Dave Weisbart talks about 19th-century clocks, discussing notable manufacturers and designs and sharing his experience with clock repairs. Dave is the owner of Prestige Clock Repair in Huntington Beach, CA and shares his clock collection on his site, Dave’s American Clocks.
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 was able to fix her clock very quickly and easily, and I didn’t charge her anything. It turned out she had a huge collection, and she asked me to see the rest of them. She had these amazing 18th-century bracket clocks and 18th-century tall-case clocks. She had a gorgeous skeleton clock and even an Atmos clock. So that planted the seed, but it was many years later before I could actually afford to own an antique clock. Then one became three and three became six and now I have about 60 clocks at home.
My first clock was an Ansonia. The model number on it was Sonia 1, and it was a Westminster chime tambour clock. I still have it.
Collectors Weekly: So you knew how to repair clocks?
Weisbart: No, but if you have 60 clocks at home, you better learn how to fix them yourself! That was basically it. I was interested in being able to service my own clocks and having the confidence of being able to buy a clock and know that even if it needs some kind of repair, I’m capable of handling it and I’m not going to be spending $300 for a clock and then spending another $250 to get it working.
I’m very active in the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC). The people in the chapters are very eager to share their knowledge and expertise when it comes to buying, selling, and maintaining these old clocks. Some of the fellows in the group took it upon themselves to show me how to do certain tasks. I had books that I had read and I just found it all very interesting and I enjoyed working on them tremendously.
I had a job in the computer field, but the writing was on the wall that I wasn’t going to be there much longer and I could not get a job interview anywhere else. So I thought, well, let’s try this, because every time I did take a clock in to be repaired, there was a huge wait, which is still the case because there are fewer and fewer people doing this kind of work. I went back to the NAWCC School of Horology in Pennsylvania and completed their entire clock repair program. I came back and hung out my shingle, as they say.
The NAWCC divides up a total of 10 courses into one- and two-week sessions. They try to schedule them in such a way that you can live there and go through the entire program in just under five months. You can also just go there for a couple weeks, take a course, and come back. A lot of people do that.
My graduating class was only 17 people for the whole country. What you have is this tremendous generational gap where the repairmen are now in their 80s and 90s. They can’t do the work anymore, but there’s nobody coming up behind them.
The thing that people need to be aware of when they’re taking a clock in for repair is that there are guys out there who learned from some guy who learned from some other guy. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re doing things wrong, but it does increase the likelihood that the techniques they’re using to repair clocks are not what you’d call state of the art. That’s another reason that I wanted to go the school. I wanted to learn the right way to do things. The teacher at the school had access to all of the books that have been written and all of the experts that have come forward with their methods. The NAWCC also has the National Watch and Clock Museum. The people who worked as the curators there are obviously working with museum-quality timepieces, and they’re doing things the way they should be done. So we got a good grounding in a production-mode repair service, which is probably most of what I do, as well as a museum-quality restoration-and-repair service, which very few people can do.
Just to throw out one museum-repair example, typically when a clock movement gets badly worn, it needs bushings. The bearing holes for the gears wear to the point where they are no longer round. Because they’re out of alignment, the gears don’t deliver power efficiently. In a new clock, it’s a pretty straightforward matter to pop in a commercially available bushing, but I did a piece that was from the late 1700s. When I went to put in a bushing there, I wanted to make sure that unless you really looked at it under magnification, you wouldn’t know that there had been a bushing put in there. They refer to that as an invisible bushing. So that’s an example of maintaining a clock in its original appearance to the greatest extent possible.
Collectors Weekly: Is it common for collectors to need clock repair?
Weisbart: If you’re going to run any mechanical clock, it’s going to need periodic service. That’s just a fact. The modern clock oils last probably about five years tops. Many clocks will continue to run after the oil has dried out, but at that point, they start doing damage to themselves. They’re running with dry pivots that have an accumulation of old dried oil and dirt which acts as an abrasive, and it starts wearing away at the parts.
