Paul J. Foley. Willard’s Patent Time Pieces: A History of the Weight-Driven Banjo Clock, 1800–1900. Norwell, Mass.: Roxbury Village Publishing, 2002. xviii + 358 pp.; 638 color and bw illus., biographies, appendices, bibliography, glossary, index. $89.95.
Simon Willard is unquestionably one of the most celebrated names among students of the American arts. He was acknowledged by early generations of popular writers on American decorative arts as “the most famous... among American clock-makers” (Frances Clary Morse) and “the finest exponent of American mechanical genius” (Wallace Nutting). Willard clocks are pictured in most surveys of American decorative arts, in every survey of American clocks, and have a high profile in museum galleries and in the marketplace.
Willard’s patent timepiece, the “banjo clock,” is among the most original and successful American innovations in the field of decorative arts. Paul Foley’s study of the form, Willard’s Patent Time Pieces, deserves two places in any library of American decorative arts; first, as the best monograph on the subject of patent timepieces yet produced and, second, as a rich and thorough compilation of biographic references to federal-era craftsmen in the Boston-Roxbury area. The first would constitute an impressive resource on its own, but combined with the second, the reader has the opportunity to construct a vivid and authentic picture of a teeming, productive crafts community that was in the forefront of many aspects of the new American culture.
The study of American clocks can be frustrating. Thomas S. Michie, in his very useful interpretive bibliography, pointed out the scarcity of good interpretive clock studies and the prevalence of anecdote in the literature. In his book, Paul J. Foley combines rigorous connoisseurship, excellent photography, and the research methodology of a social historian to create a document that will serve both as a valuable reference and as an exemplar for future clock studies.
Simon Willard made eight-day clocks and timepieces the way the English made watches. The component parts of Willard’s eight-day clocks were fashioned and finished by specialists working in disconnected shops (as far away as Lancashire), and the final product was warranted and sold by the clockmaker. This methodology is in marked contrast to the single-shop or traditional manufacture practiced by makers like Daniel Burnap of Connecticut (1758–1838) or the distinctive and well-documented, vertically integrated Dominy shop on Long Island. The division of labor among many shops is clearly seen in patent timepieces, where the movement, dial, cast brass ornaments, hands, painted glasses, case, and gilt wood ornament were all made in separate shops. Foley has undertaken with admirable success the daunting task of considering the timepiece in its polyglot complexity over a century of production in a variety of New England communities.
Willard’s Patent Time Pieces is organized into seven parts, plus six appendices, a bibliography, glossary, and index. Part I, “History and Background,” discusses the Willard family of Grafton and Roxbury and some of their timepiece forms that predate the patent timepiece (1802), and introduces and describes the patent timepiece with a splendid early example in the American Clock and Watch Museum. The photograph on page 3 of a timepiece movement is the first of many such views in the book, clearly photographed to allow for easy comparison. For those unused to looking behind dials, these privileged views will be a revelation; the nearly 650 illustrations in this volume will have a lasting value as by far the best visual index of the form in print. On page 9 is a list of eleven journeymen and apprentices who assisted Simon Willard in timepiece production during the patent period (1802–1816), a provocative introduction to the complex shop structure behind these timekeepers.
Part II, “Patent Timepieces: 1800–1840,” pictures and describes more than sixty timepieces from a variety of manufacturers, beginning with Simon Willard and continuing with other Roxbury makers; makers from Boston, Charlestown, Concord, and the North and South shores of Massachusetts; from Newport, Rhode Island, and from New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. Included in this section are some sidebars, among them an incisive discussion of marketing and prices which is illustrated with the first of many reproductions of newspaper advertisements. These illustrations point out an admirable part of the author’s methodology—his scrupulous use of newspapers and court records—and combine (with others in the volume) to form another unique resource of real value.
In parts III and IV Foley addresses some variations on the patent timepiece. Part III includes three patented variations: Lemuel Curtis’ patent timepiece, now commonly called a girandole clock; Daniel Munroe’s patent suspension, an adaptation of a silk pendulum suspension found on some French table clocks (this variant perhaps was never actually patented); and a remarkable movement by Harrison Gray Dyar that employs helical gears. Part IV includes timepieces with variations in the case design—thermometers in the waist glass, “elegant harp pattern” timepieces, which are commonly called lyre clocks, and timepieces with stenciled cases—and with variations in the movement, including alarm and striking movements. Part V, “Production Timepieces: 1840–1900,” includes later timepieces like those made by Howard and Davis in Boston. In the movements of these timepieces may be found evidence for the introduction of machine tools into the clock finishing process.
The first five sections make up a volume well worth having, but are only half of Willard’s Patent Time Pieces. With parts VI and VII, Foley expands his discussion to include the myriad crafts and craftsmen necessary to timepiece manufacture. Part VI, “Ornamental Painters and Cabinetmakers,” is filled with new information on the mostly anonymous hands behind painted clock dials and glasses in New England, many of whom were general ornamental painters who worked on looking glasses and other forms as well. This section is illustrated with more than forty lower glasses from timepieces, and here again the reader has a discrete resource that is not reproduced anywhere in the literature. Foley has been assiduous in his choice of examples to illustrate, and the reader can have a high degree of confidence that those illustrated here are genuine. They deserve careful study. Much of the information on cabinetmakers, particularly in Boston and Roxbury, will be new even to specialized readers.
