhäusle, or railway-house design, created by Friedrich Eisenlohr.
Eisenlohr was an architect who designed gatekeeper houses along the railway line. Today, an automated gate falls down to prevent cars from getting in the way of the train, but at that time, there was an actual gatekeeper who lived in a little house by the tracks and made sure the crossing was secure when a train passed by. Eisenlohr created a case design based on these buildings with a pitched roof and simple gingerbread-style carved decoration of leaves and vines. That design has influenced cuckoo clock making to this day, so that when you look at a standard cuckoo clock now, you expect it to be in a carved case with a pitched roof.
The other, possibly more important contribution from the Black Forest was simply marketing. The Black Foresters were very efficient marketers. You have this region that’s very small, in a rural southwestern section of Germany, yet that little region became responsible for producing a large percentage of all clocks made in the world. They made clocks for the middle-class customer, and the obvious appeal of the cuckoo clock made it the poster child for the Black Forest industry.
Collectors Weekly: What is the difference between a cuckoo clock and a “singing-bird” clock?
Miller: A cuckoo clock just uses two little flute-type pipes with two little bellows to produce a very simple call, “cuckoo, cuckoo.” That’s it. A singing-bird clock is a lot more complicated. It has a large double pumping bellows system that generates constant pressure, which allows the clock to reproduce the song of a bird. Instead of just a basic little cuckoo call, you’d have a fully automated bird on top of the clock that flaps its tail, moves its head side to side, and sings a more complicated song. Emilian Wehrle was the most prevalent maker of singing-bird clocks in the Black Forest, and they’re one of the most coveted types of clock made in the region.
Collectors Weekly: Are there other musical clock variations?
Miller: In the early days of Black Forest clock making, most clockmakers didn’t have any formal musical training. The first musical clocks made in the Black Forest were very similar in design to the paper shield cuckoo clocks, and they played very simple, primitive tunes on glass bells. But as time went on, their skills and abilities advanced.
Eventually they developed organ clocks or flute clocks, called Flötenuhrs, that played multiple tunes on wood pipes. At the top of the hour, these clocks would strike and then play a waltz, march, or other tunes which you could select manually. In the days before radio and television, these clocks were used as a form of entertainment. They were commonly found at inns and other public places, where people would manually activate the organ to provide music for dancing at social gatherings.
Collectors Weekly: How do musical clocks work?
Miller: These clocks use a large bellow system, which draws in air through a one-way valve, so when the bellows are released, the air pushes into a main holding chamber, and then is systematically released through different ranks of pipes. Basically, each pipe has an independent valve underneath it, and when that valve is open, it allows air to pass though and plays that individual note. The notes are selected by a large pin cylinder, which rotates like a music box cylinder, putting the pins in contact with the valves. They open the valves in the right sequence, allowing the air to pass through that individual pipe. A clock that plays six tunes has a cylinder pinned for six different songs.
The same process is used in the bell clocks, the only difference is there’s no air or bellows. Instead they use little raised hammers that strike the bells. There are also harp clocks that play on strings and trumpeter clocks that play on horns.
Collectors Weekly: What was the original market for Black Forest clocks?
Miller: Initially, you had these rural, farmer-types who were making clocks as a craft during in the winter, when the weather was too cold to farm. They would just load up their stock on a wooden frame and carry it on their backs out into the countryside to sell the clocks door to door. The image of the clock peddler walking around the countryside with all his clocks on his back is a romantic theme still used to market Black Forest clocks today.
That system didn’t last very long, and was actually phased out by the early 19th century. By then most clocks were sold through clock packers and retailers. So there were firms like Camerer Kuss in England, who was a very large retailer for Johann Baptist Beha and many other makers. There were many different retailers, like the Morath Borthers in England, Eduard Schirrmann in France, G.S. Lovell in the U.S., and others all throughout the world that specialized in Black Forest clock imports.
Collectors Weekly: What is the most interesting cuckoo in your collection?
Miller: Probably the wildest one is a cuckoo clock by Johann Baptist Beha made around 1880. Instead of having a little bird that comes through a door, on this clock it’s a life-size animal, so about 12 inches from beak to tail, and it’s perched on top of the clock. The bird is fully automated, and during the call he flaps his wings and opens his beak.
This cuckoo is also unique because its movement has three trains. The cuckoo’s call and the strike train are separate, which allows the bird to call independently of the hour strike, and then following the cuckoo’s call, the strike rings on a large bell at the top of the clock. It’s just a very rare, exotic clock.
Collectors Weekly: Was Johann Baptist Beha a well-known clockmaker?
Miller: Yes, he’s definitely the most prominent cuckoo clockmaker in the Black Forest, and his clocks are collected aggressively. His clocks are usually regarded as the pinnacle of cuckoo clock making, whether deservedly or not.
If you look at Black Forest clocks as a whole, a lot of them were very cheaply done. They were made for middle- or lower middle-class customers, and most manufacturers were competing with each other, racing to have the lowest price. And how do you lower price? Well, you cut quality and you cut costs.
