Clock making in America started in Philadelphia, around 1702 when a British clockmaker, Peter Stretch emigrated there. Another craftsman, James Batterson, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1707, moving to Boston shortly afterwards, followed him out.
Quite a number of German clock makers arrived around 1750, and their influence on American clocks lasted over 100 years, particularly in small details such as the use of Lantern Pinions in their movements.
The Grandfather clock was made in America in small numbers from just after 1700, becoming more popular after 1750. Up to 1810 the movements were made of brass, often imported from Britain, after this date American mass-produced wooden movements were used, with the occasional brass movement.
Another British clockmaker, Thomas Harland, was working in Norwich, Connecticut in 1773. He had around twenty apprentices hand making clock movements, one of these, Daniel Burnap, eventually started on his own, and later trained Eli Terry, who later became the first person ever to use mass-production for clocks. A particular success was his wooden grandfather clock movement, due to the low price.
Known in America at the time as eight-day clocks or thirty hour clocks, New York imported large numbers of complete British clocks. Other cities imported movements and sometimes brass dials, and local American craftsmen made the wooden cases.
The painted dial for grandfather clocks started to be produced in Britain from 1772, and after the Revolutionary War these dials were exported to America. Ten years later American artists started producing painted dials. Two of the best, Spencer Nolan and Samuel Curtis went into partnership, Nolan and Curtis became the first major American painted dial producers, based in Boston, Mass.
Another well known artist was William Jones of Philadelphia, he worked from 1825 to around 1845, when the market for grandfather clocks collapsed, due to the large numbers of much cheaper shelf and wall clocks now being made and sold all over the country. This happened in Britain too, around the same time and for the same reason, imports of low-cost American and German clocks and a change in fashion.
Two major factors influenced the production of clocks in America, in Britain clocks of all types quite happily existed alongside each other for many years, but in America after the Revolutionary War the new spirit of free-enterprise and a sense of personal freedom meant that each new clock type to come along drove the older models out of use, so they stopped being made very quickly, in favour of the latest model.
The other major factor affecting the clock trade was that carbon steel was unknown in America before about 1850, so there were no clock springs available and weights had to be used, which of course had a major affect on clock design. A few makers used brass springs for a time, and Joseph Ives developed the “wagon spring” clock, using a small version of the same springs used on carts and carriages for suspension.
Both the brass spring and wagon spring driven clocks are now rare, and keenly sought after by collectors today.
In 1810 Eli Terry sold his clock factory to Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadley, and started to develop a new shelf clock. This clock would be complete with a case, Terry realised he could make a profit on both movement and case, and a finished clock could be sold all over America.
Buying land and a factory building in Plymouth, Conn. In Dec 1812, his new clock was in production by 1815. This clock was about the size of a Grandfather clock hood, and had a similar look with swan-neck pediments on top (often called a scroll-top) and three brass finials mounted on square blocks. Two fine columns ran vertically on both sides of the door. These features gave the clock its name, “Pillar and Scroll Clock.”
Eli Terry employed Chauncey Jerome in his new factory for a few years, and then he left around 1816 to set up a small shop for himself. Terry also had an agreement with Seth Thomas, still in the old factory bought from Terry, to make these new clocks on payment of a small royalty. Terry later claimed he never received any payments from Thomas, and they had a grand falling out over patent infringements.
The pillar and scroll clock was the first clock ever to be mass-produced, both Eli Terry and Seth Thomas produced around 12,000 clocks each in 1825. The clock sold well right through the 1820′s but by 1832 production ceased as new case styles appeared.
Three of the giants of early clock making in America, Seth Thomas, Eli Terry, and Chauncey Jerome all knew each other well, lived close together, and worked together frequently, especially when developing machinery for mass-producing clocks.
There then followed a huge variety of case styles, still the same movement inside, although by 1840 the wooden movement had stopped being used for the most part.
The “half column and splat” clock appeared about 1831, with a robust fuss-free case that did not damage in transit as easily as the delicate pillar and scroll clock, it rapidly replaced the previous model.
There were almost as many clock makers as case styles, to name them all is outside the scope of a short history, (there were16 clock factories just in Bristol) but it is worth mentioning the seven major clock manufacturing companies who grew over time, all in Connecticut:-
Seth Thomas, New Haven, Ingraham, Ansonia, Waterbury, Gilbert, and Welch/Sessions. The Ansonia Clock Company alone had 45 different models and 14 different movements available in 1870 – - – -
I will finish by listing just a few of the models available from 1810 to 1910: -
Pillar and scroll, column and splat, the banjo clock, shelf clock, beehive clock, steeple clock, sharp gothic, four column steeple, the Ogee, the double candlestick, cottage clock, the Venetian, the gingerbread, the drop-dial wall clock, the octagon drop-dial, the regulator, the Waterbury Augusta, and on and on – - – - – -
Although mass-produced, many of these clocks are beautiful works of art, and well worth considering collecting, most of them are reasonably priced due to the sheer numbers made and sold in America and Europe.