Part VII, “Biographies of Patent Timepiece Makers, Ornamental Painters, Cabinetmakers, and Allied Craftsmen: 1800–1900,” will put any student of American decorative arts of the federal period in Foley’s debt. He has assembled from “city directories, newspapers, census records, vital records, family genealogies, account books, town histories, land deeds, probate records, and civil court records” (p. vii) biographical information on more than one thousand New England craftsmen, most of whom worked in the first half of the nineteenth century. This section is illustrated with more than eighty dial signatures carefully chosen for their authenticity. Dial signatures are perhaps even more treacherous than painted glasses, and the reader has another chance here to benefit from Foley’s first-rate connoisseurship and superior photography.
Paul Foley’s enthusiasm for the subject is evident throughout Willard’s Patent Time Pieces and, as he points out (p. viii), “[a] study like this is never finished.” In the hundreds of excellent photographs of clock movements is a rich trove of evidence about the shop structure underlying these timepieces. On page 41, Foley suggests the reader “[c]ompare the movement in the signed Taber timepiece in Fig. 86 with those in Figs. 95, 98, and 323.” The comparison reveals that the same brass clockwork founder, steel forger, and clock finisher or clockmaker was at work on genuine timepieces by Elnathan Taber and Simon Willard, Jr. Similarly, comparison of figs. 36 and 39 reveals, in two genuine contemporary timepieces by Simon Willard, differences in the castings and forge work (great wheel drums, pendulum keystone, T-bridge, and steel click or pawl) and differences in the finishing (plate shape, tooth form, and steel screws). Many similar comparisons can be made in this volume (and at present, nowhere else) because Foley has hunted down the examples, verified their authenticity, removed the dials, and photographed the movements carefully to reveal the salient details. Clock movements can be analyzed in good Morellian fashion as successfully as drawer construction or ornamental carving, since the clock finishers were as subject to the tyranny of training and tools as any other craftsman, but they rarely are; Foley’s book will make that exercise possible for a much wider audience.
The heterodyne shop practice revealed in the movements is corroborated in the biographical entries. For example, in the entry (p. 278) for brass founder Thomas Lillie (1789–1848) may be found the information that he advertised clock work as early as 1807; that he was in partnership with brass founder John Andrews making “Castings of any description” including “Clock Work, &c.;” and that “Orders and Patterns for Castings of any kind, left with Ezekiil Jones...will meet immediate attention, and where will be kept constantly for sale, Clock and Timepiece Cast Work, superior to English, and at less prices.” Ezekiel Jones’ (ca. 1788–1826) entry (p. 272) includes the probate inventory of his shop, which included “53 time piece glasses...26 time piece movements...29 time piece Trimming Sides [brass side ornaments]...28 Time piece Tins...24 Patent Time piece cases...128 Empty Boxes for Time pieces,” and much more, suggesting his trade was that of a horological supply merchant. Hundreds of such connections are revealed by a study of Foley’s entries, creating a vivid image of the true nature of American clockmaking.
Despite their fame and appeal, Willard’s clocks continue to occupy a peculiar nether region for historians. British horologists have long regarded clocks of that period as factory-made, and therefore of no interest. American economic historians tend to view them as handmade, and therefore inapplicable to the study of the onset of industrialization, for which they may instead use the example of Eli Terry. Further definition of the niche that Willard and related craftsmen occupied and helped create may well contribute to an understanding of issues like the development of the machine tool industry in New England; the role of capital in this process; the changing nature of labor; rural aspects of New England industrialization; and economic and geographic mobility. For furniture historians, Willard’s Patent Time Pieces not only belongs at the head of the list of resources to be used in any future study of New England clocks, but will be useful to everyone interested in federal-era decorative arts.
Robert C. Cheney
Decorative Arts and Household Furnishings in America, 1630–1920: An Annotated Bibliography, edited by Kenneth L. Ames and Gerald W.R. Ward (Winterthur, Del.: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1989), pp. 283–306.
For a helpful overview of English watch making, see Leonard Weiss, Watch-Making in England, 1760–1820 (London: Robert Hale, 1982); Robert C. Cheney, “Roxbury Eight-Day Movements and the English Connection, 1785–1825,” Antiques 157, no. 4 (April 2000): 607–15; Penrose R. Hoopes, The Shop Records of Daniel Burnap (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1958); Charles F. Hummel, With Hammer in Hand (Winterthur, Del.: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1968).
Foley’s glossary at the end of the volume includes many of the terms he uses to describe the timepieces, though not all; readers unfamiliar with clock terminology might also want to consult the glossaries in Philip Zea and Robert C. Cheney, Clock Making in New England, 1725–1825 (Sturbridge, Mass.: Old Sturbridge Village, 1992) and Stephen P. Petrucelli and Kenneth A. Sposato, American Banjo Clocks (Cranbury, N. J.: Adams Brown Co., 1995).