Connecticut Clockmaking

Jeff Sexton

From The American Horologist magazine, March, 1941

"Connecticut Clockmaking"

By Mr. Edward Ingraham

President E. Ingraham Clock Co.

The next man to leave a real impression on the clock business was Chauncey Jerome of Bristol and New Haven. He conceived the idea that a one-day brass movement could be made to replace the cheap one-day wooden movement, and is remembered because of his connections in the clock business with P. T. Barnum and because of the written record he left behind him. Chauncey Jerome's History of the American Clock Business, published in 1860, is still mighty good reading and helps give us a picture of the early makers. Chauncey was born in Canaan on June 10, 1793. His father was a blacksmith and wrought nailmaker who early moved to Plymouth. There the boy, before he was 15 years old, was "bound" to a house carpenter who treated him very well. Chauncey had ambition and plenty of plain guts. It could not have been long before he arranged for his release from his apprenticeship, because while still in his 'teens he was using his talents as a woodworker in making clock cases and peddling clocks. I shall not try to follow his career but cannot refrain from quoting a few incidents related in his biography. He writes: "The next summer was the cold one of 1816, which none of the old people will ever forget, and which many of the young have heard a great deal about. There was ice and snow every month of the year. I well remember on the 7th of June, while on my way to work, dressed throughout with thick woolen clothes and an overcoat on, my hands got so cold I was obliged to lay down my tools and put on a pair of mittens which I had in my pocket. It snowed about an hour that day. On the 10th of June, my wife brought in some clothes that had been spread on the ground the night before, which had been frozen stiff as in winter. On the Fourth of July, I saw several men pitching quoits in the middle of the day with thick overcoats on, and the sun shining bright at the same time. A body could not feel very patriotic in such weather. I often saw men when hoeing corn, stop at the end of a row and get in the sun by a fence to warm themselves. Not half enough corn ripened that year to furnish seed for the next. I worked at my trade, and had the job of finishing the inside of a 3-story house, having twenty-seven doors and a white oak matched floor to make, and did the whole for eighty five dollars."

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Certainly life was very different 100 years ago. Nothing illustrates that better than to compare Jerome's life story with that of one of our Twentieth Century clockmakers. Surely we are "softies." He lead a hard life-physically and mentally. There are many obvious reasons why 100 years ago he could not enjoy the physical comfort that his successors now enjoy. I suspect that much of his worry might have been avoided if he had had our numerous modern means of communication. In the time which has elapsed since Jerome went through his business career, we have made tremendous strides, yet the "tired business man" has a few problems left to deal with. Need we rehearse them? "The New Deal," financial problems, taxes, labor relations, markets, politics, and so forth ad infinitum.

Jerome was in the clock business from 1816 until about 1860. His greatest accomplishment came in the hard times of 1837. While in the South on a business trip, he invented a one-day brass clock, which he figured could be made much cheaper than the wood clock. On his return, he told his brother, Noble Jerome, what was on his mind. As Chauncey himself says, his brother was a first rate clockmaker who said he would go right to work and get up the movement, which he perfected in a short time, and presto-the Yankee clock business went through another revolution. It was then far more drastic than' the revolution which hit the clock bus i n e s s in the 1930's when the public suddenly accepted the electric clock, and some 200 or more manufacturers rushed into the clock Business from which they soon hastily departed. Jerome's invention sounded the death-knell of the wooden clock movement though there were a few marketed as late as 1841. I have been told that once there were piled up outside of one of Bristol's old factories at least 2000 obsolete wooden movements. Kindling wood! Jerome, whose Bristol plant was to be completely destroyed by fire in 1845, now proceeded to rapidly develop his markets. He not only had to make thousands of one-day brass movements, but had to case them, so built a factory in New Haven, where his cases were made, and to which he transported his movements via the Northampton Canal, delivering them to the Bristol Basin at Plainville.

Jerome in his biography, tells how in 1842 he sent a consignment of brass clocks to Old England, making a bargain with Epaphroditus Peck of Bristol to take them out, and how he sent with him his son Chauncey, Jr. This Epaphroditus Peck later died in London. Jerome writes of a pleasing incident which occurred soon after the English business started. To quote: "I had always told my young men over there to put a fair price on the clocks, which they did; but the officers thought they put them altogether too low, so that they made up their minds that they would take a lot, and seized one shipload, thinking that we would put the prices on the next cargo at higher rates. They paid the cash for this cargo, which made a good sale for us. A few days after, another invoice arrived w h i c hour folks entered at the same prices as before, but they were again taken by the officers, paying us cash and ten per cent in addition, which was very satisfactory to us. On the arrival of the third lot, they began to think they had better let the Yankees sell their own goods, and passed them through unmolested, and came to the conclusion that we could make clocks cheaper and much better than their own people. Their performance has been considered a first rate joke to say the least." Jerome then boldly prophesies that "we are the people who will furnish all Europe with all their common cheap clocks as long as time lasts." Alas and alack - Jerome didn't count on the Germans, who years ago captured that market from the ingenious Yankee.

