Something about the faces of tall case clocks, with moons serenely waxing and waning above world maps or ships sailing out to sea under windy clouds aloft, is as endlessly fascinating as the steady
tick-tock and chimes on the quarter-hours are comforting.
If you are fortunate enough to have childhood memories of waiting while the weights were adjusted and the correct time checked against an elder relative’s pocket watch, or even a parent’s chronographic wristwatch, perhaps this blog is for you.
The form of the tall case clock, commonly known today as a “grandfather’s clock”, developed in response to technological advances in clock making during the late seventeenth century. Use of pendulums had improved accuracy in time keeping, but their wide arcs made a clock with a long pendulum somewhat impractical since it could not be fitted easily inside a case.
The invention of the anchor escapement, which used an anchor-shaped mechanism having prongs (called pallets) on the ends of its arms to alternately catch and release a vertical wheel with pointed teeth on it, allowed power supplied to the wheel by weights (or a spring) to be released in small regular bursts. This reduced a long pendulum’s swing to a much shorter arc that could fit inside a narrow case; less oscillation and lower air drag also greatly improved accuracy and reduced the power needed to keep the pendulum swinging and the wear on the clock’s movement. Most tall case clocks had a “seconds pendulum” about 39 inches long with a swing that lasted one second, hence its name.
A tall case was needed so that there would be enough space for the weights to drop. In America, springs had to be imported until about 1835-40 and were very expensive, so weights were typically used. (When the capability to manufacture springs in this country developed, tall case clocks quickly fell out of favor since shelf clocks were much cheaper to produce; it was not until the height of the Victorian era, after about 1870-1880, that big fancy hall clocks, usually with glass in the trunk door and beautiful brass weights and pendulums, became popular again.) Because the weights that provided power to the pendulum were heavy, the weight of the clock mechanism was better supported by a floor-standing pedestal rather than hanging it on a wall.
The tall case clock cabinet is made up of three sections. The top, called the “hood” or “bonnet”, contains the clock works and its face. The middle, called the “trunk” or “waist”, contains the pendulum and weights. The bottom section is the “base” and its height brings the clock face up to eye level. The case of the clock shown at upper left was made by William Lowry, a cabinetmaker in Frankfort, Kentucky, around 1805-1810.
The inner works of many tall case clocks of the early 1800s include imported English-made components, which reached Kentucky by way of trade with major urban centers such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The bell of the clock shown at right bears the mark of George Ainsworth, a Lancashire maker of clock parts and assembled clock works. The clock’s works were likely assembled by Thomas McMurray, a Lexington clock and watch maker who had worked previously in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Judging by his inscription on the clock’s seat board, McMurray apparently operated as Asa Blanchard’s subcontractor. Blanchard, well known as one of Kentucky’s earliest silversmiths, also advertised his Lexington shop’s ability to perform watch and clock work. It is Blanchard’s own signature that is on the back of this clock’s dial. (Only two other clocks bearing Blanchard’s signature are known; one is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) However, the Kentucky cabinetmaker who made this magnificent case, alas, remains anonymous.