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Mathew Brady's Clocks
by Bob Frishman

NAWCC Bulletin, October, 2002, page 605

When visitors arrived to have their portraits taken in Mathew Brady's studio, they could choose among several ways to be immortalized. Some sat in the "Lincoln chair," given to Brady by the beloved president. Others stood by a large formal column. Still others gripped a thick leather-bound book. A large number chose serious, tightly focused poses without props. One group of customers, however, decided that their formal portraits would be enhanced by a large figural mantel clock.

In my search of more than 7,000 portraits taken in the Brady studios, I found over sixty that include this impressive timekeeper. Several familiar personalities had their images linked forever to this clock, including George Custer, Robert E. Lee, Clara Barton, and James Garfield. Many subjects, however, are unidentified or lesser-known politicians, socialites, actors and soldiers such as Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States; Salmon Chase, U.S. Chief Justice; Schuyler Colfax, Grant's vice president; and Sergeant Boston Corbett, the eccentric Yankee cavalryman who shot and killed John Wilkes Booth.


Figure 1.  (top left) Reaper. Contemporary photograph. Case painted gold.  Statue and front medallion in original worn finish. Dial and hands borrowed from another Welch mantel clock. 
Photograph from Author's collection.

Figure 2.  Miss Suzie Reed.  This is the most unusual clock portrait I located.  Not only are the clock's dial and hands different from all the other photos studied, but the scene includes additional furnishings not seen in other shots. Pictures of children are rare and highly desirable, too. 
Photograph courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Meserve.1860.64.

Mathew Brady, born in Warren County, New York, in 1823, is best known for the thousands of dramatic Civil War photographs he and his operatives captured in the field.  While the conflict raged, he devoted all his time, energy and small fortune to documenting it.  But he had an equally important and successful career as a portrait photographer before, during and after the conflict.

Figure 3.  Clara Barton.  1866 in Washington, D.C. 
Photograph courtesy National Archives, NWDNS-111-B-1857.Beginning in 1844, soon after the birth of photography, he opened his "Daguerrean Miniature Gallery" in New York City and won several prizes for his work.  By 1845, he was committed to photographing all the distinguished and illustrious personages of his day, and we can credit him with some of the earliest photographic images of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and many others.  He opened his Washington studio in 1849 in order to photograph all the important attendees at the upcoming Inauguration of Zachary Taylor.  With several assistants, Brady continued to operate a booming trade in both cities until the decade after the Civil War, when changing tastes led to waning public interest in his images of earlier luminaries and a brutal war.  He went bankrupt in 1873 and faded from public view.  In January 1896, he died virtually penniless shortly before he was scheduled to deliver a lantern-slide lecture at Carnegie Hall about his life and work.During the years of his studios' operation, he and his many competitors satisfied a swelling public demand to be photographed for posterity.  At first, only the upper classes could afford cased daguerreotypes and large "imperial" prints, 20"x24" photographic portraits costing as much as $700 each.  With the advent of less expensive processes, he could provide prints and small inexpensive "cartes de visite" to ordinary citizens, using a special multi-tube camera which made four pictures with one exposure. 

CDV's were mass produced for crowds of fans who wanted photos of the famous for their private albums, and the little 2"x3" photos also were taken of thousands of individual soldiers who were eager to present a personal keepsake to their loved ones.    (continue column right)

Figure 4.  Robert E. Lee.  Taken in Washington D.C. when he visited President Grant at the White House. 
Photograph courtesy National Archives, NWDNS-111-B-58086.Two CDV's comprise my entire collection of original Brady prints; each shows a Civil War soldier standing next to the figural clock on a marble-top table.  Both of these small sepia-toned prints have the publisher's ornate stamp on the back; one also has a handwritten inscription, "Compliments of Sergt. Major Seeley, 4th U.S. Arty."An 1864 Brady CDV of General Custer and the clock sold in 1999 for $2070 at a New York auction.  The high price certainly reflects the fame of the subject, not the prop.I examined nearly a thousand Brady CDV's in the collection of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.  The clock appears in just three, including a fine shot of General and Mrs. Abner Doubleday.  The Fogg Museum also has a stunning collection of 410 Brady imperial salt prints; only two feature the clock along with the sitter.The largest collection of Brady photographs I researched is at the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland.  All 6143 images are available for on-line viewing.  At least 5500 of them are portraits and 64 of these include the clock.  Another large collection of Brady material is at the Library of Congress, but those photographs are not viewable online and are catalogued by the subjects' names, making a search of their Brady portraits difficult for me at this time.

