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            How To Date Your Grandfather Clock                       


The Origins Of The Grandfather Clock

image, an English Lantern Clock

An English lantern clock, made in London around 1650. Short 10" pendulum and verge escapement.

Because of the short pendulum it could stand on a table, but the timekeeping was poor.

image, a wall mounted Lantern Clock

Another Lantern clock, C1675, with the "new" long pendulum and anchor escapement this clock had to be hung on the wall to run. Often known as "hoop and spike" clocks because of the iron hoop to hang the clock from, and the spikes at the bottom to dig in the wall and keep the clock steady. From now on the timekeeping of clocks improved by a huge amount using the longer pendulum and "anchor" escapement. 

image, an early hooded wall clock

Around the same period, with a slightly larger dial and a wooden hood to keep the dust out of the clock movement. Still the same lantern clock movement inside, but without the expensive brass body. It would not be long before the weights and pendulum were enclosed altogether to stop the pendulum being knocked accidentally when walking past the clock. 

image, a longcase clock by Edward East,C1685

The first fully-enclosed clock known dates to 1665, the one pictured here was made by Edward East in London, dated 1685. Now instantly recognisable as a longcase, or "grandfather" clock. This style lasted for two hundred years till around 1880, when huge imports of cheap mass-produced German and American clocks put an end to longcase manufacture for good. Only a few custom-built grandfather clocks were made after this date.

Brass Dials

If your grandfather clock has a brass dial, it was probably made in the period between 1680 and 1770, and most likely between 1700 and 1770. The ones made before 1700 are very rare. Most of them only had one hand, because the average person had no need of knowing the time to the nearest minute, and with a bit of experience you can tell the time to the nearest five minutes on one of these early clocks.

 By 1730 the vast majority of grandfather clocks had two hands, for the hours and minutes. One-handed clocks continued to be made in country areas for a long time, so one hand is not an absolute guarantee of an early clock, but is a good guide. Village life was very conservative, and the people living in villages at this time still had no real need of “to the minute” time.

From around 1730 -1770 (all these figures are approximate) the brass dial clock was made all over England in ever-increasing numbers, and the dials became more ornate as time went on, especially on the eight-day clocks. More features appeared, such as seconds hands in a small subsidiary dial, date hands or wheels, and moon phases, usually in an arch on top of the dial, but sometimes in small aperture in the dial itself  


Here are a few more features to look for when dating your clock :  -

Brass dials continued to be made in the Southern counties until 1830 or even later.

The later Southern clocks usually have a dial which is a single sheet of thin brass, silvered all over and resembling an early painted dial at first glance. Period 1800 onwards.

Another late feature on Southern dials was a plain, un-matted engraved and silvered dial centre - C.1775 onwards.

Brass dials tended to simplify again from C.1750 onwards, the decorative half-hour markers were replaced by an easier to engrave simple diamond shape, or left off altogether.

Dial centres were matted till C.1700, then engraved all over with foliage type designs till C.1730. Some dials were then engraved over a matted centre, the Sam Lomax dial below right is a good example of this. Eventually most clocks went back to a plain or matted centre again. Yes, it can all get a bit confusing at times - - -

Early 8 day dials had decorative rings round the winding holes, these were left off from C.1750 onwards.

The lunette date aperture appeared C. 1750, with a fixed hand pointing to the date number. ( see Lomax dial below ) The date numbers were engraved on a wheel which revolved behind the dial to show the current date number.

From C.1760 onwards, the edges of any cut-outs on the dial were scalloped for decoration, moon phase, seconds, date, etc. This feature started to appear C1760, and continued afterwards on good quality work.

Early clocks 1680 to 1700 had a small dial, eight or nine inches square. 1700 to 1740 the size went to ten inches square, 1740 to 1770 the dial is likely to be eleven inches, and by 1770 the size went to twelve inches and stayed that size. There are exceptions to these sizes of course, but they are a good general guide when taken with other features.

Another date clue I have noticed during clock repairs is that any screws in an early movement (1680 to 1750) have square heads. After 1750 the screw heads are round, and the thread profile is better cut. 

