Federal and Empire Treasures:
By Bob Jackman
GRAFTON, MASS. — Lighthouse clocks are among the most expensive examples of early American clocks; they are also are among the most poorly understood. An exciting and informative exhibition now on view at the Willard House and Clock Museum sheds new light to the subject. The exhibition in the museum’s main clock gallery features 12 prime examples of period lighthouse clocks by Simon Willard and others, along with three reproductions on view for comparative purposes. “This is the first public exhibition of lighthouse clocks,” stated West Townsend, Mass., clock specialist and Willard Clock Museum Trustee John Delaney, Sr. “The public has never had a chance to see so many of these clocks at one time,”
In a seeming paradox, “lighthouse clocks” were never intended for use in lighthouses. The Twentieth Century term “lighthouse clock” merely acknowledges a similarity in form between the shape of a lighthouse and some of these clocks. Simon Willard’s 1818 patent for these clocks also refers to them as “alarum (sic) clocks,” and indeed they were the first alarm clocks produced in America. A significant number of the later clocks of this type were, however, crafted without alarms.
Willard Museum Curator and Director John Stevens estimates there are about 200 to 300 extant lighthouse clocks. Delaney and Brimfield, Mass., clock expert Robert Cheney agree. Cheney commented, “People used to say there were only about 25 of these clocks, but that was wrong. In my career, I have seen between 75 and 100 lighthouse clocks.”
The strength of the exhibition is the reasonably high number of clocks on display, their fine condition and the presentation of a wide range of forms. The exhibition includes an explanation of the various parts of a lighthouse movement using elements fashioned by clockmaker John Losch. It also prompts visitors to make visual comparisons, place the clocks in stylistic periods and to see the clocks as cultural counterpoints to the Industrial Revolution.
Planning for the lighthouse clock exhibition began four or five years ago with Willard Museum founder Dr Roger Robinson, clock dealer Herschel Burt and Stevens providing the early impetus. Since Burt’s death a couple years ago, Willard President Rick Currier participated in the organization of the show. The lighthouse clock exhibit is dedicated in the memory of Burt, a former Willard House Trustee.
Spanning Decorative Styles
Given the relatively small number of lighthouse clocks available for the exhibition, they present surprisingly varied appearances. Some variation is in response to the shift of furniture taste from the Federal (Neoclassical) style to the Empire (Classical) style. Some of these clocks, however, are less formal and reflect the vernacular interest in painted furniture, particularly Windsor chairs. The influence of all three decorative styles is clearly denoted within this exhibition.
An appealing feature of all lighthouse clocks is the action of the brass movement seen through a glass bell jar (dome with handle) at the top of the clock. The observer’s eye can be captured by the mechanism keeping time, winding string on the weight drum and operating the alarm. It may have been that early Nineteenth Century Americans were enthralled with the action of the mechanism since the clock was the only common domestic object with an extended gear train. The exposed movements that are the featured decorative elements of lighthouse clocks appeared to work magically.
The most basic role of the lighthouse form case is to conceal the drive weight, the alarm weight and the pendulum. The case also provides physical and artistic support. The use of a circular bell jar dictated that the upper case have a complimentary circular unit. Most lighthouse clocks have a columnar section beneath the movement and often the column accounts for about 40 percent of the overall height of the clock, although there are examples where the column is as short as a couple inches.
The more expressive unit of the case is usually the base. Today, one would expect the base to be a second columnar unit consistent with the most typical lighthouse form. Actually the column over column configuration is less common than the column over an octagonal base arrangement or the column over rectangular cupboard arrangement.
Stylistically the earliest clock in the exhibit is painted white and that makes an immediate Neoclassical statement. The overall ivory color with simple gold stripes highlighting the edge of the molding is distinctly Federal. Centered on the column is a Wedgwood blue cartouche bearing the gold inscription “Simon Willard’s Patent, Roxbury,” a Neoclassical motif. A large picture on the base depicts visitors admiring sculptures and building in Classical Rome. The clock oozes with the beauty, grace and refinement of the Neoclassical style.
Artistically interesting, one clock in the exhibit features a circular scene on the door of its base of a harbor landscape is a refined, professional image that captures the play of light across sky and water. The four figures toward the foreground have remarkable natural poses with one of the standing figures hunched slightly forward and toward the right as he leans on a staff length cane.
