Review by Dennis Carr
Stretch: America's First Family of Clockmakers

Donald L. Fennimore and Frank L. Hohmann III. Stretch: America’s First Family of Clockmakers. Winterthur, Del.: Winterthur Museum and Hohmann Holdings LLC, 2013. 343 pp.; 457 color illus., catalogue, 8 appendixes, bibliography, index. $75.00. 

Great museum acquisitions sometimes have the ability to transform collections and to spark research projects and intellectual endeavors. Such is the case with the Winterthur Museum’s purchase in 2004 of an extraordinary tall-case clock by Philadelphia clockmaker Peter Stretch (1670–1748). Heralded as a masterwork by Stretch, the clock set a record auction price, more than $1.68 million, for both this maker and a colonial American tall-case clock. The successful purchase by Winterthur and subsequent research on the clock brought together Winterthur’s curator emeritus of metalwork Donald L. Fennimore and well-known clock collector and Winterthur trustee Frank L. Hohmann III for the first book-length treatment of Peter Stretch and his family, titled Stretch: America’s First Family of Clockmakers. In it they position this group of craftsmen as not only worthy of careful study but also among the most accomplished and successful of American clockmakers in the early eighteenth century. “Measured against the norm,” the authors state, the Stretches’ most technically sophisticated clocks “appear to be singular for their time” (p. 91). Even among his contemporaries, Peter Stretch was considered the “most eminent” clockmaker in Philadelphia of his generation (p. 58).

Laudatory in tone and exhaustive in research, Stretch fits within a long line of publications on clockmaking in North America, which includes Hohmann’s other major recent publication, Timeless: Masterpiece American Brass Dial Clocks (2009). Stretch shares with Timeless a similar weighty catalogue format, boasting lavish, quite frankly stunning large-format color photographs, with introductory essays and concise catalogue entries. It adds to the monographic studies on American clockmakers, of which there are relatively few, beginning with the classic, filiopietistic Simon Willard and His Clocks (1911) by grandson John Ware Willard. This publication also calls to mind other recently published single-maker (or, rather, one should say, single-shop-tradition) studies, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker (2005) by Morrison H. Heckscher and Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker of New York (2011) by Peter M. Kenny and the late Michael K. Brown, both of which accompanied exhibitions. There are few household names in the field of colonial American decorative arts, but perhaps this publication will launch a new name into the canon. Like the Townsends of Newport, the Stretches were devout Quakers, who parlayed tight-knit familial and communal connections into commercial and political success. This Quaker community, as the authors would discover, would be key in establishing Stretch, an outsider in Philadelphia who emigrated from England, quickly within the highest political and mercantile circles in the city.

Peter Stretch was born in Harpers Gate, Staffordshire, England, and trained as a clockmaker with his older brother Samuel in Leek, later taking over his clockmaking business there around 1692. Fennimore and Hohmann include in their study a lantern, or wall-mounted, clock made by Stretch during this period, a fascinating comparison with the clocks he made in Philadelphia, where elite patrons generally preferred the taller, wood-encased, brass dial, 30-hour or 8-day clocks. Already an accomplished clockmaker in England, Stretch moved to Philadelphia with his family in 1703. His success in Philadelphia, aided by his active membership in the Friends Meeting and his election to the Common Council in 1708 (an important position he held in city politics until 1746), is duly evidenced by the 62 remarkable American clocks that bear his name catalogued in this book. The authors include an additional 22 clocks inscribed with the names of two of his sons—William and Thomas—who followed their father in the business. One marked Peter Stretch clock (cat. 12) bears the inscription “DS N 1” engraved on the front plate—evidently the first clock made by another son, Daniel Stretch, for his proud father, likely at the end of his apprenticeship circa 1714. The authors identified a total of 133 surviving clocks made by various members of the family in the eighteenth century, of which they published 84 in public and private collections that they had the opportunity to study.

The catalogue entries, which include basic information on the clock movements and cases and a short commentary on historical relevance, are further enlivened and contextualized by the essay “Stretch Clocks and the Philadelphia Clockmaking Community before 1750.” This essay nicely situates the Stretch shop, which operated out of a 12-by-12-foot space in a three-storey brick house on the corner of Second and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, within the larger community of allied craftsmen in the city. One of those craftsmen was John Head, an English émigré furniture maker who created many of the elaborately carved wooden cases for Stretch and his sons. The authors include reproductions of pages from Head’s account book that document charges for dozens of clock cases over a period of nearly two decades. In most instances, Head charged Stretch directly for the cases and Stretch delivered the final assembled product to his customers, presumably at retail prices. Stretch also undoubtedly was associated with Philadelphia carver Samuel Harding, whose distinctive carving style appears on the mahogany case of the Winterthur clock, including a rare instance of a coat of arms, those of the Plumstead family of Philadelphia, carved into the arch in the pediment (cat. 60). Truth be told, this is not a book about the casework, which often takes a backseat to detailed discussions of clock mechanics and biographical information. Furniture aficionados may wish for more detail about the cases, which are clearly so integral to the tall-case clock form; however, the authors do include excellent photographs of the cases, when original, and a discussion of noteworthy details, which make this book in the end a must for furniture scholars and collectors.

Further biographical detail on the Stretch family appears in the back matter of the book, as does a list of clock owners in Philadelphia (1682–1750) and a comprehensive checklist of all the known Stretch clocks in existence. The eight appendixes feature detailed comparative photographs of Stretch clockworks and representative signature plates bearing the names of the Stretch family of clockmakers. For those readers seeking even more information, the authors have generously made available in electronic form a further eight hundred images related to clocks in the book under the title “Photographic Essay Addendum to Stretch: America’s First Family of Clockmakers.” This can be obtained through the Decorative Arts Photographic Collection (DAPC) at Winterthur or by contacting the authors.

For the general reader, the first chapter of the book, “Time and Telling Time in Early Philadelphia,” is especially enlightening and informative. In it we learn about the history of time-telling devices—sundials, watches, and clocks—during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the city and the centrality of clocks in the life of the growing metropolis. Peter Stretch was hired by the city in the 1710s to maintain the town clock, which he continued to do until the 1740s, keeping the clock tolling the hour while Philadelphians went about their daily business. His son Thomas fulfilled a commission in 1753 for its replacement, a monumental architectural clock that stood like an oversize tall-case clock in rusticated wood attached to the side of the State House (Liberty Hall), seen in Thomas Birch’s famous image of 1800 (fig. 2.14).

The publication of major studies of this nature, even those as exhaustive as this one, has a way of bringing additional objects and information out of the woodwork. One hopes this is also the case with this impressive book, as several important questions about Stretch’s workshop and business practices, his professional relationships with other craftsmen in Philadelphia, and the role of his children and apprentices remain unanswered. Yet, the authors have done a commendable job of teasing out the historical record whenever possible and, when information was not at hand, of building a logical case with all the available evidence. What they have produced is a notable achievement documenting the history of, if not America’s “first” family of clockmakers, then certainly the first in their class.

Dennis Carr
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

American Furniture 2013