By Cheryl Hackett
How did you count down the New Year? Did you see the ball drop in New York’s Times Square? Did you tap your smart phone and watch digital numbers switch from 11:59 to 12:00? Or did you listen to twelve melodic strikes resonating from an heirloom?
For me and for many collectors, antique clocks are like potato chips; you can never have just one. The passion for collecting clocks usually begins so innocently. We come across an old clock in an antiques shop and think to ourselves, “Wouldn’t that look nice on my mantel.” Unaware of what is about to happen, we bring the clock home, polish the rosewood case, admire the reverse painting on the glass tablet, attach the brass pendulum, adjust the delicate clock hands, insert an adorable key, and wind. Then, as we listen to the scratching of the gears, the hypnotic tick tock of the pendulum and the strike of the hour, a funny thing happens. We recognize that we did not buy a simple timepiece, we purchased a treasure, an object of art. And just like those potato chips, we crave another. Before you know it, we are combing antique venues hoping to find our next clock.
Although clocks, or instruments used to mark time have been around for centuries, it was not until the early 19th century that clock making became an industry in the United States. Case clocks, mantel clocks, shelf clocks and wall clocks were produced in a variety of styles, sizes and price ranges. Many families during the 18th and 19th centuries owned at least one clock that was proudly displayed in the most prominent area of the house such as a foyer or formal parlor. During that time, a clock was considered a prized possession. One family member, usually the father, was designated the keeper of the clock and was responsible for winding the timepiece whose design artfully combined craftsmanship with technology.
If you are looking for a new collectible to beautify your home in 2015, why not consider an antique clock? An antique clock is destined to become a family heirloom and it is important to do some homework before you make your first investment.
Spending Time at Old Sturbridge Village
If you would like to learn about antique clocks and see some of the finest clocks in the United States, visit the J. Cheney Wells Clock Gallery at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. The gallery opened in 1982 to house the Village’s extensive collection of early New England timepieces. Joel Cheney Wells was an avid clock collector, who along with his brother Albert Bachellor Wells were the founders of what became Old Sturbridge Village. The exhibit contains dozens of clocks including many tall case clocks. Visitors love to be in the gallery on the hour to listen to the old clocks strike the hour. Old Sturbridge Village is the largest outdoor history museum in the Northeast. The museum depicts a rural New England community in the 1830s, a very pivotal time of social and economic change in America. Visitors tour over 40 original and carefully reproduced buildings, including homes, meetinghouses, a district school, country store, bank, working farm, three water-powered mills, trade shops, and exhibit galleries – all situated on more than 200 scenic acres, complete with heritage breed farm animals. Authentically costumed staff demonstrate the work of the early 1800s and provide context and explanation to visitors. Old Sturbridge Village’s winter hours run from January 7 through March 31, 2015. The Village and Clock Gallery are open on Wednesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Old Sturbridge Village will also host their annual WinterFest on Saturday, February 14 through Sunday, February 22, 2015 from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Making a Federal Case
Architect John Grosvenor and I are currently restoring a Federal home in Newport, Rhode Island. The home has six fireplaces and we’d like to expand our collection of mantel clocks. I recently had the opportunity to interview Tom Kelleher, Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts at Old Sturbridge Village. Our particular interest in the Federal period prompted me to ask Tom about styles of clocks that were popular during the early 1800s. Tom explained, “Tall case clocks with brass works in hardwood cases were luxury items proudly displayed in the homes of prosperous farmers, merchants, and professionals. Shelf clocks, some of which were also called dwarf tall case clocks, were still pretty expensive but a bit more affordable, as were patent timepieces and other wall clocks. Increasingly by the 1800’s wooden-works clocks with or without country-made painted cases brought clocks into more and more homes.”
Tom suggested where collectors could buy Federal Period clocks in reasonably good condition and working order. He said, “Fine arts auction houses such as Skinner’s and Christie’s often have them but so do lesser but broader auctions including e-Bay. Collector’s Weekly is also a good place to browse.”
