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Making Peace with Cuckoo Clocks

By Jeanne Schinto

Originally appeared in Shenandoah, published by Washington & Lee University, Vol. 50, No. 3, Fall 2000.

Where the cuckoo clock was born, Chekov died. That seems to be the sorry crux of it. Never mind the span of over two centuries between the two events. I'm suspended over the precipice, looking down at the gulf between them--Chekov on one side, failing, finally expiring; cuckoos on the other, reproducing, rising, their doors flying open in unison, and the little birds together crying out their two-note-song that earned them their place of dubious honor in the annals of clockmaking. "Cuckoo! cuckoo!" I despair of finding enough shoes in the world to throw at all of them.

The cuckoo's place of origin is not where Orson Welles put it in 1949, incidentally. If you know the famous line from The Third Man, forget it or revise it in your bank of movie memories. "In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed--they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance," Welles says in the film version of Graham Greene's novel. "In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!" Welles later claimed that the speech was based on a fragment of an old Hungarian play. But the scene of the horological crime wasn't Switzerland; it was the Black Forest of southwestern Germany.

We are told by those who sell cuckoo clocks today that Anton Ketterer invented the first one, in 1670. But all his clock did was make the bird call on the hour, the result of two little bellows of leather and wood or paper and wood; there was as yet no carved replica popping out of a triggered door. Michael Dilger has been credited with adding that feature, and since his dates are 1717-91, it was an "improvement" that came a few generations later.

The existence of these men is unverified, however, merely agreed upon by manufacturers of today's cuckoos. And horologists, who do the serious clock histories in this world, don't seem much interested in getting to the truth about the clock's birth, if information even exists. In the library of my horologist husband I noted that, compared to the number of words written on, say, tall-case clocks, there isn't a lot on cuckoos, not even in the fifty years' worth of articles in the official bulletin of the national clock collector association in the country whose people are unofficially said to buy more cuckoos than anybody else--the United States.

What is it in our character that attracts us to a bird who lives inside a clock and makes that annoying sound twenty-four times a day? My parents weren't the type to buy me the usual icons of a happy childhood. They tried them out on my older sister first, and weren't inclined to repeat their mistakes. So she is the one who got a Cinderella watch, majorette's baton … and a cuckoo. But how is it that we have taken this up as a symbol of juvenile bliss? For it is a curious one, considering that deep within the nature of the actual animal is an instinct to abandon its young. The common gray cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) of Europe makes no nest. Instead, it lays an egg in the nest of a bird of a similar species. The foster mother sits on it along with her own eggs. When the baby cuckoo is born, it is fed by that mother, not its own. In this way another shameless, so-called "nest parasite" is introduced to family living cuckoo-style. Sometimes it throws the other babies out, leaving itself no competitors for its adoptive mother's care and attention.

In a reversal of sorts, an abandoned cuckoo clock made in the 1970s was left with us a couple of years ago. Our neighbor had noticed it on the sidewalk in somebody's trash, and although she didn't have any use for it, she thought my husband, Bob, the clockmaker might. And he dutifully took it into his workshop, but hasn't rushed to restore it. "These newer ones are the worst combination of cheap and complicated," says Bob, who generally refuses cuckoo-clock repair business. "They weren't meant to be fixed." And those rare clockmaker friends of his who do accept them merely rip out the old movement and replace it with a new one.

Cuckoos are powered by weights hanging on chains that descend over a day's time, tempting many a house cat. Inside the clock the chains are pulling on a succession of gears that apportion the power slowly over time. A car's transmission and a ten-speed bike work on the same principle. One of the cuckoo's gears swings the pendulum, which produces the tick-tock sound. Another pushes a lever on which sits the bird. (Between the bird and the back of the door there is a wire, so as the perched bird is pushed, the door is opened, too.) Yet another gear works to make the bellows puff out the cuckoo notes. Cuckoos also have a gear that trips an hour-counting gong of the stick-beating-a-trash-can-lid variety. If all of that weren't enough potential cause for clock stoppage, a cheap cuckoo's weights are often made purposely too heavy, allowing them to operate without fine tuning but causing premature and often irreversible wear.

