Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE CLOCKMAKERS OF CONNECTICUT
A HUNDRED years ago there lived and worked in the State of Connecticut a little group of clockmakers who were destined to leave a distinct impress on the industrial history of their country. Through their native ingenuity they discovered how to make clocks inexpensively and so to place them in large numbers within the reach of our growing population.
Austere, industrious, shrewd old Yankees were these clockmakers of Connecticut, for the most part self-made men, achieving success through the Puritan virtues of perseverance, long-headedness, and sobriety. Their work was excellent mechanically and by no means lacking in a certain quaint artistic charm.
clocks were made in Connecticut as early as the middle of the
eighteenth century and perhaps before that, it was not until after
the Revolutionary War that the industry reached noteworthy
proportions. The group about whom interest centers worked chiefly in
Litchfield County and consists of a line of teachers and pupils
beginning with Thomas Harland and running down to the sons of Eli
Terry and Seth Thomas.
Harland learned his trade in England and came to Boston in 1773 in the ship from which the tea was thrown overboard in Boston Harbor. Very likely he and Paul Revere brushed elbows on Beacon Hill. He settled in Norwich, Connecticut, later in the same year and opened a clockmaking shop which he conducted until his death in 1807. Here he made "spring, musical, and plain clocks; church clocks; regulators, etc.," and engraved and finished clock faces for the trade. His clocks, like most others of the period, had brass works, with a pendulum forty inches long, swinging every second. They were made to stand in cases about six feet tall, though sometimes they were hung without cases and were then called wag-on-the-wall clocks. It was customary for peddlers about the country to sell these clocks without cases, the latter often being built by local cabinet-makers. The cases, therefore, vary widely and are seldom an indication of the make of the works.
Harland's fame as a master clockmaker spread throughout the Colonies and he received into his shop numerous apprentices who subsequently went forth to ply their trade in various parts of New England. One of these apprentices was Eli Terry, who became, with the possible exception of Seth Thomas, the most famous clockmaker in Connecticut.
Another early clockmaker who should be mentioned at this point was Daniel Burnap. Very little is known about him except that he made clocks be tween 1780 and 1800 at Andover, Massachusetts, and at Hartford, Plymouth, and East Windsor, Connecticut. His clocks had tall cases and brass works, and often moon phases and calendar attachments. He was a skilled engraver, and his silvered dials were often beautifully etched. One characteristic of Burnap's clock faces was the absence of spandrels at the corners. It was from him that Eli Terry is said to have learned the art of engraving.
"The man above all others in his day for the wood clock was Eli Terry," writes Chauncey Jerome in his "History of the American Clock Business," published in 1860, when Jerome was sixty-seven years old. Terry was born April 13, 1772, at East Windsor, now South Windsor, Connecticut. He was an ingenious youth and he made a few old fashioned, hang-up clocks before he was twenty-one.
It was probably during his apprenticeship to Harland and Burnap, or immediately after, that he built his first tall clock, in 1792. The case was graceful but not elaborate, and the silvered dial was engraved with his name. This clock is now owned by his descendants and is still running.
In 1793 he moved to Northbury, then part of Watertown, and began the manufacture of clocks on his own account. Here he married Eunice Warner, who died December 15, 1839, and by whom he had nine children. In November, 1840, he married Harriet Peck, a widow, who bore him two sons.
At first business was dull in Northbury, and Terry eked out a living by repairing clocks and watches, engraving on metal, and selling spectacles. His first clocks were made by hand, partly with jack-knife and saw, and partly by means of a hand engine for cutting the wheels. Later he introduced water power into his shop, being the first clockmaker to make the venture.
His first clocks were made with both brass and wooden works and sold for about $25 apiece for the movement and dial alone. But he soon discontinued the brass works, finding the wood as reliable and, because cheaper, more salable. Some of these early clocks had silver-washed brass dials.
Probably the first clock patent ever issued in this country was taken out by Terry in 1797. In that year he also invented a clock registering the difference between mean and apparent time.