Tom added, “There are also some dedicated dealers such as Gary Sullivan and many others. A Google search of Antique Clock Dealers brings up a lot. Some look good but I can vouch for Gary. No matter what, ask questions first and always caveat emptor!”
Tom also shared images of some of the exceptional Federal Period case clocks and mantel clocks showcased at Old Sturbridge Village. They include:
Tall clock crafted by Aaron Willard of Roxbury, Mass. in 1800. The clock is distinguished by a mahogany case, French feet, quarter columns with brass caps, bases and inserts, arched hood with pierced fret, ball and spike top ornaments, 13-inch dial with Roman numerals, and an eight day brass striking movement having a wooden pendulum rod.
Tall case clock made by Gardner Parker of Westborough, Mass. in 1810. The clock features a cherrywood case with plain bracket feet and scalloped skirt, lime and mahogany oval inlay, arched hood, ball and spike finials, eight day brass and steel, rack and snail striking movement, recoil escapement, sheet iron dial, seconds and calendar circles, and rocking ship in arch.
Mantel clock made by Eli Terry & Sons of Plymouth, Connecticut c. 1823-1833. The clock is characterized by a mahogany pillar and scroll case with one day, striking wooden works, urn shaped brass top ornaments, painted glass panel with etched gold border enclosing chapel and memorial monument in cemetery, painted wood dial with Arabic figures, dial decorated with basket of fruit, and count wheel strike and recoil escapement.
Shelf clock by David Wood of Newburyport, Mass. made in 1810. The clock features a weightpowered, brass two-day timepiece movement with fall-off strike, recoil escapement, mahogany and mahogany veneered case with birch veneer panel and holly, ebony and boxwood banded inlay and stringing, Ogee feet, sliding hood with arched top, pierced scroll fret, vase and spike finials, and painted arched top dial with Roman numerals. “Painted by Spencer Nolen, Clock face painter” appears on the back of the dial.
Marking Time with Jan Slee
Jan Slee and his wife Carrie Slee live in an historic 18th century home in Newport, R.I. An impressive collection of antique clocks are thoughtfully displayed on mantels, shelves and furniture throughout their home. The couple first began collecting clocks in 1973 when they were travelling in England. At that time, the US dollar was strong and they discovered that clocks made in the Connecticut River Valley during the 18th and 19th centuries were very reasonably priced at antique shops located on London’s famed King’s Road and Portobello Road. Since then they have acquired 65 clocks–restoring some of them along the way. Jan is also the steward of another 100 antique clocks that he plans to repair or restore. Jan is a highly skilled woodworker who built a steeple clock for a solitary antique clock door he discovered. Jan’s craftsmanship is so exquisite that the newly crafted timepiece is often mistaken for an antique —perhaps the highest compliment.
The Slees’ collection includes a wonderful variety of antique steeple, column, beehive, calendar Ogee and mini Ogee clocks made by notable American clockmakers such as Seth Thomas, Chauncey Jerome, Elias Ingraham and William L. Gilbert. When asked what makes antique clocks so appealing, Jan simply said, “I’m a wood man. I love the clocks’ beauty and elegance. They are also a collectible that I can fix.”
Jan also explained, “Clock prices have dropped about 50% in recent years, so now is the perfect time for an entry-level collector to buy a clock.” He added, “Ogee clocks are well priced today. They were originally known as the dollar clock when they were first sold in the 1860s.” Jan said, “First time collectors can find antique clocks at flea markets, antique shops and on EBay. But member websites such as The National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors (www.nawcc.org) often prove to be the most valuable resource for collectors.”
Time for a New Year’s Resolution
From personal experience, I can assure you that collecting clocks is indeed time well spent. My collection includes a pair of Ogee clocks, a walnut gingerbread clock, a rosewood cottage clock, and an Arts & Crafts clock. By next year, we hope that each of the mantels in our newly restored Federal home will be graced by clocks that simultaneously welcome 2016 with a symphony of strikes and chimes.
To follow my blog about the 1811 Federal Home Architect John Grosvenor and I are rejuvenating in Newport, R.I. visit: Homes of The Brave.