A common misconception about clock oil is that it helps the clock run, and in fact the opposite is true. If you’re running a clock just for two minutes or something, it actually has its greatest efficiency running without oil. But the oil prevents wear and so that’s why the movement needs to be disassembled, cleaned, and then reassembled with fresh oil every few years.
Collectors Weekly: You said you specialize in 19th-century American clocks?
Weisbart: In my own collection, yes. When I first started, I just bought clocks that appealed to me, but as I got into it more, I decided to specialize in American clocks, and the ones that appeal to me the most are from the latter half of the 19th century. It’s the early age of industrialization in the clock business. Any collector gets more from their collections when they start to think about specialization.
One of the reasons I decided on that particular part of clocks is that it’s well documented. There are a lot of books out there that illustrate and document the early clock production in the United States, whereas it’s much harder to come by information on some of the European makers. I can look at an Ansonia clock, for example, and say, “Yes, that’s from around 1895,” because the factory catalogues are, to a large extent, still available from that era. They’ve been republished.
The same cannot be said for European clockmakers. There’s a German maker Junghans. That name is actually still around, but I don’t think it’s anything to do with the original company. Junghans was a huge clockmaker, and I’ve never really seen anything akin to what I can get on the American makers as far as documentation is concerned.
I do have a couple of clocks that go back to the 1830s. Up until, say, well, 1809, clock production was one man sitting at a bench, cutting gears one at a time, putting movements together one at a time. It was in 1807 or 1809 that Eli Terry got a contract to build a bunch of wooden clock movements. He was to build 3,000 movements over a three-year period. That was referred to as the Porter contract. He was the first one to really mass-produce clock movements, but they were wooden movements and they still had issues. They weren’t all that reliable.
It wasn’t until 1840 that Chauncey and Noble Jerome came out with the rolled brass, inexpensive, and mass-produced clock movement. That was the beginning of the major part of the industrialization of clock making. Most of the clocks that show up now in any kind of numbers are going to be from the last half of that century. There are just fewer clocks around from the earlier part of the century.
For the most part, they were handmade unless you’re talking about a wooden-movement clock. The wooden-movement clocks were mass produced.
Collectors Weekly: Who were the major makers during the 19th century?
Weisbart: In terms of the industrial era, Seth Thomas of course is probably the best known name. Seth Thomas started making clocks in 1813, doing the same thing as everybody else—mass producing wooden-movement clocks. Chauncey Jerome was the first to do the mass-produced brass clocks. That company became Jerome & Co. It was purchased by New Haven, another big name in clock making. They started in the 1850s and were around for a long time. Ansonia is another really big one, again from the 1850s. They went out of business in 1929. The bulk of my collection is Ansonia.
So you got Seth Thomas, Ansonia, and New Haven. Gilbert is another one, plus Waterbury and Ingraham. To a lesser extent, there’s a maker in New York called Kroeber. He didn’t make as many clocks as some of the others, but they’re very interesting and he had a lot of interesting patents.
The real heart of clock making was Connecticut. Later, some companies moved to New York but most of the makers got their start in Connecticut. They set up mills and would use water from local streams to power their factories. I think a lot of it was happenstance—there just happened to be clock making going on there. There were also vendors who sold to the clock manufacturers. An example is Muller who sold iron fronts for clocks. The Waterburys and people like that would make the movement and the wooden back, but the front was this cast-iron piece, or cast zinc. That was very decorative. Nicholas Muller made them for everybody.
So there were a lot of people making parts and you wanted to be near those parts suppliers. If so-and-so had their factory in Bristol, Connecticut and somebody else was making parts for them in Bristol, Connecticut, it made sense to set up shop nearby.
Collectors Weekly: So wood was used before brass?
Weisbart: In terms of a mass-produced clock, yes. Brass clocks have a long history. Up until the 1840s, the parts were cast brass. They actually poured molten brass into a mold and then machined it as needed. Cast brass was expensive and it wasn’t a very high-quality material to work with. It would tend to be porous and have air bubbles and that sort of thing. It wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been, which means that you needed to use thicker brass to achieve the same strength. Later rolled brass would be used, and that was a much stronger material.