So maybe I'm expecting too much of poor cuckoos. They were always a novelty, meant to charm if only temporarily, never prized for their precision. Like all early Black Forest clocks, they were made crudely, by farmers with nothing else to do on long winter nights in the forestlands of Baden-Baden and environs. In the beginning, not only their house-shaped cases but their movements were made of wood, instead of the brass that powered the clocks of more affluent people. Worse, the wood was soft--less durable than hard wood, subject to swelling and worms--although it was easier to embellish with carved leaves, nests of eggs, hunting weapons, and stags' antlers. The first weights on many cuckoos were rounded stones fished from the forest streams. Only later did their makers use the decorative pine-cone motif so familiar to us now. By that time, the home craft had become a cottage industry, and in the spring, peddlers carried them on frames strapped to their backs, selling them along with other clocks. Like the Good Humor man, these salesmen struck a clock's bell to announce their arrival. They also offered a repair service, often needed on clocks that hung in farmhouses where cooking smoke permeated every room, and grease and dust inevitably clogged clockworks. In the mid-1800s the first clock factories were established. Schools, too. And workmanship improved. Today collectors covet cuckoos from the turn of the century. I have seen them go at auction for thousands. Once I met a man who boasted that his cuckoo was worth $4,000. "The date inside is 1904, December 26th, " he told me, adding with what I took to be pride, "The day after Christmas, and the Germans are back at work."

Coincidentally, 1904 is the year Chekov died at a spa in Badenweiler, tubercular at age forty-four.

New cuckoos are still made in the Black Forest, where song birds abound, though not as many as there used to be, thanks to pollution. They are sold to Americans touring Germany and prowling stateside gift shops on rainy summer afternoons. Cuckoos can also, of course, be had by way of the Internet, where purveyors seem always to stress the night shut-off feature above all else. The price range is $150 to $1500 and up. Plastic parts proliferate at the low end. In the upper, cases are wooden, purportedly hand-carved, and offer much more than a single noisy bird. Expect hourly or even more frequent shows of dancers and musicians, water wheels, milkmaids tending their cows, goats and sheep, shepherds and wolves, wood choppers who move their arms in time to the cuckoo's call, and beer drinkers who raise their elbows to the same rhythm.

Sometimes a company feels the need to include information on its Website that does not seem to me to pertain. A German firm, for instance, wants us to know that although it is run by the son of the man who started it in 1938, you can rest assured that Junior started "at the very bottom." Much more problematic for me is the link provided by an American importer. It connects to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Pictures of boys and girls are flashed. Click on the individual photo and the face grows larger, and more details are given. The youngsters' hometowns are named--all the usual big cities, as well as places like Kingfisher, Ohio. We also learn the date of his or her last sighting; and age at that time. You are given a number to call if you recognize any of them.

But in what spirit are you supposed to buy a cuckoo clock after seeing all of that sadness?

I was told as a child that I took things too seriously. I suppose I am taking the cuckoo clock too seriously right now. It is, I'll admit, isolating not to share the enthusiasms of society; to say to myself things like, "Consumer goods are the opiate of the people" and "They wait to be told what to want. It's the nearest thing to waiting to be told what to think. I really see no difference." And "Those people should…" What a curmudgeon I am not to recognize the simple pleasures that cuckoos bring to their owners! I might have argued that they bother me because their popularity drives to the heart of our culture; instead, all I can safely say is that my dislike of cuckoos drives to the heart of me.

The pull of the popular is strong. When did I leave its orbit? There was a time when I had to have my Pappagallos, my weekly Nancy Drew. I was a Girl Scout, earning badges: Dabbler, Cook, Animal, Bird…. Then what happened? No longer a Scout, but still wearing Pappagallos, I started reading real books. Thereafter I would accept no substitutes. But their attraction wasn't that they made me feel superior. On the contrary, they immersed me in the great whole, the real whole, that is much larger than any solitary, cuckoo-clock-loving country.

I know I can't prevent people from buying cuckoos, or anything else; I'd more easily entice someone to read Chekov instead of their usual Clancy or Cornwell. I may as well admit that cuckoos are a part of the great whole, too. And there's another confession. Once, Bob and I did have a cuckoo clock on our own wall, briefly. A combination cuckoo-and-quail, it had come into the house as a purchase Bob made, along with a group of other clocks. We hung it in the living room. The cuckoo sounded every hour, its companion quail every fifteen minutes: "Who-who-who!" It was a question as much as a declaration that we grew to love and we grew to hate. One day, a family of four came over to buy a tall-case clock. When Bob gave the kids a demonstration of the cuckoo-quail, they wanted it, and the parents bought it for them. We saw the father of the family again a few months later. We gave the quail's call in greeting, and he answered us back with the same.


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