From 1730 longcase clocks ceased being made in London, the clockmakers followed the demands of fashion, and made bracket, or shelf clocks. Provincial clockmakers, many trained in London, made large numbers of longcase clocks from 1700 right through to 1880, when imports of cheap German and American wall and mantle clocks put an end to the making of longcase clocks altogether.

A "bird-cage" movement (it has vertical pillars and the plates are horizontal top and bottom) is often taken to be a sign of an early clock. This is not guaranteed however, in Southern England the clockmakers continued to make this type of movement from the start right through to 1820. The bird-cage movement is a guide to location, not date. Very few Northern makers used this movement, it was essentially the same as the even earlier Lantern Clock movement. Northern makers had no tradition of making these clocks, so used the normal plated movement (vertical plates, horizontal pillars) from the start of their clockmaking.

Some case features - - - Early clock trunk doors fit flush inside the door opening, from 1730 onwards the door was given a larger edge and covered the hole sides by fitting against the case front.

A convex moulding under the hood is another reliable sign of a pre 1710 clock, after this date again with a very few exceptions, usually in rural areas, the mouldings were always concave.

Hood pillars were barley-sugar twist until 1705, then either plain or fluted after this date. Up to C. 1700 the hood pillars were attached to the hood door, and opened with it. Some Southern clocks continued this to the end of the brass dial period, but by 1715 the vast majority were separate from the door, fitted to the hood frame.

Cast brass capitals were fitted to the columns on the hood, and on the trunk if fitted, from 1740 onwards on the more expensive clocks.

Country clocks often have a rather plain, but nicely proportioned Oak case, often with a flat top, but after 1740 the fashion came in to put horns on the top, often decorated with round wood or brass facings. 

The "caddy" top was used from 1690 to 1710, then the fashion changed to the "pagoda" top, often with three ball and spire decorations screwed on right, left and centre. This type of hood top carried on from 1740 right to the end of the brass dial period.

Marquetry was used on top-end cases in London from 1675 to 1720. There are almost no provincial marquetry cases.

Japanned, or Lacquered cases were fashionable from 1725 to 1770, some Northern examples are around, but many were stripped back to the wood years ago, when our climate caused the finish to deteriorate badly.

Pendulums too have a time progression, 1680 to 1740 they had a thin wire rod with a small rounded bob, often plain lead. From 1740 to 1800 the wire rod stayed, but the bob became flattened into a saucer shape, around four inches in diameter, often with a brass case. The late ones 1800 to 1880 have a wide flat strip of iron instead of the wire rod, and the same four inch brass-faced bob. Sometimes the bob is cast iron with a decorative pattern, and painted gold or black.

Lead weights were always used until C. 1770. Quality clocks had brass-cased lead weights. Cast Iron weights were used on nearly all painted dial clocks - - - a cast iron weight on a brass dial clock is not original.

A good reliable sign of an early clock is the half-hour marker (between the big roman numerals) being a cross with arrow heads . The base of the cross runs right down into the chapter ring edge. C. 1670 to 1705.

The same early clocks had the minutes numbered inside the minute band, and quite small C. 1670 to 1695. From 1695 the minute ring is moved inwards on the chapter ring, and the numbers engraved outside the minute ring. 

Another clue - - - the minute number 5 had a short tail until 1710, this tail grew longer over time, by 1750 the tail almost curled right round to form a circle. Easier to see than describe, but unmistakable once you have seen it.

A bit of detective work looking for all the clues, then taking them all together should enable you to have a very good idea of when your clock was made. If the dial has a signature and place name this is another helpful source of information, there are several directories of clockmakers available  - - -  don't be too disappointed if your clock maker is not listed, there were many, many one-man makers working in England who only made a few clocks altogether because they were busy farming, or weaving, or blacksmithing and made the clocks in winter for an extra income.

South in these notes means all the South of England, as far up as the South Midlands. North means Birmingham to Scotland.