“The real heart of clock making was Connecticut.”
A lot of the individual makers made the brass movements on a small scale. The wooden movements were also being made on a small scale until Eli Terry and the Porter contract figured out how to mass-produce them and make clocks for the general public. If you were rich, you could afford a brass-movement clock, which made it all the more appealing. When Jerome and the rest of them started coming out with the rolled-brass movements, that became the status symbol as opposed to the old-fashioned wooden works.
Here’s a little tidbit: There’s a song called Grandfather’s Clock, and it was actually the most popular song in America. It was originally published in 1867, and it’s the source of the term grandfather clock. They were never called that before that. The words of the song had to do with an old-fashioned standing tall-case clock that belonged to your grandfather. The image of the big wooden works clock was something old fashioned that belonged to your grandfather. In 1867, the only people left with that kind of clock was your grandfather because you would get a modern brass-movement clock. Before that, it was just called a clock, really.
Collectors Weekly: Were all the clockmakers doing something different?
Weisbart: For the most part, the early ones in particular tended to copy each other. For example, when Eli Terry came out with the pillar-and-scroll case design, it was immediately copied. It was very popular and everybody had one. Everybody was making them and circumventing patents one way or another.
The same thing happened with the patented Willard banjo clock. Some makers actually licensed the design from Willard while others would put Willard’s Patent on the glass when in fact they weren’t paying anything. The variations of the designs tended to be very slight. If you had a clock with curved columns, you’d have slightly different carving from one to the next. But the makers would all churn out what was popular at the time.
Collectors Weekly: What were the popular designs in the 19th century?
Weisbart: Early in the century, you’d have to say the banjo clock, pillar-and-scroll, column-and-splat. This is all the first half of the century. After the brass movements became popular, then you had steeple clocks, which are also referred to as sharp gothic. And of course the ubiquitous OG clocks were hugely popular. They were inexpensive to make and they just took over.
An OG clock is basically a great, big rectangle, and the frame on the front has sort of an S curve molding all the way around like a picture frame. The term for that S curve molding in the lumber industry is ogee, so these became the OG clocks.
The original OGs were weight-driven, so they needed to be fairly large so the weights would have room to fall as they powered the clock. As springs became more reliable, some of the makers started making a small OOG which was spring-driven, and they didn’t have to be as large as the big one. The OOG refers to an additional curved molding on the outside of the frame. There’s a thin strip of molding all the way around, and then you see the thicker strip, which is the S curve. Then you see the door of the clock. But that thin strip on the outside, if that’s curved, then that’s an OOG. That’s not really a standard designation, but some people used it.
The reverse-painted tablets have a whole history of their own. In the very early days the tablets were hand-painted. Typically women did that work, and they would paint clock glasses. There came a point where the clock production got to be so big that hand painting everything wasn’t viable anymore, so they started using various shortcuts. They’d have stencils and transfers and other semi-mechanical ways of transferring images on to the glass so that they could make more of them. Reverse glass painting is a lost art. I’m having one made right now for a really beautiful wooden-works clock that I bought recently but had really horrible replacement glass in it.
Collectors Weekly: How long does it take to hand-paint that?
Weisbart: The woman I’m dealing with asked for six to eight weeks. A lot of that has to do with the fact that she’s using oil paints which need to dry, so she can only paint for a little while, let the paint dry, and then paint some more. In terms of how long it actually takes her to actual do the painting, I couldn’t tell you. My dad’s an artist and I kept trying to get him to do reverse glass painting, but he never picked it up.
Collectors Weekly: Were there any designs that were more sought after than others?
Weisbart: At the time the clocks were being produced, everything was just sort of a commodity. Whatever the retailers were offering at the time, they’d convince the customer that it was the latest style, and they’d go ahead and buy it. Again, there wasn’t that much variation for the first half of the 19th century, and in the second half, the big clock makers would put out catalogues with etchings and illustrations of their case styles so the retailers could carry a representative selection. Then they could also show the customer the catalogues and say, “If there’s anything else in here that you’d like.”