More clock portraits may exist only in their original negatives, since I learned that the clock occasionally was cropped out of the final prints.  For example, I have seen the Clara Barton and Robert E. Lee images reproduced with no hint that the clock was in the original scene.


I first identified the clock itself in Tran Duy Ly's book of Ansonia clocks.  The "Reaper," number 1453 on page 375, is shown as a product of the Ansonia Brass & Copper Company (1869-1877).  Chris Bailey, Horologist of the American Clock & Watch Museum, informed me that this detailed case was designed by Nicholas Muller of New York City, who cast imitation bronze cases made of "pot" metal with bronzed finishes.  The "Reaper," 18.5 inches tall, was Muller's design number 101.  Bailey reports that any of the large Connecticut clock companies could purchase these cases and install their own movements.  Many of Muller's products were sold primarily through the American Clock Company, a New York City sales outlet whose 1869 and 1875 catalogues also illustrate this model.

Mathew Brady's "Reaper" appears in a same sorry state in all but one of the portraits I examined.  While "M.B. Brady, Washington, D.C." had been lettered on the dial, the face is badly askew and the hands always show the same time of about 11:52.  A large ornamental casting is missing from the front of the case below the dial.  There appear to be no bezel, glass or winding holes.  This state of disrepair is surprising, given Brady's reputation for attention to detail.  But since the clock was usually out of the field of sharp focus, perhaps these flaws were not considered important.  The single exception is the lovely picture of a child, Miss Suzie Reed.  In this image, the casting still is missing but the possibly original unsigned dial, with winding holes, is in place and straight, and there seems to be a bezel.  Different hands show the time at 12:10.While neither the Smithsonian nor the American Clock & Watch Museum has a "Reaper," my recent Mart ad turned up two, and both were in Gillette, Wyoming(!).  Duane Dierks called to say he had one for sale, and then reported that another local collector did, too.  Neither clock had its dial, and the second clock had no movement, but I bought them both.  Each has the Muller signature and number inscribed on the back, although in different places.  The cases vary slightly in other respects, perhaps indicating manufacturing changes or worn molds.The unsigned 8-day works in the Dierks clock matched perfectly with the movement photo on page 145 of Tran Duy Ly's book on Welch clocks, confirming that makers other than Ansonia marketed this case.  In fact, a dial and bezel taken from another Welch clock in my collection exactly fit the shafts and case opening.  Now one complete "Reaper" is ticking and loudly striking each hour on its bell; the other case awaits completion someday.  Could one of these apparently rare cases be the Brady clock?  I will never know, unless his clock appears elsewhere with its unique "M.B. Brady" dial.

Figure 5.  Gen. David Hunter and others.  Rarer group portrait with clock as part of the "line-up".  National Archives, NWDNS-111-B-4554

Figure 6.  Gen. George A. Custer.
Photograph courtesy National Archives, NWDNS-111-B-1924.

Figure 7.  Dr. Mary Walker.  The only female Civil War veteran to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor (displayed on her jacket), awarded 1865.Photograph courtesy National Archives, NWDNS-111-B-2112

I also will never know why some soldiers and statesmen back in the 1860's decided to be photographed with this imposing piece.  Its "reaper" theme may have had some philosophical significance to them, especially when the slaughter of war was so fresh in their minds.  The statue of a youthful lad seated atop his wheat sheaf seems unrelated to the "grim reaper," but harvesting and clocks themselves have been an enduring metaphor in our civilization for the cycles and passage of life.

Other early photographers used clocks in their studio portraits, too.  These could spur more contemplation, collecting and study for students of horological history.  In the meantime, we can enjoy this link between a fine 19th-century American clock, a distinguished group of Americans, and one of our nation's most important and respected photographers. References:

  • Chris Bailey, Horologist, American Clock & Watch Museum, Bristol, Conn. Thomas Harris, vintage photograph dealer and Brady expert, New York, NY. Roy Meredith,  Mr. Lincoln's Camera Man, Dover Publications, 1974. James D. Horan,  Mathew Brady: Historican with a Camera, Bonanza Books, 1955. Mary Panzer, Mathew Brady and the Image of History,  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, College Park, MD.
  • Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division,  Washington, D.C.

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