About 1800 he engaged two assistants and began to start his clocks a dozen at a time. Two or three times a year he started out with horse and wagon and peddled them about the country. Tall clocks were then selling at prices ranging from $18 to $70. The higher priced ones had a dial and hand for seconds, displayed the moon's phases, and included handsome cases.
Early in 1807 Terry sold his old plant to Heman Clark, an apprentice, and bought an old mill, with water power, at Greystone, in the southern part of Plymouth. He obtained a contract from a firm in Waterbury to deliver 4,000 clocks in three years at $4 apiece. They were to be 30-hour clocks, with wooden works, one-second pendulum, dial and hands included, the purchasers furnishing the materials.
It was a big undertaking in those days, but Terry carried it through successfully and it marked the beginning of his prosperity. In 1808 he made the first 500 of these clocks — the largest number ever started at one time in one shop.
By 1809 the business was the largest in the country. In 1810 Terry sold out to two of his employees, Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadley, and removed to Plymouth Hollow.
By this time the price for the ordinary wooden clock works had dropped to $10 and finally to $5, and Terry began to cast about for a new line.
Most of the clocks of that day were either eight- day brass clocks or thirty-hour wooden clocks, with pendulums beating the seconds. A few thirty-hour brass clocks were made with a shorter pendulum, beating half seconds. These were fairly expensive, and because they were adapted to short cases were called shelf clocks.
While at work on his three-year contract, Terry conceived the idea of a thirty-hour wooden clock with half-seconds pendulum, which would be much cheaper than the brass shelf clocks. He made several hundred of these clocks without dials, but with the figures painted on the glass front.
But Terry was not satisfied with this clock and discontinued its manufacture after a year. It was not until 1814 that he perfected a shelf clock to his satisfaction. The new movement included several radically new inventions making for economy of space. It revolutionized the clock-making industry and sounded the knell of the more costly brass shelf clocks. The new type of works was not patented. It was taken up rapidly by other makers and remained in vogue for twenty-five years until the use of sheet metal came in about 1837.
In connection with the new movement Terry introduced in 1814 his "pillar and scroll-top case," which he patented. It was a rectangular case, about twenty-five inches high, with small feet and a top cut in a scroll pattern. At the sides of the front were small round pillars, twenty-one inches long, three-fourths of an inch in diameter at the bottom and three-eighths at the top, resting on a square base and surmounted by a turned cap. The dial was about eleven inches across, with a panel below painted on glass. Spandrels were painted at the corners of the face.
This clock became at once immensely popular. Seth Thomas paid $1,000 for the right to manufacture it, and he and Terry each made about $6,000 the first year. Later the output was doubled. The retail price was $15 each.
addition to this clock, Terry made other mantel clocks, both plain
and elegant. He also made brass works, adjusted with extreme care,
which he sold as regulators to watchmakers for $100 to $200 each.
Tower clocks were also part of his trade. These were of excellent quality, as a rule, and were affected as little as possible by the weather. Most of them were operated by separate sets of weights for chronometer, dial wheels, and striker. The clock which is still telling time from the gable of the Congregational Church in Terryville is said to have been the first of Terry's tower clocks. It was a gift to the church, which was built in 1835.
Another tower clock was built by Terry for the city of New Haven. It was placed in the Centre Church on the Green. It told the mean time while the Yale College clock told apparent time. This led to confusion and a lively controversy.
In 1830 Terry invented a new form of gravity escapement, and he continued active as an inventor and designer the rest of his life. It is not too much to say of him that this shrewd, ingenious Yankee did as much toward the advancement of clockmaking as any other one man in history. At least, he was the father of the modern cheap clock which Seth Thomas did so much to popularize.
In 1838 and 1839 Terry built two houses in that portion of Plymouth which later became known as Terryville. In one of these he lived until his death, which occurred on February 24, 1852, at the age of eighty.
In 1814, when Terry started his big contract he took two of his sons in with him and taught them the trade. Henry continued the business at Ply mouth Hollow until about 1840, when he turned to the manufacture of woolen goods. The other son, Eli, Jr., started a shop of his own in 1826, when he was twenty-five, and became the wealthy and honored founder of Terryville. A third son, Silas, was less successful in a business way, but was nearly as great an inventor as his father.
