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The Grandfather of All Clocks

By M. Andrews


A George III mahogany tall case clock with Chippendale style broken pediment, rosette, scalloped front door and floral pattern, late 18th century, arched brass dial marked Lambert, Berwick, two subsidary dials. Ht. 85 in.

According to legend, this particular clock stood in the corner of the George Hotel in Piercebridge, North Yorkshire, England, a hotel run by two brothers. It kept accurate time until one brother died, and when the second brother passed away at the age of 90, the clock stopped completely. Henry Clay Work, an American composer, wrote this song in 1878 after a visit to the hotel, and perhaps "created" the grandfather clock. The style that it described, however, had existed for over 200 years, having first being produced by Ahasuerus Fromenteel of England in 1658.

The official name for these tall timekeeping devices is subject to debate. Collectors refer to them as longcase clocks, and in the United States the term is tallcase. The expression grandfather is seen as too colloquial. Ernest Edwardes, however, defended the term, in his book The Grandfather Clock. He stated that neither of these terms was original and therefore no more valid than grandfather. At the time that the clock style was developed, they were referred to as Pendulum, Pandalome and Coffin clocks. What is left is choosing to use a term that is most identifiable--and everyone recognizes a grandfather clock.

In North America, the grandfather clock enjoyed huge popularity. Before the American Revolution, the grandfather clock was the most popular American-made timepiece. American clockmakers were, for the most part, Englishmen working far from the major centre of London, although their designs did differ from those of York and Liverpool. American grandfather clocks were not as rough as the British provincials, but not as elegant as London's best. American clockmakers did not create crude oak cases, nor did they utilize veneers to create complex patterns. American cases tended to be made from mahogany, walnut, cherry or other fruitwood.

Production was being carried out in the colonies, but it is often difficult to identify true American pieces. Some of this difficulty arises because, according to British law, Americans were not to engage in manufacturing. The result was that many clockmakers were reluctant to sign their work. As the Revolution approached, however, there was a push to "buy American" and clockmakers began to advertise locally-made grandfather clocks.


A mahogany tall clock, c. 1790-1820, that is typically canadian with its mixture of many styles, portait break arch and three urn finials. marked G. & H. Bellrose, Trois Rivieres, Quebec.

In attempting to trace the source of a grandfather clock, it is important to remember that it was probably made by two people--the cabinetmaker and the clockmaker. Either, both or neither of these names may appear on the clock--or the name of the seller may appear. Quite likely the movement is British in origin and the case is American.

Another scenario is that the case originally held an 18th century American-made movement, but now contains a British one. American-made parts are and were quite rare. Therefore, if the clock required repair, it was easier to replace the entire movement. This is especially true after 1770 when new stamping processes were developed in Britain and factories were set up in Birmingham. The result was that most movement parts had their source in England.

Although the movement's origin may be difficult to trace, the case will probably prove easier. American cabinetmaking has been studied extensively, making it relatively easy to identify styles, makers and dates.

Before the Revolution, American-made clocks were comparable to the fine clocks in London. Because American makers were conservative in design but high on quality, there are very few lavish or crude American grandfather clocks. As the rural economy was based on farming, life was regulated by the sun and clocks were generally unnecessary. Those people who wanted a clock could afford the best. After the Revolution, however, the economy became more industrialized and time more important. The result was that both production and demand increased. In terms of style, American clocks became more utilitarian and less fashionable.

In general, the inner workings of grandfather clocks remained consistent over the 50 years prior to the Revolution. The works were made of brass with some iron. They tended to be elegant clocks with complex movements, showing the hour, minutes, seconds, day of the month and phases of the moon, and they sounded the hours.

The style of the cases followed the furniture designs of the period, but generally lagged behind by a number of years. The first of these styles was William and Mary. This style flourished in Europe between 1650 and 1700 and in American furniture between 1690 and 1730. In clockmaking it continued until 1750.