I think what led to some of the big clockmakers going bust was that they came out with just a myriad of very similar styles. Towards the turn of the 20th century, they had enormously thick catalogues of the same thing over and over again.
But in every year there were the styles of the era. It’s the same thing today. Today, if you find a really nice original pillar-and-scroll clock, you’re going to pay a lot of money for it. Among the wooden clocks, those are probably the most desirable. There are many that followed that you can get for dirt cheap. The other one would be the Willard banjo. One made by Willard or by his heirs or family is very desirable.
Collectors Weekly: Why is the pillar-and-scroll so desirable?
Weisbart: It’s an iconic design of early clock making. It has pillars along the sides, little turned columns basically, and the top has a gooseneck split pediment scroll. It’s an early Eli Terry design, and Eli Terry is revered. He was at the beginning of a whole clock-making dynasty that went on until the 1870s. The cases themselves tend to be fragile, the feet in particular. The bases had these little spindly feet, and they tended to get broken. It’s an immediately recognizable design.
Collectors Weekly: Did the number of models that were made vary depending on the maker?
Weisbart: Yes. Of all the companies, Ansonia probably had more models from the time they started until the time they went out of business than any other maker. Tran Duy Ly went to great lengths to compile the extensive factory catalogues into individual volumes, so you can buy a book of Ansonia clocks that has virtually every catalogue illustration. Ly has also published catalog compilations for Waterbury, Ingraham, Seth Thomas, all of them. The Ansonia one is the thickest because they had more styles than just about anybody else, and of the makers I’ve mentioned, Kroeber probably had the fewest styles.
Kroeber wasn’t in business all that long, and he wasn’t nearly as large as some of the other ones. Ansonia was big. At one time they had factories in both Connecticut and New York, but they eventually closed the Connecticut factory. The building that they occupied in Brooklyn still exists and has been turned into co-op apartments.
Collectors Weekly: You said Ansonia’s your favorite?
Weisbart: Yes. I like the diversity of their line. They tended towards the rather heavily ornamented clocks, a lot of statue clocks, and the carved walnut clocks of the 1880s. They’re really gorgeous.
The name Ansonia comes from an industrialist by the name of Anson Phelps. He owned a brass foundry and he approached these two clockmakers, Terry and Andrews in Connecticut, because he wanted to take controlling interest in their firm and have them use the brass that his foundry was making in clocks. He was becoming vertically integrated, and so his job was to sell metal.
I like the Ansonia Pompeii clock. I own one and I’ve always really enjoyed it. Ansonia had a lot of metal clocks and they had extensive line of enameled iron clocks. Their cast-iron cases were painted shiny black, to imitate the French black slate clocks that were imported from Europe, but at a price that the average person could afford. Pompeii was one of these, but it’s a very interesting design with sloped curved sides and lots of little decorations on the side. It’s just a very interesting-looking clock and it’s unique to the Ansonia line. Nobody else made that particular style. Mine has dials made out of gutta-percha, a hard rubber substance that Ansonia used for a short time. It’s in such great shape.
I’m also always on the lookout for clocks made of green onyx, also sometimes referred to as Brazilian onyx. The American makers made some green onyx; the French tended to make a lot of them. Typically when I see a green onyx for sale it’s French, but if I see an American clock with green onyx, I’m likely to buy it regardless of the state of my checkbook.
Collectors Weekly: What other types of materials did clockmakers use?
Weisbart: If you’re talking about wood, you’re talking about what was locally available. Some makers used a lot of walnut in their cases and exotic woods like rosewood as veneers over pine. Typically the OG clocks were like that. You had a nice veneer but a pine case because the pine was readily available. Then there are the metal cases. Ansonia was probably the king of the metal cases. They not only made the enamel iron cases, but they also made a lot of statue clocks, or spelter clocks, which had some sort of base metal, mostly zinc with some sort of a finish on it to make it look like bronze.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the typical mantle clock with a big glass door (which they often call a kitchen clock now, but that’s actually a misnomer) tended to be walnut, but as they got into the 1900s, there was a shift to oak. Then they moved away from carved pieces to steam-pressed pieces. They’d actually use steam and very high pressures to impress the design into the wood instead of carving it. Obviously this was an inexpensive way to get a carved look without carving. In terms of woods, it would parallel whatever the fashion was for furniture of the day. If walnut was in fashion, they’d use walnut. If mahogany was in fashion, they’d use mahogany.
