It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Clock

Well, by now, it might be. But there were no grandfather clocks anywhere during the Regency because the song by which they acquired their name had yet to be written. However, by the beginning of the Regency, nearly every affluent household, and some more prosperous middle-class households, were in possession of a very expensive, free-standing clock in a tall wooden case resembling a coffin.

This symbol of prosperity would begin to loose its status even before the debut of the song which changed its name. By the beginning of the reign of William IV, brother of the erstwhile Prince Regent, the Industrial Revolution had set its sights on that most complicated device, the clock. From about 1830, most clocks were no longer made by hand, they were made by machine. Other technological factors had also come into play which reduced the consequence of these once purposeful clocks.

The development and importance of the long-case clock during the Regency and how its name was changed …

Where you lived during the Regency determined what you called these clocks. If you lived in America, you usually called them "tall-case clocks." But if you lived in England, you called them "long-case clocks." There were some on both sides of the Atlantic who called them "coffin clocks" due to their resemblance to that funereal box. But regardless of how they were called, the clock was the most sophisticated machine in the world until well into the eighteenth century, and long-case clocks were the perhaps the most complicated of any clock, with the exception of the pocket watch.

The long-case clock was first introduced into England in the second half of the seventeenth century and remained a primarily English, and later, American, concept. It grew out of the efforts of clock-makers to improve the bracket clock by lengthening the pendulum and increasing the drop of the weights which provided the power. It was at this time that Thomas Tompion, perhaps the greatest English clock-maker of the seventeenth century, among other improvements, introduced a more legible dial with a break-arch and a more decorative hour-hand.

The works of some long-case clocks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were made of wood. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the works of most clocks in England were made of brass. There were still clocks made in America at this time that had wooden works. Regardless of the material from which the works were made, all of them were made by hand during the Regency, as they had been for all the centuries before. There were two types of movement which might be used in a long-case clock, the eight-day movement and the 30-hour movement. Both movements incorporated chimes, on the hour and the half-hour. To keep the clocks running, they had to be wound regularly. The eight-day clocks were wound once a week, while the less expensive 30-hour clocks must be wound once day. Eight-day clocks had two separate driving mechanisms, and thus had two keyholes, while the 30-day clocks needed only one keyhole. Yet some clock-makers added a second, false keyhole, to their 30-day clocks for customers who wished to give the impression they owned the more expensive eight-day clock.

The cases of long-case clocks were made of many kinds of woods, usually the woods which were fashionable at the time the clock was made. Mahogany was popular during the last half of the eighteenth century and right through the Regency for better quality clock cases. Walnut was a bit old-fashioned by the early nineteenth century, but it was durable and less expensive than mahogany. Satin-wood, cherry and maple were used, either of solid boards or as veneers on less expensive woods like pine or deal. Japanned or lacquered clock cases had been popular in the eighteenth century, but they had fallen out of favor by the Regency, though there would still be clocks with such cases to be found in older houses.

During the decade of the Regency, as had been the practice since long-case clocks were first introduced, they were typically placed in the main hall of a home, or, in a very grand house, on the first landing on the main staircase. In this way, the chimes could be heard throughout the house, and, if the clock was placed on the landing, it could be seen from both the first and second floors. This was also a location which would ensure that any visitors to the house would see that the family could afford this expensive time-piece. The movement of the long-case clock was more accurate than that of any bracket, mantle or carriage clock, so any other clocks in the house were typically set according to the time of the long-case clock. In most cases, the butler in a grand house would have the responsibility of winding the clock on schedule. In a more modest home, the home-owner would wind the clock himself. It was a special treat for many children to be allowed to help wind the long-case clock.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the break-arch dial had become widespread. And it was in this semi-circular area above the main clock dial that other very important information was provided to the clock owner. In most long-case clocks the break-arch included a display of the phases of the moon, and in some more expensive and sophisticated clocks, the movement of the tides. Though the presentation of either the moon’s phases or the tidal movements was usually quite decorative, this information was often of critical importance during the Regency, just as it had been for centuries before. Though gas-lights had been installed in the better areas of London even before the Regency, there was no consistent roadway lighting outside the Metropolis. Thus, if a journey to or from a country estate was planned, most people would try to time it with the full moon, especially in the winter months. Thereby, they would be able to travel into the night, and despite the shorter days, have enough light to safely travel the country roads. In the days before steam engines, when ships were at the mercy of the winds and the tides, it was critical to know the movements of the tides when planning sea travel. In some less expensive long-case clocks, there was a mechanical calendar in the break-arch. Though less sophisticated, this was quite useful for those who did not travel frequently over country roads or across the seas.

The long-case clock was a very expensive investment, and most owners would schedule an annual visit from the clock-maker to clean and fine-tune this complex and delicate mechanism. What is known today only to avid clock collectors and curators of museum clock collections is that after each visit, the clock-maker would note the date of his visit with a brief summary of any work done on the inside of the main door of the pendulum cavity of the case. These notes were made in pencil, and over time might eventually fill up the inside of the door. These notes are an invaluable record for horological scholars, but they are also of interest to cultural historians.