Poor Chauncey! Hard-working, God-fearing, generous, courageous enterprising-another pioneer! His fire of 1845 was a heavy blow. He now moved to New Haven, where he resided for about 15 years, and served as Mayor of the City. During his life there he built a Church. About this time P. T. Barnum - the famous show man - delved into the clock business, and the firm of Terry & Barnum (Theodore Terry and P. T. Barnum) was formed and started operations in Bridgeport. According to Jerome, this con c ern was already heavily involved when they effected a consolidation with his company then known as the Jerome Manufacturing Company. Jerome says that this transaction was made and closed without his knowledge, as he was out of the state at the time. The result was ban k r up t c y for the Jerome Manufacturing Company and ruin for both Jerome and Barnum. Each accused the other of the responsibility for the failure, but it hardly seems that a man of Jerome's character should take the blame. (He never fully recovered, though Barnum succeeded in getting re-established after undergoing very severe reverses.) The business which has been done by the Jerome Mfg. Co. was taken over by the New Haven Clock Co. Jerome had much hard luck but I wonder if he was as good a business man as he makes out in his biography.

The early clock makers made one great contribution which should not be overlooked. They created a demand for brass! Lathrop (who wrote extensively on the bra s s industry) says that the rising brass industry passed the experimental stage between 1820 and 1830, but it was in this so-called "experimental stage" that Joseph Ives perfected his rolled bra s s strap movement and only a decade later when the demand created by Chauncey Jerome's new one day brass movement which was brought out in a terrible depression, must have given the brass industry a tremendous impetus. Of course other commodities also felt the effects of this growing industry.

Another associate of Eli Terry was Seth Thomas, born in 1785, died in 1859 - after whom the town of Thomaston was named. Tho mas served an apprenticeship to the trade of carpenter and joiner, and spent some time on the construction of Long Wharf in New Haven. On his majority he left his apprenticeship and as a very young man (the age of the common and ordinary variety of college graduate) he joined into partnership with Eli Terry and Silas Hoadley, who was six months younger than Tho mas. Terry was very much the Senior partner in this enterprise, as he was then 35 years of age. (As Terry, Thomas & Hoadley they made clocks about 1809). In 1810 Terry sold his interests to these two callow youths, who carried on the business until 1814, when Thomas sold to Hoadley, moved and set up to manufacture wood clocks in Plymouth Hollow-now Thomaston. Seth Thomas had then reached the advanced age of 29, was a full fledged clockmaker on his own account, an economic royalist, and a genuine 24 karat rugged individualist. Jerome says of him, "Seth Thomas was in many respects a first rate man. He never mad e any improvements in manufacturing; his great success was in money making. He always minded his own business, was very industrious, persevering, honest, his word was as good as his note, and he always determined to make a good article and please his customers. He had several sons who are said to be smart business men." Why has his name endured? You have just heard what his competitor Jerome, who took no fancy to him, has to say of him. Doesn't that description tell us some reasons why he succeeded and his name survived? He made a lot of money and the "smart sons" carried on for three generations when the stockholders sold the business to the General Time Instruments Corp. which also operate the Westclox Company, but apparently one policy was never lost track of: "he always determined to make a good article."

Will you forgive me for bringing my own family into this discussion? The picture is hardly complete without mentioning Elias Ingraham. Born in Marlboro in 1805, he learned his trade as a cabinet maker. Evidently learning that the going was good in the little town of Bristol which then had some 1700 inhabitants, he must have put his joiners tools and spare c lot h i n g on his back, and in 1828 walked from Hartford to Bristol to get a job. In 1831 he bought a shop and paid taxes from then on as a mechanic. The panic of 1837 about floored him as he became heavily involved in debt, from which he was released just a century ago, when his brother Andrew came to his rescue. His early work was confined to cabinet making-furniture, chairs, mirrors, and clock cases, but when Jerome's brass movement became popular, he joined hands with a man named Ray and s tar t e d making clocks in his own name in 1841. Successive partnerships prevailed un t i 1 his plant was destroyed by fire in 1855. With characteristic Yankee perseverance he stuck to his guns until the last, which was in 1885. Elias Ingraham's flair for design, and his everlasting perseverance for m his claims to fame. The design for which he is best k now n is the so-called Sharp Gothic clock, which had four pillars, two rising from either side of a gable roofed case, all four crowned with nicely turned finials. The story is told that he carved the model for this clock while returning from a trip to Caracas, Venezuela. The object of this trip is unknown, but I believe he took it because he wanted to find out more about mahogany, with which he worked as a cabinet maker. Tradition says that he took "French leave" from his wife as she had ash a r p tongue, but as he came back again and lived with her happily ever after, this tale may not be true. Of Elias Ingraham, Edward S t eve n s, then Vice President of the New H a v en Clock Co. said at a clock manufacturers meeting in New York in 1879 "that it was conceded by everyone competent to express an opinion, that Elias Ingraham h e a d e d the list of American clock manufacturers in the matter of designs." In 1907 one of Bristol's early historians, Milo Leon Norton, wrote that "George Mitchell who seems to have been the leading entrepreneur of his day, wanted to produce a clock case superior to Chauncey Jerome's bronze pillar clock, and hired Elias to do that job." Elias may have had designing talent -he also had persistence and progeny. The latter, thanks to the former attribute, have passed the business down even into the fourth and fifth generations, while the sixth is rearing its head, from the pillow.

