T.A. from Valencia sends me this tall case or long case clock, not technically a “grandfather” clock, because the term “grandfather” only entered parlance due to a popular song written by Henry Clay Work in 1875.
Songwriter Work checked into an English hotel, sat in the lobby, and asked why the old tall case clock wasn’t working. The receptionist said the clock stopped when the “old man” died. A popular song was formulating in Work’s mind; he wrote: “My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf, so it stood ninety years on the floor; it was taller by half than the old man himself, though it weighed not a penny more. It was bought on the morn of the day he was born, and was always his treasure and pride; but it stopped short – never to go again – when the old man died.” Thus, from 1875 onwards, the term “grandfather” has been applied to tall case clocks.
T.A.’s clock is unique, however, in that his has a large flat perforated disk mechanism affixed inside the workings within the case. We all know the sound of the Westminster chime, but T.A.’s clock plays a song, like a music box does, when the hour strikes. What it plays is delightfully morose; “Abide with Me,” a hymn reminding us that our hours are numbered: “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens, Lord with me abide. When others helpers fail and comforts fee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.” This melancholy grandfather clock reminds us every hour is one hour closer to “darkness.”
The poet of “Abide with Me,” the Scots Henry Francis Lyte, died from tuberculosis three weeks after he wrote these lines. Not something I want to remember every hour, but when this clock was built in the late 19th C. it was considered good taste to be religious, paranoid, and moralistic (regarding one’s social deportment). Remember those were the days when piano legs were covered in black ‘panties’ lest they excite the young men of the house.
That hymn was penned in 1847, a favorite of George V, Gandhi, the Captain of the Titanic, and Dr. Who. T.A.’s has a walnut carved case in the dense Renaissance Revival style with the decidedly sober German style called Alt Deutsch, adding to its gravitas. Invented by the Lenzkirch Clock Firm to play music on the hour, not every “Polyphon” (the technical name) played depressing music. Some played more uplifting tunes, accessed when the hour strikes on a coiled flat wire gong that accessed a cantilever off the front of the movement, pulling a string that released the governor of the music box. The music box, which is responsible for the dirge “Abide with Me” is a “double comb,” very similar to those disks which look like the original analog computer cards. One could insert a more hopeful and cheery disk to play a polka, a military march, or a mazurka.
The first tall case clock was invented in 1680 by British clockmaker William Clement. In a marvel of engineering Clement invented an escapement that allowed for a smaller more ergonomic swing of the pendulum; previous swings required 80-100° to provide the energy to strike and mechanism. After Clement, a swing of 4-6°was all that was needed to prime the workings. The advantage? A long pendulum and shallower swing meant less power, creating slower beats, and less wear on the workings of the clock, meaning long term accuracy of time- keeping.
If you could afford two weights (which were expensive), you wound the clock every 8-days. If all you could afford was one weight, you wound the clock every 30-hours. The only way your household knew the time in 1875 was by winding a clock. Today we have the time on the computer, the phone, our wrist, our cars; we can’t get away from knowing the time. Back 100 years ago, this was NOT the case; the ability to tell time was both expensive, honored in a fancy case, or was publicly displayed (a courthouse clock for example).
A.T.’s clock is worth $10,000 as these Polyphon are rare due to the many moveable parts that just up and died, just like the Grandfather who inspired the name “Grandfather Clock.”
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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