Long-case clocks continued to be called long-case clocks until well into the reign of Queen Victoria. It was not until 1876 that an American, Henry Clay Work, published a song about a long-case clock in the George Hotel in Yorkshire. This song, "My Grandfather’s Clock," was inspired by the story of two brothers named Jenkins, who had owned and run the hotel for many years. They had a long-case clock in the hotel lobby which kept perfect time, until one of the brothers died. Then it began to slow down, and stopped completely, never to run again, when the second brother died. The song was a great hit in both England and America, and it was the influence of that song which caused all long-case and tall-case clocks to be called grandfather clocks ever after.

Long-case clocks during the Regency, as they had been for decades before, were all made by hand, both the movement and the case. Therefore, they were very expensive, thus making them a status symbol for their owners. They were typically placed in the front hall of a home, or on the first staircase landing in a grand house, where they could be seen not only by members of the household, but also by any visitors, who were meant to be suitably impressed. Many of these clocks also provided information on the phases of the moon and the movement of the tides, which could be of critical importance to travellers. But by 1830, all of that began to change. Many long-case clocks were then made by machine, reducing their price, and thus their significance as a status symbol. In addition, road travel was improving, reducing the need to know the phases of the moon for trip planning, and train travel was making its debut. Steam was beginning to power ships, reducing their dependence on the wind and the tides. Thus, before the mid-nineteenth century, the long-case clock was no longer appreciated by its owners as a status symbol or the essential source of astronomical information it had been during the years of the Regency.

The next time you read about a long-case clock in a Regency novel, you will now know its great importance to the household to which it belonged. If a character calls it a tall-case clock, you will know they are from America, or spent much time there. And if the author calls it a grandfather clock, you will know they have not done their homework, as these clocks were not referred to in that way until the mid-1870s.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Clock

  1. Very interesting and useful article. I have studied and restored longcase and other weight-driven clocks for many years so am happy to answer any questions or to help to identify and any such clock that readers have. A few things I could add. There were always people who could afford spring-driven clocks during and before the heyday of the British longcase clock (about 1680-1800) but although they were more portable than weight-driven clocks they were mostly relatively inaccurate because of the difficulty in making reliable springs. So for a home, a weight-driven clock was always a more robust and accurate timekeeper. The early version of this was the lantern clock, which had a short pendulum or a balance wheel. The invention of the long (seconds) pendulum by Huygens enormously improved the accuracy. This needed a case to protect the longer pendulum from damage, which is the main reason why the long case was introduced.
    I’m not sure about the brothers and the grandfather clock story, but it does appear that H.C. Work got the idea from seeing the longcase clock in the hotel in Piercebridge, which incidentally is in County Durham.
    Better stop now – you got me on a subject I don’t tend to stop talking about!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You remind me of the “horologicals,” the members of the Irish Horological Society whom I met when I lived in Ireland. There is something about clocks and the intricacies of their works which can really capture the interest of those who appreciate such things. I imagine you know that poor Louis XVI was also fascinated by clocks and even made some himself.

      I, myself, am particularly fascinated by the works of early watches, especially those of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some of them are so exquisitely engraved with beautiful patterns, often studded with tiny jewels, yet all of this beauty is hidden from nearly everyone, with the exception of the owner and the clock makers who work on them. As you say, best not to get me started!


  2. “From about 1830, most clocks were no longer made by hand, they were made by machine”. Well, it depends on what you call a machine. A seventeenth century lantern clock might have been made entirely by hand, including the wheels, but mostly the wheels for longcase clocks were made on a wheel-cutting engine and the arbors turned by hand. Where about 1830 comes in is that by then a clockmaker would not usually make the clock himself. By then, factories were established, mainly in Birmingham. The movements were still mostly hand-made, but more production-line methods were used. Most longcase clocks of this age had the movement and dial bought-in, and maybe also the case as well, and the local clockmaker assembled and sold it, with his name painted on the dial.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I did not go into too much detail about the manufacture of clocks after 1830, since that is out of the scope I wished to discuss. But what you wrote is quite accurate, there was still a lot of hand work involved in the making of clocks after that date, but the process was much different. My reading indicates that most of the parts were stamped out by machine, then finished and assembled by hand. This work was apparently done by workers with considerably less skill than a fully trained clockmaker, who therefore received significantly lower wages. But this also made these clocks more affordable for the middle classes. That is what killed their perception as an upscale, prestige possession.

      In the 1830s, and for a few more decades of the nineteenth century, things made by machine were seen as “modern,” which at that point was a positive. Then, as many products made by machine became slipshod and of poor quality, there was a backlash against things made by machine, which spawned the Arts and Crafts movement. I think in the early days of augmenting production by machine, the aesthetic of the craftsman still prevailed, but as workers became what were essentially assembly-bots, they lost pride in their products as they struggled to meet their production quotas. Nowadays, we have machines making machines. Who knows were it will go?



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