Sunday, 08 November 2015 00:03

Vintage Clocks Did More Than Tell Time - They Entertained

Written by Lorne VanSinclair for the Orillia Packet & Times

We are now about one week into standard time, there’s very little daylight to save. We’ve been told over and over again to set our clocks back one hour but these days it usually isn’t necessary; most of the population gets its time from devices which are connected to a central server that adjusts the time automatically.

Clocks have changed a lot in our lifetime. I belong to a generation that, when asked what time it is, will respond with “it’s a quarter to three” rather than “it’s 2:45”. Our generation grew up with analogue clocks, with faces that give you a visual representation of time; where it is, where it’s been and where it’s going. When we look at that minute hand we can see it is approaching three o’clock. We are dumbfounded by younger people who cannot tell the time by looking at hands on a clock; they have to be told, digitally, what time it is.

We think they have lost something but we too have lost something from earlier generations. Before the advent of radio and television many clocks didn’t just tell the time, they entertained. They played music, did a dance and were visually entrancing. At a quarter to three you might get a mini-show, a warm up to the big show at three which the whole family would gather around to watch.

That show would usually involve a singing bird but could also include farmers and hunters.

142 Kit Cat 200x300While clock collecting has declined over the past few years, there is still strong interest in clocks that entertain. Just think of the ever-popular Kit-Cat clock. Introduced in the depression era, the electric, cat-shaped wall clock with the rolling eyes and wagging tail reached a peak in the 1950s but is still in production and remains popular with collectors today, often selling for well over a hundred dollars.

Another example is the Early Bird alarm clock. These were your standard, wind-up bedside alarm clocks but instead of just telling time its face also featured an animated bird pulling a worm. Designed for children, they were manufactured by several companies in the 1930s and 40s including Westclox in Canada. Today vintage models in good, working condition can be worth around a hundred dollars.

Even more extravagant were the caged-bird clocks originally produced by the J. Keiser Company in Germany. These mechanical table-top clocks were fashioned to look like a bird cage, with two birds in it that moved and sang. Telling the time was a secondary function. These can also sell in the hundred dollar range but you have to be careful as there are a lot of reproductions and knock-offs around.

Birds and animals are a recurring theme in novelty clocks and that probably all goes back to the grand-daddy of them all, the cuckoo clock.

We all know cuckoo clocks; those funny looking wooden structures that had a bird pop out of a window to announce the hour. Few of us though know very about their history other than they come from the Black Forest region of Germany; I know I didn’t until I started researching this article. There is surprisingly little documentation but fortunately, one enthusiastic collector has tried to rectify that with a new book that chronicles cuckoo clock history and what he considers to be the most important cuckoo clock makers.

Justin J. Miller’s book, Rare and Unusual Black Forest Clocks, also dispels some myths about one of the world’s most popular clocks.

142 Cuckoo ClockThe first myth he trashes is that cuckoo clocks were invented in the Black Forest. He states similar clocks had been made in many places before 1740 when farmers in the Black Forest, bored with the long winter, started making their own crude versions. The cuckoo bird was chosen partly because it was common in the area and partly because its song, just two notes, was easy to reproduce mechanically. The farmers would sell their clocks door-to-door; (creating a romantic image Black Forest clock makers exploit today), but around 1840 things got tough. Mass manufacturing was taking hold around the world; cottage industries could not compete so Black Forest clockmakers decided to fight fire with fire. They started a school to train future clockmakers in the new ways and held a contest to come up with a unique, consistent design for their clocks.

The winner of that contest was Fiedrich Eisenlohr. Eisenlohr was an architect who designed gatehouses along the railway line. It’s hard for us to imagine now but at the time there were no automatic gates to control railway crossings. An actual person had to be there to stop vehicles from getting in the way of trains, they had little houses to stay in between trains and an architect designed them to look nice.

Every cuckoo clock you see now that looks like a house is based on those 1840s railroad gatehouses in Germany as designed by Fiedrich Eisenlohr.

With their new design and trained workers clock makers in the Black Forest began to aggressively market their mass manufactured cuckoo clocks. Like politicians of today they targeted the middle class. The clocks were made as cheaply as possible and sold literally by the boatload to retailers all over the developed world. The mass-manufacturing was still a cottage industry. People all over the region specialized in making specific parts, the case, the weights the mechanics or whatever in their own workshops. The clock maker gathered the parts and put them together, that is why it is often difficult to determine which company made a specific clock, the early ones were rarely signed.

The free market being as it is some makers concentrated on the masses while others made more complex, entertaining clocks for those who could afford them. The cheaper clocks just had a cuckoo bird but others would have very complex scenes which sometimes included the slaughtering of animals, something that city folk don’t really care to see but is a normal part of life for farmers. Some, designed for inns or public places, played long pieces of music that could be chosen, almost like a juke box.

Miller himself concentrates on massive, five foot tall clocks made for the huge mansions of the ultra-rich.

Good luck finding one of those but there are millions of animated, novelty and singing bird clocks out there for you to collect, and many can be had quite cheaply. If you are mechanically inclined you can pick up non-working clocks for next to nothing. Clock restoration can be a very exacting, time-consuming process but animated novelty clocks were often cheaply made and can be fixed with just a bit of tinkering.

It seems the more our world is filled with devices that constantly and noiselessly tell us the time without requiring any maintenance, the more we yearn to see the time on something that does it in style and demands we pay attention to it.