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Grandfather Clocks History Past Present

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Posted October 6, 2013

Some grandfather clock history and clocks history never gets old. Just look at the stories of Simon Willard, Aaron Willard and Benjamin Willard. An article written in 1936 is still as informative and interesting to a clocks historian as one written today. Grandfather Clocks enthusiasts are sure to minimally find this interesting.

Richmond Times-Dispatch
May 24, 1936

Grandfather Clocks, Some Genuine Old-Timers Still Tick Off Hours or Chime Timely Melodies, Proof of Care Their Makers Used

Many things had been discussed by the little group seated behind the plate glass window of a Franklin Street store. And that isn’t exactly true either. Many things had been broached, but the discussion was almost wholly a monologue by the host, a veteran of many a trek into the hinterlands of the antique country and a recognized authority on early American antiques. Now and then a listening member would throw a few words into the conversation, more to keep the oratory flowing than for any factual use, until at last someone uttered those well-worn last words: “What time is it getting to be?”

Subconsciously glances were directed toward the tall dominating grandfather clock against the far wall. Then they fell back to modern wrist-watches and there was a concerted start–for watch and clock pointed to the same hour. No one mentioned it, but there was a subtle sort of mental agreement that it was all “just a coincidence.” But it wasn’t. That old grandfather’s clock was still keeping time, and correct time. “How come?” I lingered to question the antique dealer. And thereby came this tale, a story of famous old American clocks and clockmakers. It seems that– when Simon Willard was 13 years old he made his first “grandfather” clock. When he was 82 he made the large clock in the Capitol at Washington. He was born in 1753, lived to be 95 years old, and left behind him some of the best and most beautiful clocks that have ever been made.

Simon Willard had no grand ideas about organization, sales promotion and production. He did all his work in the space of four rooms. It is good to think that Simon’s clocks, which were made by hand and with infinite care and solicitude, command a higher price today than those made by Aaron Willard, his brother, who opened up a factory and turned out watches and clocks by the hundreds.

Side by side in a Richmond, Virginia antique shop may be seen a grandfather clock made by Simon Willard and one by Aaron Willard. To the connoisseur with blood in his eye the clock made by Simon is much the finer. To the casual onlooker both the clocks are rare examples of early American grandfather (or long case) clocks.

A Simon Willard "Grandfather Clock" (left), which is still in first-class condition. The case is very handsome with its curved fretwork on top. Phases of the moon and the days of the month are both given. Simon Willard made his first Grandfather clock at the age of 13.
A Simon Willard shelf clock (right). The Willards’ called these clocks, which were made as early as 1784, timepieces, because they did not strike. The works are made of brass.

 

Benjamin Willard, who started making clocks in 1764, was the father of Aaron and Simon, and the first of this famous Massachusetts family to engage in clock-making. In the Boston Gazette for February 22, 1771, he advertised, “Musical clocks playing different tunes, a new tune every day in the week, and on Sunday a Psalm tune. These tunes perform every hour.”

Reliable Clocks Kept Puritan Sabbath

And such is the reliability of a Willard clock that there is no single record of a Puritan Sabbath being violated by week-day tunes. Likewise, the beauty and workmanship which went into the clock cases of Simon Willard is not the only reason these clocks bring good prices wherever antiques are sold: The clocks run and they keep good time.

Simon Willard was an inventor of genius, but that did not keep him from being a thrifty American. He thought that clocks ought to be good and that they ought to be cheap enough for an American to own one, and at the same time have money enough left for a house to put it in. He advertised little, relying on his clock papers (and his clocks) to put across his ideas. One of these clock papers tells his story:

A Simon Willard "Grandfather Clock" (left), which is still in first-class condition. The case very handsome with its curved fretwork on top. Phases of moon and days month are both given. Simon Willard made his first at age 13. A shelf (right). Willard called these clocks, were as early 1784, timepieces, because they did not strike. The works were brass.

“Simon Willard, at his Clock Dial in Roxbury Street, manufactures every kind of clock work, such as large clocks for steeples, made in the best manner. . . . Clocks that will run one year without winding up, with very elegant cases, price 100 dollars. . . . Elegant daytime pieces, price 30 dollars. Timepieces which run 30 hours and warranted, price 10 dollars. . . . Chime clocks that will play six tunes, price 120 dollars. . . . Gentlemen who wish to purchase any kind of clocks are invited to call at said Willard’s Clock Manufacture, where they will receive satisfactory evidence that it is much cheaper to purchase new than old and second-hand clocks. He warrants all his work–and as he is ambitious to give satisfaction–he doubts not of receiving public approbation and patronage.”

Willard Originated the “Banjo” Clock

Although Simon Willard knew the worth of his clocks, it is doubtful if he dreamed of the approbation and patronage they would receive less than a hundred years after his death. He set out to make serviceable clocks that thrifty Americans could buy with a clear conscience. What would he say if he could happen in today on some sale of rare antique clocks and see his paragons of thrift and mechanical perfection sold for prices for four figures? And the purchasers, descendants, perhaps, of those thrifty New England customers of his, glad to get them at that price and paying for them with a smile?

Aaron Willard turned out his clocks by the hundred. The clock at right is mahogany with inlay. The other clock is by Nathaniel Edwards of Acton, Mass.

In 1802 Willard brought out his patent timepiece, which was later called the banjo clock. It was a prodigious success. No improvement has since been made on the original design. The story goes that such accuracy did Willard have in his hand and eye that he habitually filed the teeth of his cogwheels without marking them; and that when someone asked him why he didn’t stamp his brass with markers, he replied that it was unnecessary–his wheels were accurate. And Simon Willard was right! One proud owner of a Willard order clock says that it has run within 30 seconds of accuracy for a month.

Simon Willard died during the turbulent year of 1848. He had retired from business in 1839 and sold his tools and the good will of the business (together with the privilege of putting the name Simon Willard on the dials) to Elnathan Taber, his best apprentice. Simon Willard Jr. took these clocks and sold them at his shop in Boston.

It was this son, Simon Jr., who made the astronomical clock now in the observatory of Harvard University. His astronomical regulator was standard time for all railroads in New England.

Since the first grandfather clock appeared in England in 1681, clockmakers in this country and abroad have given them thought and consideration, so that now, when the antique hunter goes clock hunting, there is every style, every wood and every price at his disposal for this useful and beautiful ornament.

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As Of: 07/23/2019