Collectors Weekly: Do people collect clocks by types of wood?
Weisbart: No, I don’t think so. I think the most important thing to serious collectors is condition. If you’re buying a wood piece, you want to have its original finish if at all possible. You want to have good-looking dials. In this era, you’re looking at painted dials for the most part, and that’s typically a little earlier, say from 1870 back.
In the later years, you’d see paper dials. If you have a painted dial, you want it to be free of chips as much as possible. If you have a paper dial, you don’t want to see it abraded or for the paper to be dark and stained. Porcelain dials tended to chip or crack. The dial’s pretty important, so look at the condition of the case and the condition of the dial before you buy.
Collectors Weekly: How do I know if the clock I’m considering is any good?
Weisbart: Depending on your own repair or servicing capabilities, you want a clock with a running movement, or at least a movement that can run. Often you’ll start up a clock and give the pendulum a little push. It might tick for five minutes and then quit. If that’s the case, then chances are it just needs normal service. That’s something you have to be prepared to do anyway.
If you give the pendulum a push and you don’t hear anything, that’s a red flag for a broken spring. Springs often take other parts of the movement with them when they break, especially in American clocks, whose springs were very powerful. When the spring breaks and lets all that potential energy go at once, it’s very common that neighboring gears and shafts will get bent and gear teeth will get sheared off and broken. That’s when you start getting into significant repair costs. So if the clock you’re looking to buy is ticking, even if it doesn’t continue to run, that’s a good sign.
Another trick is to advance the hands and listen to it strike the hour. Striking the hour and ticking, even if it’s striking sluggishly or if it doesn’t tick very long, is a good indication that the movement is basically healthy but probably needs some service.
Collectors Weekly: How were the 19th-century clocks influenced by early clock making?
Weisbart: They were probably mostly influenced by furniture styles of the times. For example, if you look at the early tall-case clocks, the ones made in the late 18th century and into the 19th century, you’ll see the same variations. On the Antiques Roadshow, those twin brothers look at a piece of furniture and say, “This is made in Philadelphia,” or “This was made in Rhode Island,” because each of these areas had regional characteristics for furniture making. You see that a lot in the early tall-case clocks where you can identify where the case came from, if not the movement.
In the early days of clock making, the clockmakers did not make the cases; they made the movements and bought the cases from furniture makers. They would install the movement in the case and sell it as a complete clock. But in later years, with their own factories, they were making clocks to appeal to the entire country. You’d still see that the Eastlake style of furniture carried over into certain clocks, for example, so if your home was in that style, you’d buy a clock in that style. Most of the makers came out with a small line of Arts and Crafts style cases.
Collectors Weekly: How do you date a clock?
Weisbart: Again, that’s where the documentation comes in very handy and why I initially chose to go with American clocks. If you pick up a catalogue reprint that was originally printed in 1880 and your clock is in there, you know pretty much when the clock was made. Some collectible clocks—let’s say from 1850 to 1930—persisted much longer than others, and each year had its own characteristics.
The OG clock was made for decades, the same thing with what’s referred to as a drop octagon wall clock where you have an octagonal bezel or sort of a façade with the big clock dial inside. Hanging down from that is a little square pointed piece at the bottom where the pendulum swings. It’s also known as the schoolhouse clock and it was made for decades.
So if you look at one of those, how the heck do you know? Sometimes you can’t know. Other times you can look at the movement and you might see a patent date. That can give you the earliest that that particular clock was made, although the patent dates were sometimes stamped in the movements for 20 years after the patent.
Collectors Weekly: How did Seth Thomas, Ansonia, and Ingraham become the biggest manufacturers?
