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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Keeping Time: Southern Tall Case Clocks


Fig. 1: Tall case clock, movement by Thomas Walker (d. 1786), Fredericksburg, Va., 1765–1785. Black walnut, yellow pine, oak, and glass; brass, silvered brass, steel and iron. OH. 96½, OW. 20⅞, OD. 10⅜ in. Gift of Elizabeth
M. Nicholson (2005-105).

Tall case clocks, also known today as grandfather clocks, evoke a nostalgic sense of family and home. Acquired originally for their timekeeping properties, they were functional, decorative, and costly. Due to the expense, clock ownership was quite limited in the eighteenth century and reflected economic status. It wasn’t until the commencement of mass production in the early nineteenth-century that the middle class could afford to own the form.

Eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century American tall case clocks were housed in cases that ranged from the simplest box to the most ornate cabinetry. The product of distinct crafts, a cabinetmaker or joiner built the wooden case while a clockmaker produced the mechanical movement. Specialists in America and England were often involved in the production, from casting the brass wheels for the movement, engraving or painting decoration or the maker’s name on the dial, or producing inlaid wooden elements or painted motifs and patterns to ornament the clock cases. While American tall case clocks often emulated British examples in their forms and decoration, American clocks were quite distinct, incorporating local and cultural preferences from the selection of the woods to the choice of design or ornamentation into the finished object.
Fig. 2: Tall case clock, movement by Thomas Walker (d. 1786), Fredericksburg, Va., 1765–1780. Case maker unknown, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, 1765–1780. Black walnut, chestnut, yellow pine and glass; brass, steel, and iron. OH. 95⅛, OW. 21⅝, OD. 11⅛ in. Museum purchase (1951-578).

Tall clock cases produced in the American South combined the ingenuity and artistry of their makers with inspirations from various American and European sources. Although there were concentrations of clockmakers in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the Shenandoah Valley, far fewer clockmakers resided in the South than in the Mid-Atlantic or Northern regions of the country during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and correspondingly fewer Southern clocks have survived. Working in Fredericksburg during the late eighteenth century, Thomas Walker, the most prolific clockmaker in colonial Virginia, used a combination of imported and locally made brass parts in his bracket and tall case clocks that he housed in locally made cases. The Fredericksburg cases with Walker movements that survive tend to follow British prototypes, often with pyramidical shaped hoods and the lightweight construction typical of British design and training. Indeed, Scottish-born cabinetmaker James Allen (1716–1789), who employed British-trained journeymen in his Fredericksburg shop, may be responsible for these cases.
Fig. 3: Tall case clock, movement by Thomas Jones (n.d.), Strasburg, Va., 1790–1800. Black walnut, tulip poplar, light and dark wood inlay and glass; brass, steel, and iron. OH. 101, OW. 19½, OD. 17 in. Museum purchase (2002-69).

The clockmaker, Thomas Jones, is a bit of a mystery. Although no clockmaker with that name is known from Strasburg, two Thomas Jones were listed on the 1810 census of Shenandoah County, one of whom was identified as a blacksmith in 1813. Perhaps Thomas Jones was the owner of the clock, or perhaps the blacksmith of that name also sold clocks, a possibility for craftsmen in the metalworking trades.
One example (Fig. 1) descended in the family of John and Elizabeth Porter Grigsby (m. 1764) of Culpepper County, just west of Fredericksburg. Another eight-day clock by Thomas Walker ended up further west in the Valley of Virginia (Fig. 2). With so few clockmakers in Virginia during the late eighteenth century inhabitants of inland locales might look to a Tidewater city like Fredericksburg to purchase a clock movement. A clock without a case would have been far easier to transport over the mountains than one with a large wooden case. A local cabinetmaker could construct the case once the clock was procured. The design and construction of this clock, like much of the furniture produced in the Valley of Virginia, was heavily influenced by the migration of Pennsylvanians down the Great Wagon Road. The broken scroll pediment with carved rosettes, fluted quarter columns, ogee bracket feet and urn and flame finials were standard Pennsylvania design elements.

In addition to the Pennsylvanians, Virginians, Germans, French, Scotch-Irish, English, Welsh and numerous other settlers of various ethnic and religious backgrounds flooded down the Valley from Maryland, through Virginia to North Carolina and Tennessee. A few clock cases highlight these non-Anglo European influences. One exceptional clock signed by Thomas Jones of Strasburg, Virginia, near Winchester, has a case that appears to be influenced by mid- to late-eighteenth-century Dutch clocks (Fig. 3). Made around 1800, the case exhibits a baroque aesthetic with its heavy bombé base and moldings, round lunette in the trunk door, arched hood and five turned finials.