The painting at the top of the short columnar section is equally interesting decorated with a broad red band above a broad blue band whose surface has oxidized to a near-black shade. Under close examination, gold lines emerge within the blue band that follow an arrow and parallel line motif similar to that seen on some strongly painted Windsor chairs. One is compelled to recall a set of red-seated Windsors with blue spindles, trimmed with chrome yellow and green lines, and painted gold motifs. This clock would be a marvelous decorative compliment to such a set of polychrome Windsor chairs and it is reasonable conjecture that this clock was commissioned for just such a setting. The clock, with a paint decorated iron dial, is considered by many to be a wonderful example of vernacular painted furniture.
A regal clock in the exhibition features a column-over-octagonal-base configuration. The clock radiates more volume and punch than the previous examples and is clearly in the high Empire or Classical style. Surfaces of the case are covered with highly figured mahogany veneers, and the face of the clock is a French porcelain dial with a brilliant, pure white field. A gilded brass bezel encircling the dial depicts a series of sunflowers and roses. Under magnification, one sees that the flowers are separated by two oak leaves, each topped with an acorn. Consistent with the Classical style, the clock is decorated with the finest fire-gilded brass mounts. A wide gilded brass ring serves as the transitional molding between the columnar and octagonal sections and the clock stands on fancy paw feet, a popular motif in the Classical style. The largest boss is on the base section and depicts a sprig of oak leaves and acorns, a symbol of longevity that was repeatedly used on Willard lighthouse clocks. A smaller boss on the columnar section incorporates a flame and quiver, probably intended to represent the flame of liberty and the willingness to fight in defense of liberty.
Delaney commented, “Most lighthouse clocks were produced between the mid-1820s and the mid-1830s, which was a time when the Empire style was strong. Therefore, many lighthouse clocks have Empire cases.” While a high percentage of lighthouse clocks have similar Empire forms with a column over octagonal base, the clock above incorporates about all of the finest features.
Delaney placed lighthouse clocks into their historical context. “In the 1830s the nation was deeply into the Industrial Revolution and mass production. Manufacturers who were able to sell clocks for $2 were forcing individual clockmakers out of business. Lighthouse clocks were handmade objects created in an age when the vast majority of the clocks were commercially manufactured. The lighthouse clocks were going against the Industrial Revolution. They were continuing the tradition of the handmade clock and the workshop of an individual craftsman,” he said. “They were something the carriage trade could afford as something special. There is no definite recorded price for lighthouse clocks, but I think they probably sold new for $45 to $75.”
For Delaney, the carriage trade origin explains the variation among lighthouse clock cases. He commented, “I think these clocks were never widely produced for the market. They were a custom product that a clockmaker could produce if a customer requested it. In that situation, the person who pays the dollars gets to determine the outcome. I think clients describe the clock that they wanted and clockmakers produced custom clocks for them.”
Delaney lamented that there are too few lighthouse clocks to tie together the pattern of tradesmen working in concert. He stated, “With banjo clocks there are still thousands of them around, and there are documents such as invoices and bills. Scholars have been able to tie together a clockmaker with a dial painter, case maker and a case painter. With lighthouse clocks, there are no documents, and there are far fewer clocks.”
In today’s world the most common place for alarm clocks is the bedroom, but Cheney thinks it was different in the early Nineteenth Century. He noted, “In reading early inventories I have found surprisingly few that have listed clocks of any kind in the bedchamber. I think those people went to bed when it got dark and rose when it got light. They did not need an alarm clock to know when to get out of bed.”
Cheney continued, “I think lighthouse clocks were prominently displayed in the front parlor. Look at the design and fancy mountings. These clocks have the same highly figured mahogany veneer as the finest Empire parlor furniture. They have the same gilt brass mountings. That brass mechanism was intended to dazzle people. Classical lighthouse clocks are totally consistent with the finest Classical parlor furniture. Beyond decoration, I think these clocks were useful for regulating some of the social activity in the home, such as the time that tea was served.”
Discussion About Makers
In the Willard Museum exhibition, all the clocks have a Willard connection. Most have dials that state “Willard Patent” or “Simon Willard’s Patten” or “Simon Willard and Son’s Pattent”; others have signed cases or tags with similar wording. In the larger market, however, there are a significant number of lighthouse clocks without a name on the dial, and even a few clocks with the names of other makers.
