Nov 232011

In the Seventeenth Century the longcase clock grew out of the brass ‘chamber clock’ or lantern clock which had a removable wooden hood (it had to be taken off every time the clock was wound up). The introduction of the pendulum, linked to a change from a balance wheel to an anchor escapement, led to much greater accuracy of time-keeping. Early pendulum clocks had to accommodate a swing of 100º which necessitated the use of  ‘wings’ at the side of the clock. In time a standard 39 inch pendulum was introduced (known as the royal or seconds pendulum). This swung every second and needed an arc of between 4º and 6º, so clock cases could be narrow, but needed to be long enough to hold the pendulum. In time the cases moved on from being a plain box into being elaborate and beautifully embellished carcasses. In England their style was much influenced by craftsmen from Holland, who came over with William of Orange in 1685.

Early Marquetry longcase clock with bolt and shutter maintaining power, C.1685.In the early years of the 17th Century the time keeping devices had been known as horologues – the clock was simply the striking mechanism but over the years the term ‘clock’ was applied to the entire mechanism. The terms “grandfather”, “grandmother”, and “granddaughter” have all been applied to longcase clocks. Although there is no specifically defined difference among these terms, the general consensus seems to be that a clock smaller than 5 ft is a granddaughter; over 5 ft is a grandmother; and over 6 ft is a grandfather. Other names are tall-case clock, or floor clock.

Typically these longcase clocks of the latter part of the 17th Century were adorned with corkscrew or twisted pillars, and the cases were elaborately embellished with marquetry, The wood was usually pine or oak, often blackened to look like ebony, with fruitwood decoration. The early clocks only had an hour hand and there were double circles where the numerals were, dividing the hours into quarters, the half hours being indicated by an ornament of extra length, like an arrow-head or fleur-de-lis. The engraving on clock faces and on the brass plates at the back was highly decorative. Borders, intricate rings about the winding holes, birds and flowers, were all introduced into the decoration, and the spandrels or ornaments at the corners became incredibly ornate. Early dials often had a line of verse in each corner such as one from 1681 bearing the words:

“Behold this hand,
Observe ye motion tip;
Man’s precious hours
Away like these do slip.”

In time verses gave way to angels heads, and cupids, and these made way for the scrolls and rococo designs of the 18th Century.

Thomas Tompion, known as the ” Father of English watchmaking,” had by 1658 attained much fame and status. He was succeeded by Daniel Quare, who had a shop at St. Martin’s le Grand, London, in 1676. Then came George Graham, an apprentice and protégé of Tompion, and he succeeded to his business in 1713.

The early clocks were thirty-hour mechanisms (i.e. they needed to be wound up once a day, with a six hour lee-way). Then came the eight day clock – much more expensive, and therefore immediately sought after. Eventually month and even one-year clocks were introduced.

By the middle of the 18th Century mahogany made an appearance, and then swept the board thanks to the efforts of men like Chippendale. Oriental styles were also popular, with lacquered painted decorations on an oak carcass.

An early arch dial, C.1725 with rare date ring to the arch.

The early clocks all had square faces, made of brass. In time more elaborate features – such as phases of the moon, date, silent/chime controls etc – led to an arc being added above the square (particularly after 1710). And then a total change came in – the vogue for painted dials. These started in the 1770s and within thirty years had largely replaced the brass dial. These early dials had simple decorations, such as birds or strawberries. By 1830 small painted scenes, in the corners and arch, were depicted on dials.

An early painted dial C. 1790 with blued diamond steel hands. Throughout the 1800’s the longcases got smaller. The finials disappeared and designs became simpler and less embellished. Manufacture in London slowed down and largely switched to Birmingham and the Midlands, and to Bristol and the West Country. Even worse, the vogue was for clocks with circular faces and hence rounded tops to their cases – a loathsome abomination which to my mind marked the end of the development of the longcase clock!

All the clocks featured here come from P. A. Oxley Antique Clocks. They have an excellent site at and I am grateful to them for setting out a  helpful history of the longcase clock on their site.


  9 Responses to “Hickory dickory dock – the history of the longcase clock (Part 1)”


    I love clocks…. wonderful blog. A word to period writers using this, though, do remember that the term Grandfather etc is a fairly modern one, period would only be long case clock.


    Quite so. I used longcase throughout this post but mentioned ‘grandfather’ as one of the names, but without being able to ascertain exactly when this term came into use.Any horologistrs able to advise?


    Fabulous post! I love clocks too. My grandparents had a beautiful Grandfather clock in the dining room.
    Re Grandfather – The Oxford English Dictionary states that the 1876 song, My Grandfather’s Clock, is responsible for the common name “grandfather clock” being applied to the longcase clock. However, the term appears as early as 1817 in Ovid’s Art of love, Remedy of love, Art of beauty, and Amours, by John Dryden Ovid. (courtesy of Wikipedia)


      Thanks for that! I guessed it was ‘Victorian’ but that clearly isn’t good enough for the likes of you! I do own a complete Oxford Dictionary (fascinating reading being able to see how each word developed a new meaning through time) but of course the set is in England….and I am in Spain! Thanks for picking up the loose end and making it tied of!


    Wonderful post! My hubs is into clocks big time and when they all chime at once it drowns everything else out.
    I was wondering how wide spread clock ownership was in Regency times? At what stage did people who werent wealthy start having their own clocks or time pieces?
    Grace x


      Richard Hall notes when he bought time-pieces for each of his children (ie watches) and also when he took delivery of his longcase clock (that is in Part 2…scheduled for later this week).But my guess is that it was the mantle clock which became truly popular in the 18th Century, as opposed to the long case clock. Not many ‘humble abodes’ would have a ceiling height sufficient for a long case, as I will be explaining…


    The need for clocks in the more ‘humble’ home coincided with the increase of factories in the early 19C (and the need to get to work on time). 30-hour longcase clocks were cheaper and were often made by the local blacksmiths. Spring-driven clocks were still expensive at this time because of the cost of making the springs, barrels etc. So the weight-driven clock remained the commonest because of their simplicity and better accuracy. However, the ready availability of cheap weight-driven clocks began with the itinerant clock-sellers from the Black Forest of Germany (the so-called ‘Dutch clock’ as often referred to by Dickens). These were by the 1840’s mostly supplanted by imported clocks from the USA.


    Small longcase clocks are quite rare bur would probably have been called ‘cottage clocks’. The grandmother clock is usually a 20C product.

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