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Telling Time

by Bob Frishman

Pleaides ARTSNORTH, Autumn 1996, page 4

In the beginning, nobody knew what time it was, and nobody cared. Now, we observe and measure the passage of time as a cultural obsession, noting each second on nearly every wall, wrist, dashboard and household appliance. One way to soften this obsession, to connect it more with our history and forebears, is to own and collect old clocks and watches.

These "human-powered" machines -- ones which require winding rather than just battery changes -- present amazing technological achievements as well as an unending array of decorative styles and materials. They combine science and art in a way unmatched by most other antiques, and their ticking and chiming literally speak to us while continuing the time-telling they began decades or centuries ago.

While few of us will ever own the oldest and rarest examples handcrafted before 1800, there is no shortage of affordable clocks and watches manufactured in huge numbers during the past 200 years. Even 18th century English and Scottish grandfather clocks are easily found and surprisingly inexpensive, often less than $2,000. And for collectors who prefer American artifacts, U.S. factories early in the 19th century began mass-producing clocks -- and then watches soon after the Civil War -- in such quantities and at such low prices that every citizen could own what had before been a luxury only for the rich, and the supply is abundant today.

At first, the scarcity of brass for movements led many Yankee clockmakers to use one of our abundant natural resources -- wood. Large numbers of wooden-works clocks -- including the classic pillar-and-scroll -- still exist today, but by the 1840's the industry switched to brass when  the metal became cheap and easy to machine. Powered by newly developed coiled springs, rather than descending weights, clocks of all sizes and styles came on the scene. American design classics -- steeple, beehive, banjo, cottage, doric, gingerbread, schoolhouse... -- all can easily be found today at antique auctions, shows and shops for as little as $100. There is certainly no reason ever to buy a modern reproduction of these styles.

European clocks are widely available, too. Heavy black marble clocks from France, made throughout the 19th century, are presently undervalued, considering the quality of their cases and works. German clocks, from Westminster-chime bracket clocks to elegant Vienna regulators, are common, thanks in part to GI's returning from W.W.II.  English timepieces tend to be scarcer and pricier because their makers clung to outdated craft methods long after competitors adopted factory production.

Unlike many other kinds of antiques, collecting old timepieces can be relatively easy. Hundreds of books and price guides provide details on nearly everything you can find for sale, and thousands of pages of original trade catalogs have been reproduced and collected into softcover references. Makers and manufacturers weren't shy about advertising themselves on the face or on a fancy label.  On American clocks, you will see such familiar names as Seth Thomas, Ansonia, Gilbert, Waterbury, New Haven, Welch, Sessions, Chelsea, Ingraham, Howard, Jerome and Waltham.

The National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors (NAWCC) with nearly 40,000 members, has monthly publications and 165 local chapters.  The New England chapter each year hosts five major meetings, a workshop and symposium.

Of course, key concerns are "Does it work?" and "Can it be fixed?". Keep in mind that these clocks are rugged, made when shipping was primitive and houses were dustier. Also remember that the bad clocks probably went into the dump or wood stove years ago.  So the ones you see today should work another 100 years if properly maintained. With pendulum clocks, sometimes it is simply a matter of putting them "in beat" to get them to run reliably with an even-sounding tick.

Fortunately, skilled repairers can be found in most areas, although amateurs, armed with WD40, big pliers and a bent screwdriver, are at work, too. Know that "overwound," the most commonly-heard diagnosis of trouble, is mythical and like saying that a car should start as long as its gas tank is full.  When the spring is fully wound, a stopped clock needs repair --- usually an overhaul to clean al the parts clogged with dust, dirty dried lubricants, and the occasional dead housefly.  Once cleaned, the clock should run 3-10 years before needing professional attention again, depending on its care, location and mechanism.

Every year, my regulator's pendulum swings more than 31 million times, my French mantel clock strikes over 57,000 hours, my Waltham railroad pocketwatch and my grandfather's Omega wristwatch tick 157 million times apiece. Each, I hope, will be working long after I'm gone, steadily reminding us of the artistry and ingenuity of earlier days.


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