Weisbart: For the most part, they had a driving force who was a real go-getter and worked hard to establish the brand, distributing infrastructure, and sales force that would work on the retailers and get them to carry the clock. For example, Kroeber was a very smart man, but I don’t think he had the sales part of it figured out very well, whereas Ingraham was a case designer originally, but he was very much a businessman. Gilbert actually made clocks. He was just a businessman.
In addition, there was definitely a hunger in the country for affordable clocks. One of the things that I find so interesting is that the manufacture of clocks piggybacked on the Industrial Revolution in a symbiotic way—we had the ability to make inexpensive clocks, coinciding with the masses need for clocks so they could show up at the factory on time. It worked both ways.
Collectors Weekly: What is a lever movement?
Weisbart: Most of the clocks that I have, the larger clocks, have pendulums that swing back and forth. The other variety of movement uses a balance wheel like a watch. Now, in a good-quality watch movement, you have jewels that are the bearings in the sliding surfaces of the escapement. A lever movement is typically rather cheaply made, it uses a balance wheel, and instead of the jeweled escapement, it’ll just have a couple of tins stuck in a lever that rocks back and forth. They’re inexpensive, but not particularly good timekeepers. Most of the novelty clocks with the lever movements were one-day clocks, which meant you had to wind them every day.
Our perception today of timekeeping is very different than it has been throughout history. The only ones who really needed the kind of precision that we expect today were the railroads because they had to make sure their trains didn’t run into each other. For the average factory worker, if his clock was accurate to within three minutes or so a day, it wasn’t a big a deal.
Collectors Weekly: Have you noticed any trends in 19th-century clock collecting?
Weisbart: It’s interesting to watch the trends because they do shift a lot. For example, Ansonia in particular made a lot of porcelain-cased clocks, typically hand-painted. I have seen the price on those fluctuate dramatically. When they were in vogue, you’d pay a lot of money for a nice porcelain clock, and then they slipped out of fashion and people paid less. Another market segment that went through that kind of bubble was the Vienna regulators. These are typically German and Austrian clocks from the late 19th century, and those were going crazy for a while. It’s like anything else. You get these little bubbles.
Collectors Weekly: Is it common to not find original parts in a clock?
Weisbart: I wouldn’t say it’s common, but probably the biggest issue related to originality would be what we call a marriage. This was done quite a bit, particularly in the first half of the 20th century. You would have a movement taken from one clock and put into another. So if the clockmaker bought some junker clock that had a decent movement, he’d throw away the case and keep the movement. And if another clock came in where the movement was so badly worn that it wasn’t worth fixing, he’d pop this other movement in. So you might see an Ingraham movement in a Gilbert clock or something to that effect, and those are referred to as marriages.
The telltale sign of a marriage is extra mounting holes in the case. If you look at the back of the case where the movement is mounted and you see a set of holes that aren’t being used, that’s a real good indicator that it doesn’t belong. In the case of American clocks, it’s often a lot easier than that to tell because American makers in general put their trademark on everything. So the dial has a trademark and the movement has a trademark, and sometimes the pendulum bob has a trademark. You can look at those and say, “This doesn’t match that,” and it’s pretty obvious. If a pendulum bob is not original, it’s not that big of a deal, but if the whole movement is not original, then that clock is going to be much less valuable than if it had the correct movement in it.
Collectors Weekly: What’s your advice to new collectors?
Weisbart: Join the NAWCC. It’s that simple. They have a great publication that comes out six times a year—a nice, glossy magazine with really interesting articles. And join the local chapter, because the NAWCC is a worldwide organization. For example, in Southern California there are 10 local chapters, and right now I’m president of Chapter 69, which is the Orange County chapter. The chapter meetings are where you really get to network. You get to meet the people who are interested in the same things that you are.
For example, in our chapter we have a mentoring program for people who are relatively new to collecting. Let’s say somebody is interested in American pocket watches, well, we know just the guy to talk to who knows all about American pocket watches. That way, new collectors get a pretty quick grounding in what they’re interested in.
(All images in this article courtesy Dave Weisbart of Dave’s American Clocks).