Two other men of the early period we will mention briefly for from their beginnings have grown two modern clock factories.

J. C. Brown was born in Coventry (Burnap's home), in 1805 and came to Bristol about 1833 when he bought an interest in one of the early clock factories. He may have learned clock making from Burnap. Until he failed in 1855 he was a leading figure in many Bristol firms. The picture of his residence, which is still standing, appears in the lower glass of many an antique clock. After his failure, his interests were bought by Elisha N. Welch - a great figure in his day. Within a few years of Welch's death (he died in the little village of Forestville, leaving an est ate of over three million dollars) his business was in bankruptcy, to be succeeded by the present Sessions Clock Co. of Forestville.

Riley Whiting of Winsted started making clocks there is 1807 in partnership wit h his brothers-in-law Samuel and Luther Hoadley. When these men retired, he continued in the business, making both Grandfather and shelf clocks, including the handsome pillar and scroll clocks, until his death in 1835, after which his business was taken over by William L. Gilbert.

While we may seem to have covered the history of a good many men, we have picked only a handful from the hundreds whose names are identified with the clock business in Connecticut. Carleton Buell - a Civil Engineer-of Bristol, made a careful study of the early town records, and has a list of over 200 names of Bristol clockmakers, whose labels appeared at one time or an other in Bristol clocks alone. Time permits mention only of such men as ]. C. Boardman, who made many O. G. clocks, the Darrows, who made clock tablets, Laporte Hubbell who made fine marines, B. B. Lewis and his perpetual calendar, George Mitchell who was the entrepreneur for many a Bristol clockmaker, the Downs, Birges, Atkins, Manross, Bartholomew, etc.

Let us then chronologically name the remaining clockmakers:

The Gilbert Clock Co., going back to Riley Whiting in 1807.

The Seth Thomas Clock Co., founded by Seth Thomas in 1813.

The New Haven Clock Co., going back to Chauncey Jerome, 1817.

The Sessions Clock Co., going back to J. C. Brown, 1827.

The E. Ingraham Co.. founded by Elias Ingraham, 1831.

The H. C. Thomas Clock Co., going back to Noah Pomeroy, 1847.

The Waterbury Clock Co., founded by Benedict & Burnham, 1859.

The Lux Clock Co., founded by Paul Lux, 1917.

Time like an everrolling stream, Bears all its sons away;

They fly, forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.

You will note that five of the eight companies date their origins back over a century. It is hardly incumbent on me, a competitor, to challenge these claims to hoary antiquity. The early days of all of these companies are shrouded in the mists of time. To think that for four generations these companies have fought for their share of the trade and have stuck it out through thick and thin, is surely a tribute to those who have had to carry on. (Compared with man's mortality, company survival is high). I estimate that the s e eight companies employ in good times approximately 8500 hands, and influence, of course, the employment of many others. I have thus far only attempted to review the antecedents of the older survivors in the clock business, and to give you a sketchy though rather lengthy review of the historical background of this Connecticut industry.

The past century has wrought many changes in the industry, a few of which we shall consider.

The greatest change has doubtless come in the dies, tools, and machinery used, particularly in the art of die making, though that has had to advance hand in glove with the improvements made in machinery, as well as the stock to be cut up. Sometimes it is difficult to know to whom to give the full credit for an improvement. We suddenly discover that we can do today what we couldn't do before, but behind that discovery lies advancement in many fields. While we have learned to make better dies and cutting tools, we could not do so if others had not been able to furnish better machinery in which to use these dies and tools, and - a fact which is of equal importance-if the development 6f the quality of brass, strip steel, tool steels, brass and steel rod, and all kinds of material used by the industry had not kept pace with the tool development. There is little question but that the crying need for improvement in the clock business in the past has helped stimulate research leading to improvements which have inured to the benefit of all industry. In the woodworking field in which our industry is still interested, the developments have been less spectacular, though gradually vast improvements have bee n made in ripping up lumber, in veneer manufacture, in moulding and shaping lumber, and sanding and finishing. In the materials used in "case making" less change is noticeable. Mother Nature hasn't materially changed lumber, nails, screws, glue, and most mill supplies are little better, though doubtless much cheaper.

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