First patented in 1802 by brothers Aaron and Simon Willard, the banjo clock was one of the most popular clocks of its time. Despite the patent, it didn’t take long for other clockmakers to jump on the bandwagon and copy the Willards’ design. Unfortunately for collectors of antique banjo clocks, many Willard banjo clocks do not carry their maker’s name, so it is often difficult to identify who made it.
Originally called an "Improved Timepiece," the clock later became known as a "banjo" because it looked similar to the musical instrument. Its white, circular face, painted with black numbers (mostly Roman numerals), flows into a long, tapered neck, which meets at a square base. The hinged door of the base is elaborately painted, often with a beautiful view, a naval scene, or an ornamental pattern. Thin pieces of curved brass often run down the necks of these clocks, and brass sculptures, most commonly of an eagle, routinely crown their tops.
Banjo clocks had eight-day movements, which means they only had to be rewound every eight days. They were originally designed as wall clocks, but due to their immense popularity, variations meant to sit on the mantel were soon created as well, albeit in smaller quantities.
Because of their popularity, banjo clocks spawned numerous variations, the most popular of which were the lyre and the girandole. The lyre, also shaped like the instrument from which it got its name, had the same head as a banjo clock, but featured strings extending downwards, making it look even more like a stringed instrument. Some lyres hung on walls, while others rested on mantels, and many had floral patterns painted on the front.
The girandole’s base was larger than a banjo clock’s, and its design was more elaborate and ornamental. It was first created by Lemuel Curtis, who was the nephew and apprentice of Aaron Willard.
Banjo clocks maintained their popularity for 60 years. In the 1840s, they began to be used at railroad stations. Some banjo clocks made for the railroads reached a whopping seven feet high. But by the 1860s, banjo clocks were becoming less and less desirable, and soon their production came almost to a complete halt, which is why they are so prized by collectors today.