Tall Case Clock by Elnathan Taber (1768-1854)

Made: c. 1790 in Roxbury, Massachusetts; Birmingham, England

Materials: Mahogany, eastern white pine, brass, metals, paint

To see this object in the Nichols House Museum online collection, search for 1961.371a-d at http://www.nicholshousemuseum.org/collection.php

Currently On Display at the Nichols House Museum

Before watches or cellphones, a long case (or tall case)[i] clock was a functioning piece of home technology signifying status and wealth. Not only were clocks expensive (costing upwards of a few thousand dollars today), but in the agrarian past when time was based on the sun and the seasons, a clock signaled that its town-dwelling owner valued punctuality in an increasingly regimented world.[ii] But such a device had to be cared for. A clock had to be wound every so many hours or days (depending on the model) so it would continue to keep time. Its chimes could be heard throughout the house, interrupting household activities.  This clock, made by Elnathan Taber about 1790 in the Nichols House Museum collection, is an eight-day model, a top-of-the-line piece with the newest technology of the eighteenth century. The brass gears inside the wooden case did not need to be rewound for eight whole days…. failure to do so would silence the clock. [iii]

How a clock moves

Within a mechanical clock, the pull of gravity moves the weight down with each pendulum swing, which also moves the hands around the clock’s face. [iv] In a grandfather clock, the weight slowly (in this model, over the course of eight days) dropped the length of the clock’s trunk, and combined with the precise and (ideally) frictionless swing of the pendulum, the clock kept more accurate time than smaller clocks of the period. Numerous factors could slow a clock down, from dust in the gears to seasonal changes of humidity, all which minutely affected a clock’s meticulously created movement. Making sure the clock functioned properly was part of the art of clock making. Not only did the piece have to look nice, its gears had to function well, too. In the collection of Old Sturbridge Village, one of their Elnathan Taber clocks has hand-written instructions inside describing how to wind and care for the clock.[v]

The men behind the clock

This clock was made by Elnathan Taber (1768-1854), a clockmaker based in Roxbury, Massachusetts who was said to be the best apprentice in the shop to renowned clockmaker Simon Willard (1753-1848).[vi] These two men lived and breathed clocks. Although many artisans made pieces for clocks including mechanics, artists, forgers, and cabinetmakers, it was the clockmaker who had the knowledge to coordinate the ordering and assemble the pieces. For example, Elnathan probably ordered clock cases from a local cabinet maker, while the gears came from a factory in Birmingham, England. Elnathan apprenticed under Simon Willard after Simon made a name for himself in the Boston area for his fine clocks.[vii] Simon made household clocks and also installed large clocks in public buildings, including Old South Meeting House and the US Senate.  Elnathan worked with Simon for years and later bought the business and, in a marketing strategy, also acquired the right to label his clocks “Simon Willard.” Simon was well known for producing quality clocks, so his name carried the public’s trust in its quality. The clock in the museum collection, however, bears Elnathan’s name but dates from a period when he would have been working alongside Simon at his shop. The clock features a patriotic eagle over the hood, and an allegorical image painted in the lunette, the arched top part of the dial. Tall clocks were investments in the eighteenth century, a sign of the growing social importance of accurate time-keeping.

By Ashley Jahrling, Assistant to the Director

[i] Grandfather clocks were known as long case or tall case clocks before an 1876 song “Grandfather’s Clock” by Henry Clay Work popularized the new term http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/index.php/exhibits/bio/C198. Listen here: https://archive.org/details/MyGrandfathersClock.

[ii] Philip Zea, “Timekeeping: The Lifestyle of Accuracy- An Interpretive Essay for the J. Cheney Wells Collection of New England Clocks at Old Sturbridge Village.” 1986.

[iii] Jessica Chappell, “The Long Case Clock: Engineering Behind a Grandfather Clock.” Illumin, Vol. 1 Iss. IV. University of Southern California, 2001. https://illumin.usc.edu/184/the-long-case-clock-engineering-behind-a-grandfather-clock/

[v] Old Sturbridge Village, Tall Clock by Elnathan Taber. 57.1.2. http://resources.osv.org/explore_learn/collection_viewer.php?N=57.1.2

[vi] Walter A. Dyer, “The Willards and Their Clocks.” Country Life in America, June 1915, pg 47.

[vii] For more information about the Willard family of clockmakers, see: Joseph Downs, “Three American Clocks,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. Vol. 32, No. 5, May 1937. 129-137; The Willard House and Clock Museum at http://www.willardhouse.org/.