Willard President Rick Currier noted, “An important aspect of this show is that visitors get to see the tremendous amount of variation among lighthouse clocks. For example, there are variations among the springs used to hang pendulums. There are even pendulums that are hung directly without a spring. One clock has a pendulum hung with a silk string in the French manner. The bridges that support the pendulums are just as varied. There are full bridges, half bridges and T-bridges. Clocks with similar cases have significant differences in their movements. The extent of variation is striking.”
Delaney stated, “I do not think any lighthouse clocks were produced outside New England. I think they were a Boston product. Many have a Willard origin. Variation is seen in other Willard lines so I am not surprised to find variation in among the lighthouse clocks. For example, Simon Willard produced three different types of works for his tall case clocks and within those types there are smaller variations.”
For Cheney, the extent of variation in clock movements is too great to be consistent with production by a single master clockmaker and his apprentices. He argued, “There have been some extensive studies of shop practices of early clockmakers, such as the Dominy family on Long Island and Burnap in East Windsor, Conn. These studies indicate that a set of designs and patterns were passed down from master to apprentice, generation to generation, a practice that is consistent with other trades such as with chairmakers and cabinetmakers.
“These clocks vary hugely in quality of the design and in workmanship,” stated Cheney. “The cases were custom-made to suit a client’s needs, but the client probably had very little input about a clock movement. If a clockmaker had a set of patterns hanging on the wall, why would he create an entirely different design? Incidentally, these designs demonstrate a wide range of problem-solving approaches. The many movement designs could indicate there were many different makers or that some works were being imported from Europe.”
Three Twentieth Century reproduction lighthouse clocks are on display and each is considered to be a fine example of an Empire-style clock. These clocks also provide visitors with an opportunity to compare originals to reproductions, and to develop a set of characteristics that distinguish period clocks from later works.
Two of the reproductions have brass dials engraved “Simon Willard’s Patent.” Period lighthouse clocks either had porcelain dials with brass backs or painted iron dials, never brass dials.
The movements of the three reproductions rest on round wood seats recessed in wells about an inch deep. In contrast, original lighthouse clocks sit on felt-covered thin iron seats about a quarter-inch below the lip of the molding at the top of the column.
The reproduction clocks have circular holes drilled in the molding of the column where winding keys can be inserted. This type of winding hole enables the clock key to be placed over the winding shaft without moving the bell jar (dome). In contrast, period clocks were wound by tilting the bell jar backwards to fit the key over the winding shaft. Period clocks on display either have no break in the upper molding or a shallow semicircular depression.
On the reproduction clocks brass mountings such as finials, bosses and feet are good, with an acceptable amount of detail. In contrast, mountings on period clocks have been cast with extraordinary detail — some only seen with magnification.
There are also more subtle differences between reproduction and period clocks. In their 1980 book, A Study of Simon Willard’s Clocks, Richard Husher and Walter Welch noted, “More recent ones [reproductions} are recognizable from the use of rolled brass, good homogeneous steel and screws made to current standards. In addition, marks characteristic of modern machine tool cutters can be found and short cuts showing unfamiliarity with Willard’s approach to clockmaking are prevalent.”
Cheney noted that during the 1930s clockmaker James Conlon of Charles Street in Boston made a number of lighthouse clocks and that clocks with Condon movement castings continue to appear on the market.
The Willard House and Clock Museum displays seven rooms furnished as an Eighteenth Century residence, three galleries of clocks and a clockmaker’s shop. The earliest section of the building was constructed in 1718 for Joseph Willard, the first European-descent resident of Grafton, Mass. The home was enlarged with significant additions in 1755 and 1812. The clock shop was erected in 1766. The premises opened as a museum in 1971. Clock galleries were erected in 1976, 1981 and 1991.
A hardcover catalog with 36 pages presenting information gathered from the exhibition is in preparation, and a December publication is planned. John Losch is writing the text and Paul Foley is doing the photography. The exhibition will also be commemorated with a calendar featuring pictures depicting lighthouse clocks. The calendar will be available in December, and can be ordered for $12. Shipping and handling are an additional $2.50.
All of the clocks will continue on display until October 15 when a couple clocks will be removed for exhibitions at other museums. Most of the lighthouse clocks will continue to be on view at the Willard Museum until November 15.
The museum is at 11 Willard Street. Hours are 10 to 4, Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 to 4 on Sunday. The museum can be reached at 508-839-3500 or www.willardhouse.org.