If you are thinking of buying a clock, these notes should help you to avoid some of the "altered" clocks, of which there are many - - - unscrupulous antique dealers used to put a good brass dial eight day movement in a nice Mahogany case to increase it's value. (This is called a "marriage" by the dealers)  Of course they then put the painted dial movement in the plain Oak or Pine case, and sold it off cheaply. Unfortunately there are lots of these clocks around still, if you want a nice original clock you need to know what to look for. I hope some of the features I have given here will help you make an informed choice of clock.


image,an early one handed clock dial

image,a brass dial by Lomax of Blackburn

   An early 10" brass dial, one handed, circa 1710                                A later 12" brass dial, circa 1760     


CLUES TO THE DATE CAN BE FOUND IN THE HANDS, MOVEMENT PILLARS, AND SPANDRELS. THESE FEATURES ARE NOT ABSOLUTE, BUT BY TAKING THEM TOGETHER WITH OTHER INDICATORS A GOOD IDEA OF THE DATE TO WITHIN TEN YEARS CAN BE FOUND.


HANDS

A:   These hands were usual on London clocks from about 1685 to 1700, then were re-used in the provinces later.

B:   As above. 

C:   As above.

D:  1700 to 1715 in London, around 1730 to 1740 in the provinces.

E:    As above.

F:   As above.

G:  Very common pattern provincially 1725 to 1750

H:  Often used outside London  1700 to 1725

J:   Used in the provinces 1715 to 1735

K:   As above.

L:  Very popular  1750 to 1800

M:  Again, much used North and South 1750 to 1800

N:  Final form of hands on brass dials 1780 to 1820

Also used on the first painted dials of the same period

P:   As above.

Q:   As above.


Movement Pillars

No 1 An early period "finned" pillar, often used by London makers, and good provincial clockmakers. 1660 to 1740

No 2  middle period, very common pattern 1740 to 1800

No 3  Late period pattern, 1800 and after.


Dial Spandrels

( These tend to be a better date guide than hands, which were often broken and replaced )

1. London, pre 1700, very rare on provincial clocks

2. First appeared C1685, peak use provinces  

1695 to 1710

3. Often used by Thomas Thompion, but appears 

1695 to 1730 on provincial clocks.

4. Very popular outside London 1700 to 1725

Can be seen on the early brass dial pictured above.

5. A large spandrel, mainly used in Northern England

C 1750 to 1775 

6. Used in London from 1700, and in the provinces 

C 1725 to1740

7.  First appears in the provinces 1715,

 very popular  C1730 to 1740

8.   As above ( 7 )

9.  Very much used in the South and South Midlands on cottage clocks  1730 to 1750

10. First known example 1709, very popular 

1730 to 1765.

11. First example 1750, but much used 1765 to 1785

12.  Provincial pattern, 1755 to 1780

13.  As above ( 12 )

14.  Rococo pattern, used 1760 to 1785

15.  Arch dial spandrel,  1760 to 1785

)

16.  Used together with ( 15 ) above 1760 to 1785


Painted dial clocks, often called “white dial clocks” in Britain.

Painted dial clocks appeared about 1765 to 1780, and after this the brass dial clock ceased to be made, again with just a few exceptions in rural areas, especially the far southern counties of England. The majority of English grandfather clocks were made in The Midlands and the North of England. The new painted dial was cheaper and easier to produce and easier to read by the poor light available at night, so the brass dial was dropped from production over a very brief period, for our purposes it is fair to say that no brass dial clock was made in the big clock making centers after 1780.

It may be worth a mention here that the clocks we are talking about were no different apart from the dial itself; everything else remained the same in both cases, only the dial changed.

Fortunately the painted dials then followed a certain progression as the fashions slowly changed over time, this means that we can usually date a clock to the nearest five to ten years. - - - And it also means we can see at a glance the important features without having to dismantle the clock.


White dials were first made in Birmingham, England in 1772.

The first white dials from 1772 to 1800 were lovely, simply and sparingly decorated, and with much of the white background showing. Decoration consisted of spandrels painted on in gold paint in the four corners, (probably to resemble the cast brass spandrels fitted to brass dials.) Sometimes a swag of flowers or similar was painted on the dial face, but again very sparingly and restrained. The hands were made of steel, very fine, often blued or blacked and not exactly matching.

