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Review by David F. Wood
Delaware Clocks

Philip D. Zimmerman. Delaware Clocks. Dover, Del.: Biggs Museum of American Art, 2006. 62 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., bibliography, index. $24.95 pb.

There is a view of American clockmaking that has more to do with ideas about what it means to be American than it has to do with clockmaking. It is a frontier vision, whereby the hardy individual with limited means but unlimited freedom thrives by canniness, thrift, perseverance, and genius. A variation of this view (compounded with a somewhat overawed filiopietism) was put forward in the first monograph on the most famous of American clockmakers, Simon Willard. Published in 1911, its oddly distorted image of Willard came to be applied to American clockmakers generally, and still persists. This view fails to explain a great deal that ought to be of current interest about the clockmaking experience, including the sudden failure without issue of whole branches of the industry.

An alternative view of clockmaking proposes that successful clockmakers were more like Sam Walton than they were like the conflation of Daniel Boone and Geppetto that Simon Willard’s grandson seems to have imagined. In this view, the labor of making clocks can be almost infinitely divided, and the clockmaker can be seen to behave somewhat like an upholsterer, assembling the products of a number of different shops.

More and more studies are revealing the remarkable multiplicity of hands at work on the archetypal antique, the eight-day clock. Delaware Clocks very successfully compiles a great deal of the existing evidence on clocks of that region and examines numerous outstanding examples in admirable detail, revealing much of the complexity that underlies these esteemed objects.

Delaware Clocks was produced to accompany a temporary exhibition on the subject of clockmaking in Delaware, organized by the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover, Delaware, and exhibited there and at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. Two pages list the nineteen clocks included in the exhibition, but the text, written by Philip D. Zimmerman as a continuous narrative across separate entries, expands generously beyond the common bounds of exhibition catalogues.

As Ryan D. Grover, curator of the Biggs Museum of American Art, points out in his introduction, Delaware Clocks is intended to “bring into focus actual communities of artisans” (p. 4). Examining communities of artisans is, as Mr. Grover points out, a useful alternative to “reinventing the standard lists of Delaware craftsmen involved in clockmaking.”

The artisan community responsible for a clock can be said to be synchronous when a case maker, clock finisher, dial painter, and so forth each contribute to its production. The synchronous community can be narrowly local or extensive over wide geographic ranges, and typically is both. The artisan community is also asynchronous; clockmaking is complicated enough that a significant period of training is required, with apprentices learning the traditions of a particular shop from one or more artisans (who had themselves been trained in a shop), and perhaps themselves going on to train apprentices. A productive clock shop exemplifies, at any given moment, both kinds of artisan community. The evidence for these communities, generally only sparsely documented in the written record, is to be found in the clocks themselves, and Delaware Clocks takes ample advantage of it.

The text addresses “three identifiable schools of clockmaking” (p. 4): colonial Delaware clockmaking; clockmaking from the Odessa, Delaware, area; and post-Revolutionary Wilmington clockmaking.

The section on colonial Delaware clockmaking intersperses comments on clockmaking in general with a discussion of specific makers and clocks. The general discussion helpfully separates dials from movements and both from cases. This separation reflects a real distinction between disparate shop traditions. The shops that merge these functions—like the Dominys’ on Long Island or the Blasdels’ in Essex County, Massachusetts—are few and idiosyncratic, and no such shops appear to have operated in Delaware in the period under consideration, about 1741–1815.

With the exception of an impressively early (1658) reference to a New Amstel resident capable of clock repair, the story of clockmaking in colonial Delaware effectively begins in the 1740s with the little-known William Furniss (active 1739–1749) and George Crow (active 1740–1762), who “left  the first substantial body of work representing a single Delaware clockmaker” (p. 12). The discussion of Crow includes some interesting observations that are generally applicable to clockmakers, in Delaware and elsewhere, such as the presence of unfinished clock cases in a clockmaker’s shop and finished clock movements in a cabinetmaker’s shop. This, Zimmerman points out (p. 15), ought be interpreted, not as evidence of a clockmaker-cum-cabinetmaker (or the reverse), but as evidence that clockmakers sometimes provided shop space for cabinetmakers, and cabinetmakers sometimes took payment in clock movements, which they would case up and sell. Additionally, Zimmerman finds in the printed label pasted into one of Crow’s clocks early (1761) evidence of a widening distance between clockmaker and customer (pp. 16–17, fig. 5b).

George Crow’s sons George and Thomas both became clockmakers, and the section on colonial clockmaking continues with them (Thomas Crow, by virtue of his long career, reappears in the final section of Delaware Clocks). The younger George’s clocks are few; he died young and seems to have worked only part-time as a clockmaker. Thomas was more prolific, and Zimmerman extracts a good deal of information from the cases that house his movements, notably in a closely reasoned examination of a very interesting clock case that harkens right back to clock central: Lancashire, England (pp. 23–24).

