Think of antique clocks and a stately grandfather, German cuckoo, or Art Deco Bakelite clock may come to mind. But clockmaking is a vast field, spanning continents, outlasting empires, and encompassing a complete range of technologies and styles. Indeed, for clock collectors, the only problem with clocks is the lack of time to absorb and appreciate them all.
The Dutch are credited with inventing the first pendulum clock in the mid-17th century. The brainchild of a mathematician named Christiaan Huygens and a clockmaker named Salomon Coster, this first pendulum clock has an ebony-veneer case with an iron dial covered in black velvet.
French clockmakers of the 17th and 18th centuries took the Dutch pendulum and ran with it, focusing their creative attentions on the cases of their clocks. Ornately lacquered bra...
The English were also influenced by the pendulum and improved upon it by inventing a recoil, or anchor, escapement that permitted a longer pendulum to be used—this resulted in a slower swing and less wear and tear on the clock. Brass lantern clocks were popular at the end of the 17th century; tall, walnut, long-case clocks were common in the 18th.
At the end of the 18th century and into the 19th, especially during the Biedermeier period, an Austrian wall clock known as the Vienna regulator came to prominence. These rectangular timekeepers often had decorative pediments on their tops and glass on the fronts of their cases, so that the slowly swinging pendulum inside was revealed for all to see. Most of these regulators ran for eight full days between windings—some could go for six weeks.
In America, Colonial clockmakers flourished, particularly in Pennsylvania and New England. David Rittenhouse, an astronomer who was the first director of the U.S. Mint, was the king of Pennsylvania clockmakers. His astronomical clock from 1774 is considered a masterpiece. Other noteworthy Keystone state clockmakers include Jacob Godchalk, his brother-in-law, Griffith Owen, and John Paul, Jr., whose German-style tall clocks were wonders of curly maple, walnut, and ivory.
In New England, the Willard family of Massachusetts, especially Simon, was every bit as influential. They made tall clocks, of course, but Simon and his brother Aaron are perhaps best known for the invention in 1802 of the much-copied banjo clock.
Just west, in Connecticut, Thomas Harland produced handsome clocks with all-brass movements. His Norwich cases from the late 1700s had bracket feet on the floor, decorative carved-cherry finials on top, and brass faces. But Harland is also remembered for the apprentices he trained, who in turn trained apprentices of their own. One of these was a clockmaker named Eli Terry.
Terry is widely considered to be the father of the clockmaking industry in the United States, thanks to his decorative pillar-and-scroll shelf clocks of the early 19th century. These modestly priced ($15), mass-produced clocks had wooden movements rather than brass, which kept costs down.
Terry’s clocks were widely imitated, and established Connecticut as the center of clockmaking in the United States. Makers such as former Terry apprentice Seth Thomas, the firm of Jeromes & Darrow, and Joseph Ives created boxy, bronze, and gilt versions of the same basic clock, some enclosed behind glass, others ornately carved and decorated with paintings of natural scenes or urban landscapes.
By the middle of the 19th century, the first spring-driven clocks began to appear. This allowed clocks to be smaller and lighter, as the springs did the job of weights. Balance wheels replaced pendulums, which added portability to the features of these new home timepieces. Clocks shaped like beehives and acorns were introduced, others resembled compact versions of Gothic cathedrals.
Elias and Andrew Ingraham created these latter clocks. In 1844, they partnered with Elisha Curtis Brewster to form Brewster & Ingrahams. The company quickly created a spring-driven banjo clock and, in 1850, a gallery clock, whose frameless design, save a ring around the clock’s face, appears very contemporary to 21st-century eyes.
Another key mid-19th century Connecticut clockmaker whose antique clocks are popular among collectors was the Ansonia Clock Company. Founded by Terry’s nephew Theodore, Ansonia clocks had brass movements—in 1850, the firm went through 58 tons of the metal. Chauncey Jerome based his Jerome Manufacturing Company in New Haven, renaming it the New Haven Clock Co. in 1853.
In 1857, the newly formed Waterbury Clock Company hired Chauncey Jerome—he had lost everything when he purchased a down-on-its-luck clock company owned by P.T. Barnum—to help with its case-making operations. The Sessions Clock Company arrived on the scene at the turn of the 20th century—between 1903 and 1933, Sessions made 52 different models, all mechanical.