Seth Thomas, who was even more of a self-made man than Eli Terry, was born at Wolcott, Connecticut, August 19, 1785, the son of James and Martha Thomas. His education was limited to the meager advantages of the district school, and while still a youth he served his apprenticeship as carpenter and joiner. For a time he worked on the construction of the long wharf at New Haven.
he became of age he returned to Litchfield County with his kit of
tools and a small sum of money. He soon found work as a joiner in Eli
Terry's factory, making clock cases and later assembling wooden
works. By 1808 he had risen to the position of foreman of the case
Prior to this time clockmaking had been an individual trade, like that of the village cobbler. In 1810, after buying out Terry's interest, Thomas & Hoadley continued in the manufacture of tall clocks. In 1812 or 1813 Hoadley bought Thomas out and the latter moved to Plymouth Hollow, in the western part of the town, and engaged in the manufacture of brass-movement clocks on his own account. This business grew from twenty to nine hundred operatives, and in 1853 Thomas, having made a for tune, incorporated the Seth Thomas Clock Company which is to-day doing a world-wide business. He also built a cotton mill and a brass rolling and wire mill.
Seth Thomas was a solid, Puritanical character, a staunch Whig, and a prominent member of the Congregational Church. He was twice married — to Philena Tuttle on April 20, 1808, who died March 12, 1810, and to Laura Andrews on April 14, 1811, who survived him. He was the father of nine children, three of whom died in childhood.
Seth Thomas died at Plymouth Hollow on January 29, 1859. Shortly after, that portion of the town was named Thomaston by act of Legislature.
The business was incorporated, with his sons, Aaron and Seth, Jr., as officers. They enlarged the factory and broadened the business. Later the factory, under the guidance of Seth E. Thomas, son of Seth Thomas, Jr., made every kind of timepiece from a watch to a tower clock, and sent them all over the world.
Silas Hoadley was born at Bethany, Connecticut, on January 31, 1786. Like Thomas, his education was meager and he was bound out at an early age as apprentice to his uncle, Calvin Hoadley, who taught him the trade of carpenter, which he followed till 1809, when he entered the Terry shop as a joiner.
After the final dissolution of the partnership in 1814, Hoadley continued the works at Greystone, Plymouth, until about 1849. He made both mantel and tall clocks, the former in limited quantities, apparently. His tall clock cases, while not as ornamental as those of some other clockmakers, were al ways tasteful and well proportioned, and compare favorably with anything Terry or Thomas ever did. In spite of the fact that he was in business for him self for some thirty-five years, his clocks to-day are very rare.
Though not possessing the inventive genius of Terry and Thomas, Hoadley was a good businessman and prospered. He was a prominent citizen of the town, an active Episcopalian churchman, and a high Mason. He was a Democrat and was three times elected to the State Assembly and once, in 1844, to the State Senate. He died at Plymouth December 28, 1870, leaving five children.
Another important figure in the Connecticut clock industry, though the years of his chief activity ex tend well into the nineteenth century, was Chauncey Jerome. In 1860 he published the story of his own life, in connection with his "History of the American Clock Business," and an interesting story it is.
He, too, was a lad of small schooling but marked native ability. He was born at Canaan, Connecticut, June 10, 1793, the son of a poor farmer and black smith and one of six children. In 1797 the family moved to Plymouth, where the father set up a black smith shop and engaged in the manufacture of hand-wrought iron nails. Until he was nine years old Chauncey worked on the farm, with the exception of three months in the winter, when he went to school. Then he went to work in his father's shop until the latter's death in 1804.
From then until he was fourteen young Chauncey worked for different farmers and suffered many hardships. In 1807 he was bound out to a carpenter until he was twenty-one, working for his board and clothes.
He became fascinated with the idea of learning the clockmaking trade, but his guardian would not permit it, saying that Terry was a visionary fool. But Chauncey persisted and in 1811 made a bargain with his master, whereby he was allowed to have four months to himself each winter if he would buy all his own clothes.
