Monday, August 30, 2010
A Question of Time
QUESTION: I have inherited a very plain tall clock made in Philadelphia. How can I tell how old it is?
ANSWER: To tell the age of a tall-case clock, or grandfather clock as it’s more commonly known, you need to first look at the dial. The early ones at first showed 24-30 hours. Owners wound them at the end of that time by pulling the driving cord down.
In the earliest clocks—those dating from the 17th to early 18th centuries—the hour circle appears in a silvered ring with a doubled circle appearing within the numeral circle.
Many old clocks have only an hour hand. Some have both an hour and a minute hand. Even though clockmakers had used minute hands since 1670, most clocks, except the most expensive ones, didn’t have them. Early tall-case clockmakers gave their hands a fine finish and often made them the most decorative part of the clock. The hour hand was often the most elaborate and the second hand, if the clock had one, was sometimes long and graceful. Later, when clockmakers introduced white dials, the hour and minute hands became even more ornate and some even had a smaller second hand.
Originally, tall-case clockmakers made their dials of metal with a matt center circle. By the mid-17th century, they added ornamentation around the edge of this matted center, engraving birds or leaves to form a border showing the days of the month. They brightly burnished this date ring as well as the rings surrounding the winding holes. Silvered dials, containing no separate circle for the hours and minutes, appeared in 1750. Instead of a matted center circle, these dials featured an engraved overall pattern in the center circle. Many early tall-case clocks also had a small separate dial showing the days of the week.
Clockmakers usually only made the works of tall-case clocks. They subcontracted the making of the cases to coffin makers, who used this as supplemental income when business was slow. During the second half of the 17th century, casemakers employed walnut to build mostly plain cases. The Dutch introduced marquetry to the fronts of the clock cases, using woods of different colors and grains. Mahogany didn’t come into general use for tall-case clocks until about 1716. At first, casemakers imported it from Spain, then after that supply ran out, from Brazil.
Before 1730, the doors of most tall-case clocks were rectangular, but around that time casemakers included an arch in them to match the arched dials. The earliest clocks didn’t open with a door. Instead, the entire hood–the top part of the clock–slid backwards revealing the works.
For more information, read “Grandfather Time” and also visit the Web site for Bowers Watch and Clock Repair and read about the works of tall-case clocks in their clock section.