How did grandfather clocks—also known as tall-case, longcase, coffin, hall, standing, upright, long, or floor clocks—get to be so tall? Simple: A grandfather clock had to be six to nine feet tall to contain its three-foot-long pendulum, as well as its weights, which needed to drop several feet for the clock to run a full week.
While smaller lantern or house clocks were widely used in England before pendulum or regulator clocks were first introduced by Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens in 1657, they only marked hours, and could gain or lose more than a quarter hour a day. Astronomers like Galileo were the driving force behind the development of more accurate clocks, because they wanted to track the movements of heavenly bodies. Huygens also invented the hairspring pocket watch in 1670, which allowed for reasonably accurate portable time-keeping.
Until 1930, the grandfather clock, which relied on the pendulum's swinging motion, was probably the most accurate form of time-keeping around. It wasn't until the invention of qu...
It was the English who came up with the best way to house Huygen's device—the tall case cabinet. The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, founded in 1631 as one of the City of London livery companies, tightly guarded the secrets of longcase clock-making and also regulated the industry so only the highest quality clocks were produced.
These clocks are now popularly called "grandfather clocks," but they didn't get that name until 1876, when esteemed American songwriter and abolitionist Henry Work published a song called "Grandfather's Clock," a poignant ditty about the intertwined lives of a clock and a man, inspired by the legend of the longcase clock at the George Hotel in North Yorkshire, England.
The story goes that when the Jenkins brothers managed the hotel, more than 150 years ago, their floor clock was noted for being remarkably accurate, as many clocks of the era still lost several minutes to half an hour per day. On the day the first brother died, the hotel’s clock suddenly began to run slow, first losing a few minutes a day, then 15. After many clock repairmen tinkered with it, it lost more than an hour a day, and it's lack of accuracy became the new conversation piece. When the other brother died at 90, it is said the fully wound hotel clock stopped at exactly 11:05.
Very few people in late-18th-century America had clocks, but around 1800, clocks became cheaper and more people were able to afford them, especially in 1815, when Connecticut clockmakers introduced wooden works and gears that could take the place of more expensive brass parts. These wooden parts were eventually mass-produced as the 19th century Industrial Revolution progressed. By around 1850, clocks cost as little as $2, and soon they became ubiquitous.
In the early 1800s, though, only the very wealthy had clocks—they cost around $70, more than a year's salary for most folks. The clockmakers who made the brass inner workings were often trained in England. In other cases, these pieces were shipped over the Atlantic to American cabinet makers. The clock's face, or dial, would be made by an ornamental artist, either in America or England, and the iron weights would be made in a foundry.
A clockmaker located in, say Connecticut, would often ship these inner clocks parts to anywhere in the U.S., and then a local cabinet maker would build the case separately, with the help of a founder to make the brass hinges and a glassmaker for the door.
In 1802, Simon Willard of Roxbury, Massachusetts, invented the banjo clock, a pendulum clock with a much shorter weight drop, as well as a weight-driven clock that could hang on the wall. Working with his brothers Aaron, Benjamin, and Ephraim, Willard was also known for his beautifully proportioned tall-case clocks called Roxbury clocks. Around the same time, other American makers came up with their own smaller pendulum clocks, among them David Wood's 3-1/2-foot-tall Massachusetts shelf clock and Joshua Wilder's 4-foot-tall dwarf clocks, which are also known today as grandmother clocks.
These smaller clocks were popular because they cost half as much as the pricey tall-case clocks. However, they were limited mostly to the Massachusetts area where they were invented, while clockmakers in Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey still specialized in the tall-case clocks, which can often be identified by region. Clocks from coastal New England, for example, are often cased in mahogany, while those in Connecticut in particular are usually cased in cherry. Other important early American clockmakers include Calvin Bailey, the Blaisdells, the Mulliken family, Joshua Wilder, Seth Thomas Company, and Silas Hoadley.
European clockmakers also came up with their own distinct styles for tall-case pendulum clocks. In France, Comtoise clocks, also called Morbier or Morez clocks, had curved or "potbellied" cases, while in Denmark, Bornholm clocks had box-like cabinets with straight lines.
Collectors looking for antique tall-case clocks should be wary: Most antique clocks have been altered or damaged in ways that greatly diminish their value. For example, when people would move into a home with low ceilings, it was common for them to cut down the feet or the fretwork at the top. The scroll pediment that's characteristic of Mid-Atlantic clocks might also be cut off, while the delicate pierced fretwork of New England clocks would just break.
Since these clocks were considered old and worthless toward the end of the 19th century, people would often just replace the dial and clockworks inside, a practice that's known in the trade as "marriage." Many clocks have also had the dial heavily repainted (if the paint doesn't have any signs of cracks or aging, it has definitely been repainted). Take all these factors into account, and an Aaron or Simon Willard clock that should be worth $100,000 will only be on the market for $10,000—a low price like that is usually a red flag that something is wrong with that particular grandfather clock.
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