But Beha basically said, “We’re not going to race to the bottom. We’re going to make clocks of high quality for people who can afford them, and people who value high-end clocks will pay for them.” Many of his clocks stand out as really high-quality pieces, with detailed carving and movements that run for eight days, which was atypical of what you generally would find in a cuckoo clock manufacturer.
Johann Baptist Beha was also the first to take Eisenlohr’s railway-house design and incorporate a cuckoo into it. He was an innovator as well; Beha was the first one to make a cuckoo clock movement powered by springs, so it could be placed on a table or shelf.
However, Beha still worked in the traditional cottage industry, which meant that he didn’t actually make the whole clock. It was kind of like the auto industry in Detroit, where there are lots of individual businesses in the area all contributing to the same product. Beha would make the movements, and submit designs for the cases, but there would be a carver or a case maker who would actually make the cases. There would be someone who specialized in making the hands out of bone, someone who made the weights, someone that made the pipes to produce the cuckoo’s call. Basically, the clockmaker would be responsible for orchestrating all these individual parts and combining them into a finished clock. So although Beha had his own workshop where he produced his own movements, there were lots of people that contributed to his products.
So you have this small region where you have lots of people making clocks, utilizing the same suppliers. That creates problems today, because a lot of people don’t realize Beha didn’t make his own cases; the person supplying cases for Beha was also supplying the cases to Aron Ketterer and other makers, so the outward appearance of these clocks might be identical in every way. Because Beha rarely signed or marked his clocks, many of Ketterer’s products are falsely attributed to the Beha firm.
Collectors Weekly: Are there other common Black Forest clock designs?
Miller: The varieties are endless—there are architectural cases and gothic cases, carvings of every single motif you could imagine, from hunters and game to cathedrals and neo-renaissance buildings. Some designs are more common, like the hunter and dead rabbit or pheasant with the deer stag head on the top and the crossed rifles. Those were very popular and produced in high numbers. The variations of the automated themes were equally diverse. The butcher-themed clocks are one of my favorites, where at the top of the hour when the clock strikes, the butcher raises his axe and hits an ox on the head in sequence with the bell. At 3 o’clock, he hits the ox three times and the bell strikes with every hit, and then the ox falls over dead after the strike. And the next hour, it stands back up, and the sequence repeats.
There are sentry clocks where the soldier will march back and forth in front of the palace between two turrets as the clock ticks. There are complex “snap” clocks, or Schnappuhrs, with figures whose eyes move along with the swinging pendulum, and their mouths bite with each ring of the bell. Dumpling eaters are very traditional, with a figure sitting on top holding a plate of dumplings, and he raises his fork, shovels them into his mouth, and actually chews them.
There was even an execution clock where a character gets his head cut off every hour, and the executioner lifts the head off and puts it on a plate. They did everything—figures that strike bells, roosters, trumpeters, monks that come out and call the prayer at 6:00 a.m., noon, and 6:00 p.m.
Germans often used their automata as a form of mockery toward different cultures or people. I have a clock very similar to a dumpling eater, except the figure on top is even full French military regalia with Napoleon’s insignia on his hat. Instead of eating dumplings, he has a plate full of rats, and he shovels rats from his plate to his mouth every 10 minutes.
Collectors Weekly: How were all these moving parts powered?
Miller: There are two main ways that the clockmaker could control the automata. One way was to link the automata to the clock’s strike train. So as the clock’s strike train goes into motion, they would use it to power automation. A cuckoo clock is a perfect example since when the clock strikes, a moving cuckoo bird bursts through the door. It calls, and then it goes away. You don’t have any automated movement other than when the clock strikes.
But they could also use the clock’s escapement, or time train, which would allow constant movement as its pendulum swings, and the Augenwender or eye-turner is a good example of that. Basically they would just run linkage off the clock’s escapement that would power moving eyes in a painting. They would incorporate figures into the scenery on the clock and the eyes of the figures would look left to right as the pendulum swings. There are all kinds of variations: single figures, double figures, triple figures, or some with animals and prey, like a dog looking at a rabbit, and as the pendulum swings their eyes go back and forth.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have an absolute favorite clock?
Miller: I have around 80 clocks, and they’ve kind of become almost like my children. They’re all special in their own way, but the most impressive clock I have is probably a trumpeter clock made by Emilian Wehrle.
It’s a very large shelf clock powered by springs with an eight-day running duration. Every inch of that clock is just carved to death, a full-relief eagle on the top with its wings spread in motion, and there are little partridges running on the forest floor and oak leaves and acorns. The whole roof of the case is shingled like a house, and the case itself is carved to look like a tree. It’s just absolutely unbelievable.
This clock plays the “William Tell Overture” on eight horns. So on the hour, a large set of double doors open and two trumpeter figures come through carrying horns. It’s just very large, beautifully carved, musical, and automated. So it kind of incorporates everything, and it’s just one of those pieces people get excited about, even if they know nothing about clocks. It’s a beautiful piece.
(All photos courtesy Justin Miller; Eisenlohr lithograph courtesy Deutsches Uhrenmuseum)