The Queen Anne style was popular in furniture design from 1730–1750, but continued to be seen in grandfather clocks until after the Revolution. Whereas the William and Mary style was very heavy, Queen Anne was delicate and lighter. Perhaps the most recognizable change was the addition of a break arch or semi-circular area above the rectangular face--usually containing nameplate information, a dial showing seconds, a decorative painting or a hand to control striking or silence. The common woods for Queen Anne were mahogany, walnut and cherry.

During this time, Newport, Rhode Island was one of the centres of American cabinetmaking. Newport makers incorporated richly carved shells as decoration over concave and convex sections of their clocks (usually over the middle section door). The Newport approach was rediscovered in the late 1800s, and reproductions became popular. These are generally very good and can lead to confusion in dating. The main difference is that of quality--nineteenth century makers did not pay as close attention to detail, and the works of the later pieces were made of thinly stamped metal.

Chippendale was the most elaborate of the three styles and is relatively rare in the United States as makers were generally too conservative to fully exploit the style. The clocks that were created date between 1760 and 1780. These clocks are characterized by broken pediments over the hood and arched dials. The carving is elaborate and overall can be described as flamboyant.

This style was most lavishly created in Philadelphia where they favoured the high style of London and its Rococo patterns. Edward Duffield was one of the most important Philadelphia makers. After the Revolution, clock production increased dramatically across the United States. This growth was concentrated in certain areas, however, specifically Connecticut. The grandfather clock retained its popularity for the next 40 years, but by the 1830s fashionable homes contained shelf clocks.

This increase in demand led to the development of inexpensive, simple clocks, often constructed with wooden works. These wooden works existed as early as 1750, but became more prevalent after the Revolution, and were made exclusively in Connecticut.

Eli Terry was one of the most important makers of these wooden movements. His cases were simple and conservative and generally resembled pre-Revolutionary styles. He used urn finials and fretwork topping the pediments. The urns are neoclassical and the flatness of the heart-shape frets is post-Revolutionary (pre-Revolutionary being thicker and more complex).

Many customers bought only the works and hung them on a shelf. Later they would make a case, leading to difficulty in dating the piece. Sometimes a wooden dial or a papered wooden dial was substituted for the usual brass or painted sheet iron. Between 1890 and 1900, reproductions also used the paper dials so one must be careful. Authenticating is also difficult because makers tended not to put their names on the inexpensive wooden dial clocks.

The post-Revolutionary clocks are often difficult to distinguish from pre-Revolutionary examples. As rural production expanded, the artisans followed the designs they had seen on earlier clocks. As a general rule early-looking, crude and simple clocks tend to be post-Revolutionary. They are characterized by brass dials, lightweight parts, delicate cut (indicating that they were quickly made), quickly made applied ornaments to the dial, and cases with steep pediments, flat tops or William and Mary domes that look pre-1750 but moldings are thin. The cases were often stripped-down versions of Queen Anne and Chippendale styles. The moldings tended to be small scale and characterized by an overall flatness. An example of such a clockmaker was Nathaniel Dominy IV of East Hampton, Long Island.

The American Revolution also had an impact on clockmaking in Canada. The United Empire Loyalists who left the United States and found homes in Canada brought with them their clocks, their styles and their tools. Additionally, Canada provided a market for the growing production coming out of the United States. Many people made their living peddling American grandfather clocks to the Canadian population. In fact, the clocks most often sold in Canada were made in the United States.

Despite this influx of American-made clocks, a small Canadian clockmaking industry did exist. Unlike the industry in the United States and in Europe, however, very few distinct styles developed. As most manufacturing was done by British and American immigrants, they adopted the styles from their native lands.

In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, clockmaking developed in a number of ways. There was a heavy influence by the Loyalists who began arriving in 1783. These people tended to be upper middle class and among them were many well-to-do tradespeople who quickly set up shop. Additionally, the communities of Halifax and Saint John were ports, where artisans were needed to fix the marine instruments. Clockmaking was an early adaptation.

Noted firms in Halifax were Tulles, Pallister and McDonald, who manufactured grandfather clocks between 1810 and 1812, and the Troup family, who made clocks between 1805 and 1856. Alexander Troup's clocks were characterized by serpentine broken cornices, mahogany veneer over pine and some maple string inlays. It is thought that many of these cases were made by James Thompson and that the movements were British.