Fig. 4: Tall case clock, case decorated by Johannes Spitler (1774–1837), Shenandoah County, Va., 1800. Yellow pine, paint, and glass; iron, steel, and brass. OH. 97¾, OW. 20, OD. 11⅜ in. Museum purchase (1973.2000.3).

Spitler, who decorated but did not build the clock case, painted the date 1800 and his initials “J.Sp” on the clock’s door along with “No 2.” This latter inscription probably refers to this being the second clock (number 2) he painted.

While Germans were the predominant continental European group in many parts of the American Backcounty, this clock suggests that some Dutch were present as well. Many high style Dutch tall case clocks from the second half of the eighteenth century had elegant bombé bases and three or five finials. While the Jones clock is very different in its ornamentation from these marquetry covered Dutch prototypes with figural finials, the case maker was certainly familiar with and thinking about that form when he crafted this purely American version in black walnut and tulip poplar with a light and dark diagonally cut (or barber pole) banding on its moldings and corners.One great example of the culturally expressive painted tradition found on some furniture produced by craftsmen of Germanic descent is the tall case clock ornamented by Johannes Spitler (1774–1837) of Shenandoah (now Page) County, Virginia (Fig. 4). Like the Thomas Walker clock in the Valley of Virginia case, the form of this clock follows Pennsylvania prototypes.
Fig. 5: Tall case clock, movement possibly by David Whipple (m.1805), case possibly by Peter Rife (1762–1858), Southern Valley of Virginia, probably Montgomery (now Pulaski) County, ca. 1810. Mahogany, cherry, tulip poplar, oak, black walnut, holly, maple, bone, horn, silver, and glass; iron, brass, and steel. OH. 108½, OW. 24, OD. 15 in. Museum purchase (1996-107).
The painted decoration in Prussian blue, red lead, lampblack, and white lead includes the iconography of a leaping stag, birds, hearts, and rosettes: elements also found in other decorative arts of German Americans.

Another Valley of Virginia clock that is also highly decorated, albeit with inlaid motifs rather than paint, was produced further down the Valley of Virginia, probably in Montgomery (now Pulaski) County, Virginia, around 1810 (Fig. 5). This clock is an ambitions tour de force of whimsy, elegance, and artistry. According to tradition, this clock was commissioned around 1809 by a wealthy landowner and tavern owner of German descent, Sebastian “Boston” Wygal (1762–1835) of Montgomery County. Tradition is that the clock was produced by local cabinetmaker Peter Rife who moved to the Valley from Pennsylvania and clockmaker David Whipple. The form of the clock case is highly unusual with its chamfered corners, scrolled feet and correspondingly scrolled hood projections. But it is the wide variety of inlaid motifs that makes it a truly remarkable case. Rife used a number of intricate geometric bandings on the clock as well as somewhat traditional inlays of an American eagle and vines emanating from urns. But he also created highly unusual inlays of a conch shell, a pinecone type flower, flowering witches’ hearts, and bellflowers emanating from striped shields. The imagination of this maker in devising these elements was only exceeded by his technological success in crafting the case.

Fig. 6a: Tall case clock, movement by George Woltz (1774–1812), Hagerstown, Md., ca. 1800. Black walnut, sumac, holly, yellow pine, and glass; iron, brass, and steel. OH. 102⅛, OW. 22¾, OD. 11 in. Gift of Dr. David C. L. Gosling (1998-155).

Made further north in Hagerstown, Maryland, clockmaker George Woltz’s (1744–1812) clock (Fig. 6a) illustrates an important aspect of clockmaking: not all clocks by one clockmaker have cases by the same cabinetmaker. The first Woltz clock case illustrates one Hagerstown cabinetmaker’s use of local sumac for his inlaid fans, banding, and bellflowers on a traditional Pennsylvania influenced case. While sumac provides a strong aesthetic, most urban cabinetmakers chose to use a finer grained wood like maple, holly, or satinwood for these elements.
Fig. 6b: Tall case clock, movement by George Woltz (1774–1812), Hagerstown, Md, 1795–1805. Black walnut, yellow pine, tulip poplar, holly, and glass; iron, brass, and steel. OH. 100, OW. 18, OD. 11¼ in. Gift of Perry Van Vleck, 1980-200.