In contrast to the variety evident in the cases that house Thomas Crow movements, section two, “The Odessa Clocks,” reveals a consistent regional preference for clock cases that is associated with the shop of John Janvier Sr. (1749–1801). Nine examples of cases labeled by, signed by, or attributed to Janvier or one of his sons, John Jr. (1777–1850) or Thomas (1772–1852), are included. The distinctive attributes of Odessa cases are examined in detail and summarized concisely (pp. 37–38).

The final section, “Wilmington Clocks of the Post-Revolution Era,” examines the work of clockmakers and cabinetmakers at work in Wilmington in the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth. The products of clockmaker Jonas Alrichs (1759–1802) and cabinetmaker John Erwin (1727–1797) feature prominently in this section, and Zimmerman is able to relate both to the shop of Thomas Crow. This section includes the last makers to produce the large eight-day clocks that are the principal subject of Delaware Clocks; in Delaware, as in New (and Old) England, these clocks and the shops that produced them disappeared quite suddenly in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century.

The last two clocks in Delaware Clocks are table clocks. One is signed by Thomas Crow as maker. Thomas Crow, “the most prolific and well-known clockmaker in late-eighteenth-century Wilmington” (p. 45), is well worth revisiting. His output, as illustrated in the first section of Delaware Clocks, is distinctly varied. The clocks are housed in cases with differing levels of ornament, including elaborate cases made in Philadelphia and plainer cases made in Wilmington. This sense of variety is augmented by an ornate, architectural case unlike any other made in America (see p. 23). Movements by many American makers can be found in cases from disparate cabinetmakers, and clockmakers were similarly free to patronize a variety of dial makers, particularly if their careers extended over a long period as Crow’s did. Makers can be found that used both Boston-made and Birmingham painted iron dials, or both sheet brass and painted iron dials, and, occasionally, like Crow, both painted iron (figs. 8, 10) and composite brass dials (figs. 9, 11).

Adding to the perceived variety of Crow’s output is a table clock (fig. 32), which employs several technologies distinctly different from those found in the eight-day clocks that make up the majority of his output. The table clock is spring-driven rather than weight-driven; it employs a fusee, a specialized tapered drum added to compensate for the decreasing tension of the relaxing spring; and its pace is governed by a crown-wheel and verge escapement. Good springs are very hard to make, and the vast clock tool industry of Lancashire effectively dominated their production worldwide until well into the nineteenth century. Fusees are also tricky and require a specialized engine (in addition to specialized skills) to be turned. Crown wheels, which have teeth parallel to the arbor (rather than perpendicular as in an anchor or deadbeat escapement), also require a specialized tool to be milled. As Zimmerman points out, “Many table clocks with American clockmaker’s names on them were English movements, some of which were signed by their London makers” (p. 55), and the need for highly specialized tools and skills accounts for that fact.

This variety suggests Crow might be a good candidate for further investigation in light of the alternative interpretation of clockmaking mentioned above. Given the variety of craftsmen at work on his cases and dials, it is reasonable to wonder about the variety of craftsmen at work on his movements. Did one foundry provide his clock sets? How many calipers (templates for laying out the movement) were employed? How many clock finishers were at work? A particular advantage to this alternative approach is that it is readily falsifiable; on detailed examination, Crow’s movements will reveal how they were produced.

Delaware Clocks illustrates two areas where clock studies in general might be profitably improved. The first is a matter of nomenclature. The terms “works” and “movement” are often used interchangeably, in this as in other studies, as are the terms “gear” and “wheel.”  The latter terms, “movement” and “wheel,” were used by clockmakers from the seventeenth century onward; the terms “clockwork” and “gear” both acquired connotations in the nineteenth century that persist in the present and are not generally relevant to clockmaking.

The second has to do with illustrations. Delaware Clocks includes numerous pictures of movements that serve as reminders that there is something of interest behind the dial, but they tend to be, as is often the case when movements are illustrated, three-quarter views from the back. Far more useful would be views of the front plate with the dial and moon-phase trip wheel (if present) removed. This view would show at a glance whether one movement was made with the same caliper as another and whether the respective clock sets issued from the same source, revealing a good deal about the manufacturing methodology of the shop in question.

Philip Zimmerman does not disappoint as a writer; his research is fiercely accurate, his interpretations often both valid and provocative, and his lively interest in the topic is always evident. Delaware Clocks organizes, footnotes, and indexes a great deal of the information available on the topic, making it a valuable resource for any who see fit to pursue the many avenues of study its text suggests.1

David F. Wood
Concord Museum

American Furniture 2007

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  • [1]

    I thank Robert Cheney for reading this review and providing several helpful suggestions.