Two other important clockmakers in Nova Scotia were Charles Geddes and John Geddie. Geddes made clocks between 1783 and 1807 in Halifax, and Geddie lived in Pictou from 1817 to 1843. Geddie's clocks tended to be mahogany, but a few pine examples exist. His dials were characterized by paintings of ships, hunting, portraits of ladies and landscapes. There is debate as to whether he made or imported the movements. There is considerable evidence (tools/parts found in his shop, and word of mouth from relatives) that he did manufacture entire clocks himself, a rarity in Canadian clockmaking.

In New Brunswick, the end of the War of 1812 brought new settlers and led to an increase in the need for clocks. Thomas Nisbet came to Saint John in 1813 from Scotland and became one of the finest cabinetmakers in New Brunswick. Nisbet's daughter Sally married William Hutchinson in 1823. Four generations of the Hutchinson family made grandfather clocks in the area, importing the movements from Great Britain and employing local cabinetmakers (eg. Thomas Nisbet) to make the cabinets.

Moses Barrett was one of the most well-known clock traders in Nova Scotia. He purchased wooden movements from Silas Hoadley in Connecticut and made the cases or bought complete clocks from Connecticut. He then added labels to these clocks saying "manufactured at ______ by Moses Barrett."

In what is now Ontario, grandfather clocks tended to be simplified versions of Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton styles. Between 1815 and 1840, however, fashion became more important and cabinets began to resemble more closely the Grecian trends of French Empire, English Regency and American Federal. Mahogany became the wood of choice for fine clocks. Many Pennsylvanian Mennonites settled in the Niagara Peninsula, Waterloo County and York County, bringing with them their clock styles. The movements were mostly British and the cases were made from local wood--wild cherry, walnut or white pine.

In Niagara these clockmakers were Samuel Moyer, Jacob Grobb, Daniel Simmerman and Henry Simmerman.

Whereas Maritime and Ontario grandfather clocks were heavily influenced in style by the Americans and Europeans, a unique style did develop in Quebec. The distinguishing characteristic was a tapered middle section. Makers of this distinctive case were William Baxter, Thomas Cathro, Thomas Drysdale and William McMaster.

According to D.B. Webster in The Book of Canadian Antiques, the way to tell if furniture is Canadian in origin is to eliminate other possibilities. In terms of grandfather clocks, most of the hardware is going to be British at least until the mid-1800s, when American imports increased. If the movement is wood, it is from Connecticut.

The wood that comprises the cabinet is important in deciding where the clock was made. Unfortunately, just because a wood is native to Canada does not mean that the case was manufactured there. Figured maple, native to Canada, was exported to Great Britain, just as mahogany and cut veneers were imported to Canada from England.

Combinations of wood are often helpful is determining origin. For example, if the primary wood is mahogany and the secondary wood (used for frames, backs, glue blocks and under veneers) is hard oak, the clock is probably British, as oak was used rarely as the secondary wood in North America. If the secondary wood is white pine, the clock is not English. If the movement is British in origin, the clock is probably Canadian. If there are four or five secondary woods in the cabinet, the clock is probably American, as that practice was virtually unknown in Canada.

If the clock is of mahogany, and is Canadian in origin, it was probably manufactured in a port city as they had access to imported exotic woods and veneers. In Quebec, this means Montreal, Quebec City or Trois Rivieres. The wood was too heavy and travel was too difficult to reach rural areas. As a result, native hardwoods like maple and butternut were used outside port cities.

In general, well-made grandfather clocks have not changed much over the last three centuries. Although case styles have changed with the times and individually cast parts have been replaced by mass produced ones, the basic technology that improved timekeeping in 1658 Britain has remained the same until today. In North America, the American Revolution had a huge impact on clockmaking. The industrialization, population movement and expansion that followed increased the importance of time and the need for accurate timekeeping devices.

Marnie Andrews has launched four magazines, the first of which was Antiques! She is a Toronto based writer, editor and publishing consultant. Her new collectibles column with Homemakers magazine will begin with the February/March 2006 issue. She can be reached at: marni@trolltales.com. Back to top