A second clock, also with a movement by Woltz (Fig. 6b), illustrates another local maker’s nod to a British-inspired tradition popular in urban centers like Baltimore with its more restrained inlaid broken scrolled pediment over a horizontal molding and its elegant oval patera on the trunk door of ruffled leaves. This western Maryland cabinetmaker probably imported the inlaid oval panel from a specialist maker in Baltimore. Depending on their origin, training, or even the trade patterns of their current locale, cabinetmakers in the same region might produce very different objects due to the variety of influences on them.
Fig. 7: Tall case clock, movement variously attributed to Eli Terry, Seth Thomas, and Silas Hoadley, or Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadley, Plymouth, Conn, 1809–1814. Case maker unknown, Eastern Shore of Maryland, ca. 1825. Cherry, yellow pine, tulip poplar, and glass; oak, cherry, and steel/iron. OH. 85 ½, OW. 16⅜, OD. 1013⁄16 in. Museum purchase, partial gift of Robert P. Fondes (1997-9).
A very different Southern clock case is found in the example that descended in the Farlow-Parker family of Parsonsburg on Maryland’s Eastern Shore (Fig. 7). Housing an imported Connecticut movement from around 1809–1814, the later, but original case from circa 1825 is quite plain and rather architectural. Made of cherry, this flat topped case does have some ornament in its quarter columns and reeded trunk door, but overall, the aesthetic is much simpler than many of the Southern clocks discussed so far. Part of the owner’s decision to purchase this streamlined case was perhaps impacted by the type of movement used. In the early nineteenth century, Connecticut clockmaker Eli Terry and his associates began manufacturing wooden clock movements, a change from the previous hand production of either wood or the more typical brass examples. These early mass produced clocks were far cheaper than their predecessors and made clock ownership possible for many middle-class consumers. Less expensive woods ornamented with paint were often used for the case. The cherry example in figure 7 was not painted but its simplistic form and minimal decoration is in keeping both with the tradition of architectural joiner-made furniture on the Eastern Shore as well as the use of a cheaper manufactured Connecticut movement. What the case might lack in ornamentation is more than made up for by the unusual painted dial with its double portraits and native figure representing America (Fig. 7a).
Fig. 7b: Painted dial of clock shown in figure 7.
Boston-area clocks, including those by Aaron Willard, were also exported to Southern markets. One such tall case clock in the Colonial Williamsburg collection was retailed by William McCabe of Richmond, Virginia. McCabe clearly labeled a New England clock and case with his name so that customers would know where to purchase such a clock locally and where to have it repaired. John McKee of Chester, South Carolina, also imported Boston clocks. Some of the extant clocks with his name or label also retain the label of Roxbury maker Aaron Willard and are housed in Massachusetts cases. This example (Fig. 8) has McKee’s name on the dial and a history of ownership in the Pheifer-Quinn family of Charlotte, North Carolina. The local cabinetmaker appears to have been familiar with Willard’s Roxbury case style as the lower half of the case echoes that design. But he added his own artistic twist to the top of the case with his unusual shaped pediment suggestive of C-scrolls with inlaid rosettes and plinths, and he included a wider band of contrasting veneer around the trunk door and base than was typically seen on Northern examples. Perhaps the cabinetmaker’s distance from an urban style center freed him from the encumbrances of coastal fashion or popular taste and allowed him greater creativity in his design.

Fig. 8: Tall case clock, Movement signed by John McKee (1787–1871), Chester, S. C., 1815–1820. Mahogany, satinwood, yellow pine, and glass; iron, steel and brass. OH. 108⅞, OW. 19⅝, OD. 10⅜ in. Museum purchase, the Sara and Fred Hoyt Furniture Fund (2010-64).
Creativity and inspiration appear to have been driving forces in the appearance of Southern tall case clocks. While the cases typically reflect the maker’s training and geographic or cultural background, each craftsman’s unique creativity and artistry produced visually exciting Southern objects.

Tara Gleason Chicirda is the curator of furniture at Colonial Williamsburg. Her exhibition Keeping Time: The Tall Case Clock, which includes Northern and Southern American as well as British tall case and bracket clocks, is on view at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg through February 2, 2013. Additional clocks in the Colonial Williamsburg Collection can be viewed at under the “Museums” tab.