The first winter he went to Waterbury to work for one Lewis Stebbins, who taught him the art of making dials and clock cases. The following winter he was engaged by a Plymouth clockmaker named Hotchkiss to go to New Jersey to make cases for works that Hotchkiss had previously sold there. Two peddlers went with him to sell more works. It was a wonderful journey, made in a lumber wagon, and the venture was reasonably successful.
volunteered for service in the War of 1812, and after that, for
several years, experienced the privations of poverty. At the age of
twenty-one he became his own master and secured work at wages of $20
a month, on which he married. It was in that year that he bought his
first pair of boots. Hard times continued until 1816, When he went to
work for Eli Terry, making the new shelf clocks. Terry began to
install circular saws and other machinery, and Jerome learned to use
these in the making of clock cases.
In 1818 Jerome started in business for himself in a small way, buying clock works in Plymouth and making mahogany cases for them. An order came at last from the South for a number of clocks at $12 each, and Jerome delivered them himself. This was the turning point in his fortunes, and in 1821 he was able to move to Bristol and set up a new business. In 1822 he engaged a clockmaker — Chauncey Board man — to make brass works for him, and in 1824 he formed, with Nobles Jerome and Elijah Darrow, the firm of Jeromes & Darrow. In this year he exported the first clock sent from this country to England.
Success followed, but Jerome's later history scarcely belongs within the period of old clocks, which ended about 1837. He introduced new machinery and cheapened the cost of manufacture until he was able to make clocks for $2 and even $1. In 1844 he moved to New Haven, where his concern made 600 clocks a day, or 200,000 a year. His retirement followed, then the loss of money by his partners, and a new start in life at the age of seventy as superintendent of a Chicago factory. Jerome's life displays remarkable evidences of strict integrity and Spartan courage.
Besides those clockmakers whose names have been. mentioned, there were others at work in Connecticut who are entitled at least to passing notice. Isaac Doolittle, a clockmaker, lived in New Haven from 1748 to 1810. In Hartford, Enos Doolittle was making clocks about 1772, including some very handsome ones in cherry cases, with dials and hoods more elaborate than those of Terry or Thomas. In 1783 a patent was issued to Benjamin Hanks of Litchfield for a self-winding clock. Silas Merriam and Timothy Peck of Litchfield were at work about 1790, and Benjamin Cheney in Manchester about 1780. James Harrison was a successful clockmaker at Waterbury; he sold his first clock in 1791 for about $16.50. In Bristol, Joseph, Chauncey, and Lawson Ives were contemporary with Jerome; Joseph invented an eight-day brass clock about 1818, which Lawson later manufactured for about $20. Other prominent Connecticut clockmakers of the early nineteenth century were Joseph Clark of Dan bury, Heman Clark of Plymouth Hollow, Daniel Clark of Waterbury, Asa Hopkins of Litchfield, who invented several improvements in clock-making machinery, and others.
There was something solid and admirable in the characters of this group of old Yankees that makes them good to consider. They represent so completely the sterling traits of their period and give us such a clear idea of the sort of men that built up the early industries of this country. And apparently their thrift and mechanical ingenuity did not exclude all feeling for the beautiful, for some of their designs are not without artistic merit, and all are quaintly original.
Clocks of all these makers are still to be found, but those of Terry and Thomas are the most numerous. The old wooden works are apt to be somewhat the worse for wear and are often quite useless, but the old cases are a joy to the collector.
The collector's chief concern should be to learn which clocks originally contained wooden and which brass works. A brass movement in a clock originally intended for wooden works naturally indicates a more or less recent substitution. An old clock with wooden works that still tells the time is indeed a treasure.
The old tall clocks are the rarest and most valuable. They may be worth from $100 to $350, according to condition and the quality and design of dials and cases, which vary widely. Terry and Thomas clocks are worth very nearly what they brought when new. One New York dealer who specializes in American antiques has made a business of collecting Terry shelf clocks, which he repairs and refinishes, putting in new brass works, and sells at a flat price of $35 each. Other wall and shelf clocks are worth, under ordinary conditions, from $15 to $40.