“Grandfather clock” is a popular name for a longcase clock – a clock with a long pendulum and weights. Styles of grandfather clocks depend on both the clock mechanism, and the design and decor of the clock case. Longcase clocks were created around 1670 and were originally very expensive custom-built items. Grandfather clocks were mass-produced from about 1800 on, and shorter pendulum clocks were also developed. Pendulum clocks were finally made redundant by quartz technology in the 1960s. However, grandfather clocks are still made today as a traditional craft.
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Designed For The Most Accurate Timekeeping
The Dutch invented pendulum clocks in the 17th century. Longer pendulums increase accuracy, but pendulums naturally swing in a wide arc – too wide to be enclosed in a case. An English clockmaker invented a mechanism to restrict the swing but retain accuracy. This allowed long-pendulum clocks to be built into tall cases, hence the name “longcase clock.” The weights wind up the clock with longer weight runs making the clock go longer. Early grandfather clocks ran for one day or eight days, and the eight-day clocks were more expensive.
Different heights and widths of grandfather clocks are not just decorative but derive from the functioning of the clock mechanisms. The Comtoise clock, made in France from the 18th century onwards, has a pot-bellied case. The pendulum bob is centred in the pot-belly, which allows a heavier pendulum with a wider swing. The French naturally made these cases in a curving style.
Early European Ornate Longcase Clocks
Early European clocks were expensive and highly ornate. They can be found in William & Mary and Louis XIV styles. They were painted and enamelled, or used extensive marquetry and inlay. Gorgeous examples can be seen in many museums. Moon dials to show the phases of the moon were incorporated into grandfather clocks early on. However, early clocks chimed only on the hour; quarter-hour chimes were a 20th-century addition.
American, Canadian and Australian Grandfather Clocks
Other countries soon got into clock making too, often with training from England or Holland. In the U.S., longcase clocks are sometimes called "tall case." Eighteenth Century American clock makers such as the Willard brothers developed economic methods and efficient workshops, and by 1800 started producing more affordable mass-produced clocks. American clock makers had access to fine woods and their clocks are often beautifully proportioned, but in a plainer style than earlier European clocks. These functional clocks were very successful and put some of the English clock makers out of business.
Grandfather and Grandmother Clocks
Grandfather, Grandmother and Granddaughter are popular names for sizes of longcase clocks, rather than specific styles. The names derive from an American popular song of 1876 and are now used to indicate different heights: grandfather clocks are 6 feet and over, grandmother clocks 5 feet and granddaughter clocks under 5 feet.
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- Collectors Weekly; Interview with Gary Sullivan; Maribeth Keane and Brad Quinn; Feb. 26, 2010