"Grandma's Old Clock"

Many take the keeping of time for granted. This is not Surprising!!

Today we have modern timepieces all around us...from Digital Battery, Atomic and Electric Clocks to Watched Who either wind themselves or need the battery changed every several years.

It's hard for many of us to comprehend that not so long ago most clocks and watches were totally mechanical. They had to be wound regularly by hand and needed periodic cleaning and oiling.

The industry encompassing the manufacture of timepieces was both the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the country and the backbone of Manufacturing in New England for better than 150 Years!!

Until about 1815, most clocks could only be afforded by the rich and affluent. Each clock had to be painstakingly handcrafted one at a time by a skilled clock-maker. The main materials for making clocks, Brass and Steel, had to be imported from England and were very expensive.

Around this time, a man by the name of Eli Terry of Bristol, Ct. experimented with the use of native raw material...wood. His premise was to make every piece the same in every clock mechanism so the parts could be easily interchanged or replaced as necessary. This duplication of parts and the use of water power to drive the machinery, led to the first mass production of clocks in the world.

By 1820, his factory was producing mechanisms mostly out of wood with a little brass and steel for both Grandfather Clocks and Shelf Clocks. Soon these clocks were available in quantity at a price most people could afford.

Seeing the potential market, other clockmakers began producing similar clocks. By 1840, there were literally many dozens of small clock companies making clocks. The majority of these companies were in the Bristol-Plymouth area of Connecticut.

By 1845, American Brass and Steel was being produced in the same general area along the Connecticut coast. Inexpensive clocks were being introduced with all metal mechanisms and the wooden movements were surpassed by more durable movements. By 1850, you could buy a reliable mantle clock put up in an Imported Mahogany or Rosewood Veneered Case for as little as $1.00!!

Soon the competition of many small companies took its toll. By 1865, most of the manufacture of clocks was whittled down to about 8 Large manufacturers. These were The Seth Thomas Clock Co., The New Haven Clock Co., The Wm. L. Gilbert Clock Co., The E. Ingraham Clock Co., E.N. Welch Mfg. Co., Waterbury Clock Co., The F. Kroeber Clock Co. and the Ansonia Clock Company. There were a Few Ian the Boston Area such as the Chelsea Clock Co., The E. Howard Clock Co., and the Waltham Clock Co., but these companies produced much lower volume and concentrated on higher quality.

The Eight mainly Connecticut Clock Companies became the producers of the majority of the clocks manufactured from 1865 until World War Two. These companies not only sold most of the domestic clocks, but also exported clocks to all parts of the globe. They had prices nobody could match and in such a variety of cabinet styles that they could suit virtually any taste! Today, you can find old American made clocks in Antique Shops in Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, India, China, Japan, Central and South America, and New Zeeland and Australia.


Some people today that have had old clocks handed down to them tend to think that these clocks are unique or rare. In some cases this may be true. But 99% of the time, their clock was produced in large quantities for many years by that particular company. If a Model was popular, the company didn't just manufacture it for a year or two. In some instances these models were made with little change for decades. A good example of this is the Drop-Octagon or Schoolhouse Clock. Although made by all the major companies, most people are familiar with the Seth Thomas Schoolhouse Clock as it was the mainstay timekeeper in many schoolrooms, railroads and offices across the country. Today it is considered a classic design. Seth Thomas produced these from about 1875 to the 1940's when they were discontinued.

A customer came into my shop recently with an old clock in need of cleaning. He explained that he had inherited the clock from his grandmother, who told him it was a 150 year old one of a kind, handmade clock. He pointed out the fancy scroll carving and the glass with the design painted on the inside of the glass. Then he asked for my opinion. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I was deliberately vague about the clock. His desire for information was greater than his feelings about the clock and he persisted. Within minutes, I was able to show him a picture of his clock as it appeared in the original 1916 Factory Catalog that it first appeared in. It was a nice example of a Kitchen or Gingerbread Clock made by the Ansonia Clock Co. I pointed out that these clocks were sold to retailers in assortments of 6, all with slight differences in detail. I also pointed out that the company also had six different assortments for a total of 36 different Kitchen clocks made by that company in that year alone!! The Ansonia Clock Company in that year also had over 300 other models of clocks available in that year.

When you figure that the other seven big clock companies also produced similar clocks and catalogues, the sheer number of clocks produced was overwhelming!! This is not to belittle their value or desirability, but merely to put into perspective the overwhelming amount of clocks that must have been produced by these companies. In their heyday, every one of these companies employed hundreds of skilled workers. It is hard to comprehend the quantity produced, but I would venture to guess that more mechanical clocks were produced these 8 companies than all the rest of the mechanical clocks in the world for all time!!

After World War Two, most people thought of these clocks as "old-fashioned" and obsolete, deferring to the newer, modern electric clocks. Most of the old clocks were scrapped or dumped. My father was a Tool and Die Maker who Apprenticed and worked originally for Yale & Towne (The Lock making Company). They Closed the factory in 1954 and moved west. I can remember as a child in Stamford, Ct. every Saturday going to the town dump with things to get rid of. One day we saw a pile of literally hundreds of clocks stacked in the dump destined for destruction. I remember my father saying that they came out of his factory and that each workroom had it's own clock and they were maintained by a crew of 3 men whose job it was just to take care of and wind the clocks!

Today, all we see of this great legacy of clock making and industry is the occasional clock in an Antique Shop, one that may have been rescued from an attic, barn or junk yard. Perhaps we are lucky enough to have parents or grandparents that were too sentimental to part with the old family clock. It is a remnant of a bygone era when time seemed plentiful and worthy of our admiration and respect.

For many people, an old clock brings back comfortable memories of other times, other people and other places.



This article was written by John Anderson and was originally published in 1991 in the publication "Along 6A", Dennis, Ma.

***Just a note about the repair of certain items: As a rule, I do not take in Post World War 2 Cuckoo Clocks or Most Anniversary Clocks. This is due to the fact that the repair costs usually exceed the value of the clocks. Also, I do not do Atmos Clocks or any Pocket Watches due to the Specialized tools and training. I also cannot take the time to restore or refinish woodwork on most clocks as I can barely even keep up with repairing them. I would be glad to point you in the right direction for Cabinet Work, Dial or Glass Restoration, However.

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