Another year indication of an early dial is the use of dots for the minutes with small Arabic numerals round the dial at 5, 10, 15 minutes etc. The  hours are marked by Roman Numerals.

image,an early white dial

image, a second early white dial

Two early painted dials, circa 1775 to 1780


From 1800 to around 1830, again the style of the dial changed slightly. The minutes were usually dots, and not the lines inside two narrow concentric circles that we are used to, but often the minute numbers changed to the quarters only, instead of every five minutes. The missing numbers were often replaced with little symbols, often looking like stars.

At this time it also became fashionable to use Arabic numerals for the hours instead of Roman numerals. The painted background decoration is starting to spread out too; arched dials have a scene painted in the arch, often with a spray of flowers on each side. The corner painting is spreading a little too, and the imitation spandrels are now often geometric designs, or a fan shape, or a floral design, which fills the corner.

image,a middle period dial

image,a second middle period dial

Two middle period dials with Arabic hour numbers. Circa 1810 to 1820


Now we come to the later clocks, of around 1830 to 1880. In the North of England after 1830 grandfather clocks gradually got bigger and bigger, until by the end of the period some of them were huge - - - the dials were often fifteen inches wide and the clocks were eight feet tall, sometimes nine feet or more.

Given the larger area of dial to be decorated the dial painters went to town, the corner paintings became little masterpieces in their own right, and the decoration spread from the corner right up the side of the dial circle, to meet the next corner painting, and so on. Most of these clocks have an arched dial, and the artist painted in a large scene, often a biblical illustration, or a country scene, a nautical scene, a ruined abbey, or something ordered specially by the customer.

The hours have gone back to Roman numerals and stay that way; the hands are normally highly decorated brass and matching. These brass hands were used after 1830 for the rest of the period when grandfather clocks were made, in other words up to 1880, possibly in a few rare cases to 1890.

The minutes are shown by a minute band, two concentric circles close together, with lines inside to represent each minute instead of minute numbers. There are occasional exceptions of course, some makers seemed to have a favorite feature which they kept using long after everybody else had moved on - - -  Date and seconds subsidiary dials are usual now, and the small ornate hands fitted to these are also brass and matching.

image,a black and white late dial

image, a second late dial

Two later dials, the painting filling the dial and arch. Circa 1840 to 1850


Another late dial, from the end of the Grandfather clock production days. Not much white left on here - - -

Center seconds hand and large date hand, rolling moon phases in the arch.

Very typical of the late dials, except for the center seconds and use of minute numbers. These may be used as seconds here.

 Circa 1860 to 1870

image,a very late dial in colour


To finish off, here is a quick guide to the various white dial features and their dates:  

Some of these features can overlap, but looking at all of them gives a good guide to the approximate year.

(Of course, all dates are approximate, to the nearest ten years.)

 Numbering

Dotted Minutes                                                    1770 to 1800

Minutes numbered every five minutes          1770 to 1800

Minutes numbered every quarter hour         1800 to 1820  

No minute numbers                                           1820 to 1880

Roman hour numerals                                      1770 to1800   then   1825 to1880  

Arabic hour numerals                                        1800 to 1825

Full minute band                                                 1815 to 1880

Corner decoration

Flowers or fruit                                                    1770 to 1800

Fans, shells or abstract                                    1790 to 1830

No painting - left blank                                      1780 to 1820

Gold imitation spandrels                                  1775 to 1785

Arch decoration

Name of maker                                                    1770 to 1780

Flowers or birds                                                 1770 to 1795

Small painting on white background            1795 to 1815

Full painted scene                                              1820 to 1880

Moon dial                                                              1770 to 1830

Dial size

10” to 13”                                                             1770 to 1810

13” to 15”                                                             1810 to 1880

Square dial                                                          1770 to 1825

Arch dial                                                               1770 to 1880

Hands

Steel                                                                      1770 to 1815

Brass                                                                    1815 to 1880


FIRST AND LAST - - -

image, an early 6 inch brass dial C1680

a late 15 inch painted dial

A very early unsigned 6.5" square dial, C1680

A very late 15" dial, C1880


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