A Matter of Time

Simon Willard was the most successful in a long line of Willard clockmakers who became renowned craftsmen of New England. Their pieces were found in many a Boston home, including the Nichols’ house. Arthur wrote in his diaries about the “Willard clocks of authentic make” that the family owned. These included three improved timepieces, a tall case clock, and a shelf clock [1]. One improved timepiece that the Nichols family owned now hangs in the Library. The clock itself has a mahogany base with eglomise glass panels along the front of the neck and case. Painted on the case panel is a young woman in a countryside setting.

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Mahogany wall clock, American, 19th century.

In 1802, a patent was granted to Simon Willard for his improved timepiece, or banjo clock, as it came to be known due to its shape. The patent, written by Willard himself, is notably vague in its terms, as compared to the usual rigid detailing found in patents [2]. Willard writes that the size of the clock is usually around 2 feet tall but this can vary, the clock is powered by weight instead of spring, that the pendulum falls in front of the weights for easy access, and that the case would be made of thick glass [3]. Because these terms were so broad, any attempt to replicate would fall under the patent, and as a result, so many banjo clocks that remain have a patent reference somewhere on their glass. Simon’s family, apprentices, and friends carried on producing his patented banjo clock with success. Arthur included this clock in his list of authentic Willard clocks the family owned [4]. Due to its detailed painting, it is possible that this clock was made by Aaron Willard, Simon’s brother, as his clocks often were painted and gilded ornately [5].

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Portrait of Simon Willard, courtesy of the Willard House and Clock Museum.

The banjo clock on display at the Nichols House Museum possesses the most common patent reference, with a simple “Patent” painted onto the neck of the clock. There were many variations of the patent references, and they often varied in placement as well. Some were adorned with “S. Willard’s Patent,” or “Willard’s Patent,” while some went as far as “S. Willard’s Patent E Pluribus Unum.” The longer patent references would have been displayed on the bottom glass, though a shorter reference on the throat was most common [6].

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Detail from mahogany wall clock, American, 19th century.

Like many surviving Willard School banjo clocks, the Nichols’ clock has a replacement finial [7]. At some point, the original finial was replaced with a federal style brass ball. The timepiece also has brass bracket ornamentation alongside the neck. Brass is similarly present in the clock’s face. Though obviously still present, brass was used less frequently in improved timepieces, making them slightly more affordable than many clocks of a similar size, like shelf clocks.

The Willard Patent Timepiece was an immediate success. The clocks appealed to people because of their compact size, their low price when compared to tall case clocks and shelf clocks, their simple handling, and their sturdiness, as these clocks would be attached to the wall while other clocks were freestanding and easily broken [8]. Unlike many clockmaking innovations, no one was ever able to make any improvements to Willard’s design [9]. On top of its practical improvements, the banjo clock was one of the first innovations to establish American clockmaking as an independent entity from European clockmaking [10].

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Detail from mahogany wall clock, American, 19th century.

This piece would have appealed to the Nichols family due to their interest in collecting fine art and antiques from the American federal period. It still hangs where Rose placed it in the library, and it is a highlight of the Nichols House Museum collection.

By Kara Wasilauski, Fall 2017 Collections Intern

[1] Nichols House Museum records. 

[2] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004. 14.

[3] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004. 14.

[4] Nichols House Museum records. 

[5] “A Banjo Clock.” National Museum of American History, http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1203266.

[6] Perlman, Richard. “An Early Willard School Improved Timepiece win an Unusual “Patent” Glass.” NAWCC Clock and Watch Bulletin, September/October 2014. 521.

[7] Perlman, Richard. “An Early Willard School Improved Timepiece win an Unusual “Patent” Glass.” NAWCC Clock and Watch Bulletin, September/October 2014. 521.

[8] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004.13.

[9] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004.13.

[10] “A Banjo Clock.” National Museum of American History, http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1203266.

 

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Author: Nichols House Museum

The Nichols House Museum's mission is: To preserve and interpret the 1804 townhouse that was from 1885 until 1960 the home of Rose Standish Nichols, landscape gardener, suffragist and pacifist. The house was built by Jonathan Mason and is attributed to Charles Bulfinch. The museum educates visitors by providing a unique glimpse into the domestic life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on Boston's historic Beacon Hill.

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