As Arts & Crafts took hold, then gave way to Art Deco and Mid-century Modern, clocks continued to reflect the styles and technologies of their times. In the 1920s, Westclox introduced its crackle-finish Big Ben, Baby Ben, and Tiny Tim alarm clocks, each small enough to fit on a crowded bedside table. And in the 1950s and 1960s, George Nelson designed a line of battery-powered ball clocks that were practically all arms and dial. The ornate cases of shelf clocks and fine woodworking of grandfather clocks seemed so very far in the past.
Key terms for Antique Clocks:
Escapement: A device that converts the pressure of a spring or coil into a fixed release of movement.
Interviews & Articles
How did I get interested in clocks? Something about them has always been ingrained in me. My mom’s father had a small collection o… [more]
I was working as a jewelry department manager for a department store, and I had a customer who brought a clock in for repair. I wa… [more]
As a teenager, I got into repairing the old furniture in our attic. One day, I wandered into a local antiques shop and asked the g… [more]
I grew up outside of Philadelphia. I didn’t have any particular interest in clocks or watches as a kid; that came after I started … [more]
Before the Revolutionary War, New York consisted chiefly of the Hudson River Valley. The Mohawk Valley and the rest of Central and… [more]
To be a horologist a man had to know both the science and the art of timekeeping; to be a clockmaker he had to be a skillful mecha… [more]
The name Simon Willard has always stood for superior materials, whether metal or wood; superior workmanship, whether of the moveme… [more]
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
National Watch and Clock Museum
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Clubs & Associations: Clocks
- British Horological Institute
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At the GalleriesGreen Bay Press Gazette, May 22nd
Nautical art, antiques and gifts; handcrafted model ships by Arnie Wegner; flow blue and crystal, 1860s to the present; antique clocks, vintage jewelry and primitives. Buy, sell and trade antiques and nautical items. 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays...Read more
Antique clock collection sells for £55000 at Nantwich auctionNantwich News, May 22nd
Antique clock collection sells for £55,000 at Nantwich auction. May 22, 2013 Editor No comments. Peter Wilson auctioneers, Nantwich. One of the best collections of antique English and continental clocks seen in the North West has sold for £55,000 at a...Read more
Original gouache watercolor painting by Alexander Calder soars to $114000 at ...Art Daily, May 20th
In the antique clocks category, a fine Louis XV-style gilt-bronze and champlevé enamel mounted onyx and marble tall case clock, circa 1900-1925, rose to $14,400. Fine watches included a Cartier 18kt yellow gold Tank Americaine ladies' wristwatch with...Read more
Fred D. Walsh Jr.Lake Placid News, May 20th
Mr. Walsh also enjoyed fly tying, repairing antique clocks and woodworking, making clocks and carts for some of the antique engines he collected. Services will be held at Crown Point Bible Church with committal services at Lake Placid. In lieu of...Read more
MINIS COLUMN: Summerville man who helped design moon shoes while at ...Charleston Post Courier (subscription), May 19th
Clocks, furniture, more. Raymond Dion also had a keen appreciation for antique clocks, his son says. He liked all kinds. “That's just the long and the short of it. He probably had at least 75 clocks in his house. They all were ticking and tocking at...Read more
Timeless beautiesDeccan Herald, May 16th
Decorating the home with antique clocks has become a top choice for many. A City-based architect, Monisha Colaco says, “A stylish accessory like an antique clock can enhance the interiors of your house by lending it a stark, modern, contemporary look...Read more
Palace Museum to Upgrade Security after Antique Clock DamagedCRIENGLISH.com, May 5th
Guo Fuxiang, a researcher of the Palace Museum, introduces the damaged ancient clock to journalists during a press briefing at the Forbidden City in Beijing, May 5, 2013. A man broke a window with his bared hand while touring the museum on Saturday,...Read more
Museum antique clock damaged as window vandalizedChina Daily, May 5th
The breaking of a window and damage to an antique clock at the Palace Museum in Beijing on Saturday has prompted authorities to speed up the upgrading of security measures, the museum director said on Sunday. A male tourist broke a window of the...Read more