History of the Dwarf Clock

          In the early 1800’s the creation of the Dwarf Tall Case Clock or Grandmother or Half Clock as they are called was a unique and significant advancement in American clocks. These valuable clocks had a very short production period and along with their very distinctive look, make them sought after today. At one foot wide and barely four feet tall and made to appear as a full size clock, its form captures your interest and appeal. Having a brass mechanism, hand painted iron dial and case wood, from pine to the finest mahogany, gives the grandmother clock admirer a variation of styles to choose from.

          For nearly 75 years, American clockmaking was modeled after Europe and especially England. The American colonies were based on a farming society and the passage of time which relied more on seasons, time to plant, time to harvest, the rise of the sun and it’s setting and high tides and low tides than at the exact time of day. In Colonial America clocks were very rare. The Pastor of a church might have one. The bell tower on the church steeple may chime to tell its residents the exact time a couple times a day. As America advanced, so did its need to tell time. The early clockmakers were born in Europe and immigrated to America. They brought their skills and craft with them. London, England in the mid 1700’s was the mecca of time keeping. The apprentice system and guilds were well established. Blacksmithing and whitesmithing were tried and true crafts, a blend of science and craft. The best clockmakers had the finest materials made in England. The manufacture of brass for example was a very guarded secret. The properties of being hard, yet soft enough, separated the masters from the journeyman. When they came to America that system was not in place. Clock materials had to be imported, they were expensive and very hard to obtain. Only the wealthiest could afford such a machine. When the clock needed repair, its new residents, clockmakers from Europe, could repair them locally.

          The advancement of clockmaking in America was slow. The need for accurate time keeping was still only needed by a select few. Clockmakers were also very versed in iron, tin, pewter and some precious metals. A father taught his son or sons and the beginning of an apprentice system was starting to develop. The history of clock making is a history of families teaching and training their own family members. The best example of this type of training is seen in the Willard family.

          When Henry Ford, of Ford Motor Company, was building his first Model T automobile, he had an ad campaign that stated “The competition starts with me”. In American clockmaking the competition started with the Willard family of Grafton, Massachusetts. Four brothers; Benjamin, Simon, Efranin and Aaron were the prominent American clockmakers. They set the standard that was followed for the next fifty years. The Willard’s produced clocks so efficiently, using premade parts which they mounted in beautiful cases, that they dominated the clock market. Their success attracted the finest apprentices and journeymen into the family circle. Their business accomplishments allowed them the ability to experiment and their new innovations changed the way America would tell time. Simon’s patent timepiece and the later shelf clock set the pace for others to follow. Simon’s “banjo clock”, patient timepiece of 1802, used fewer materials, less man power, more innovations and a unique design that is a true American invention. The Willard’s transformed clock making from a family craft to a country wide business.

          The water was America’s first real highway. It was faster and easier to transport by water than by land. The business of farming was being augmented by the business of the sea. Cities and towns developed and prospered along the coast. America’s new clockmakers set their shops along the waterways. The Bailey’s of Plymouth County, on the south shore of Massachusetts, was one such family. Father taught son, brothers, uncles all became involved in the business of helping America tell time. As was the case with the Willard family, the Bailey’s were responsible for training scores and scores of apprentice clockmakers.

          Political unrest with England, first with our fight for independence, then with the American Embargo of 1807 and finally with the war of 1812, required more dependence on American made products. The Industrial Revolution was moving across the ocean. Importation of materials and products of clocks and clock parts still was expensive. America was defining its own place in the manufacturing of timepieces. In Connecticut, wood movements were replacing the traditional brass movements. Tall case clocks were being replaced by the small patient timepieces and also shelf clocks. Brass dials were being replaced by painted iron dials. Blacksmithing and whitesmithing was no longer such a secret craft but rather a new science of metallurgy was evolving.

          Since the Willard’s were setting the standard of clockmaking, the Bailey’s of southeast Massachusetts were following their lead. John Bailey was producing smaller clocks with less materials being used and less materials being imported from England. The price of clocks was coming down and more people were able to afford timepieces. The Bailey’s were the first clockmakers to make the grandmother clock. Their production was very low but their apprentices, who were now established clockmakers, changed all of that. By 1810, the tall case clock was no longer being made in any great numbers. Joshua Wilder, once an apprentice of the Bailey family of clockmakers, set up his shop in Hingham, Massachusetts. The trend of smaller and less expensive clocks had captured the country.

          The dwarf clock is a great example of the clockmaker following this trend and following the times of change; a small clock that acts like a big one. At barely four feet tall and about half the price of a tall clock, it fit the bill precisely. The dwarf clock was now able to compete with the Willard’s banjo and shelf clocks. The first dwarf clocks, with their bell or sarcophagus top, competed with the shelf clocks. By 1815-1820 the fret top dwarf clock was now making its appearance. Miniature tall case clocks were now successfully competing for their share of the clock marketplace. Hingham, Massachusetts was now the center of this activity. Joshua Wilder and his apprentices, especially Reuben Tower, were producing these little gems in increasing numbers. The economy along the coast supported this activity and these half clocks were very well received. The pace of clock production along the south shore was much less than in the Boston area where the Willard advanced business was dominant. Local clockmakers outside the big cities were still in a barter economy, exchange of their goods for the goods of other artisans, the exchange of farm goods for clocks was not uncommon. Wilder and Tower produced far fewer clocks than makers in the Boston area. The little clock that acts like a big one had an interesting but very short production period. Industry was now taking a real foothold in America’s economy.

          Joshua Wilder’s son Erza, also a clockmaker, married Reuben Tower’s daughter, Rebecca. The family structure was still teaching and producing clockmakers, but that was soon to change. There is no record of Erza Wilder having made grandmother clocks. The Hingham census records list Joshua Wilder as a clockmaker but Erza, his son, was listed as a clock repairer. The business of clockmaking had changed from a craft to big business. The last dwarf clocks were produced in the late 1820’s. Fewer clocks were made by skilled craftsmen and the Industrial Revolution changed America forever. A journeyman clockmaker who could set up shop in a twenty foot by twenty foot building, to build his product was now replaced by a factory where it’s location was centralized around water to power it’s many machines. By 1830 the need for a clockmaker and all of its specialized trades had waned. His skill was now needed to repair the many clocks already made. In a span of about 50 years, the price of a clock had dropped from about sixty dollars to less than six. Many households now had a timepiece. Wooden movements replaced brass. Mantle clocks now replaced the dwarf clock, shelf clock and banjo clock. Even the powerful Willard family could not stop this progress. Names like Eli Terry and Seth Thomas were now becoming the new generation of innovators.

          The dwarf tall case clock is a shining example of American ingenuity, American economy, American taste and style and American persistence all coming together for a very brief period in our history. This little clock, that acts like a big one, will always be recognized as one of the most rare and desirable form in American clockmaking.

© 2011 Paul Gordaychik