From waking to the rooster’s crow to catching the 8 a.m. train, how Americans tell and value time has changed over the centuries.
“For All Time: Clocks and Watches from the National Heritage Museum” is a new exhibition, on view through Feb. 21, 2010, exploring the story of timekeeping through spectacular objects drawn from the museum’s own collection. Each of the 95 clocks in the exhibition – ranging in dates from the 1650s to the 1950s – is a complicated machine with its own story to tell about who used, made or marketed it and, most interesting, how it fit into Americans’ relationship with time. Twenty-two watches are also presented.
“For All Time” examines the notion of time in Colonial days, when people relied on nature—the sun, moon, tides and seasons—to gauge the passing hours. Bells, public sundials, and town clocks helped people plan their business or social engagements. The exhibition also traces the history of how timepieces evolved from prizes owned by status-conscious families—as illustrated by the lovely tall case clock made by noted Boston clock maker Benjamin Willard—to affordable objects, ubiquitous to every home.
The clock making revolution spurred by Connecticut inventor Eli Terry in the early 1800s is explored, revealing how moderately-priced wooden works made affordable time pieces available to many Americans. American watch making took off mid-century when Aaron Dennison opened his factory in Waltham, Massachusetts, and proved that the United States could “compete with the cheap labors of the old countries.”
By 1900, many watch-making companies had made literally millions of watches. Pocket watch production and ownership reached its peak in the decades between 1880 and 1920.
In the mid-1800s, spurred by increasing need, capacity and competition, clock manufacturers began offering a greater variety of timepieces for purchase. Different makers hoped their products would stand out in the crowd, as most assuredly two timepieces on view did—the owl-shaped clock sold by Theodore Starr and the handsome Father Time clock manufactured by E. N. Welch.
Designers also created clocks to complement particular home decoration schemes. By the 1900s, many Americans owned several clocks, selected for their size, function or style, and displayed them throughout their homes.
Many of the clocks in “For All Time” came to the Museum from the collection of Ruth and Willis R. Michael of York, Pa. Michaels’ gift of over 140 objects from her husband’s collection forms the core of the Museum’s timepiece holdings. An exuberant ironwork tall clock and a 19th-century French clock, which features a female figure whose graceful arms point to the time, are a few of the many pieces from the collection on view.
Michael was a tool and die maker and entrepreneur who purchased his first clock in the late 1930s—a tall case clock crafted in the late 1700s by George Hoff of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In Michael’s own words, that’s when he “got the bug.” His collection soon grew to include hundreds of items.
A few years after Michael died, Mrs. Michael began making a series of gifts from her husband’s collection to museums, newly founded by the Scottish Rite Masons of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. She likely did so in honor of her husband’s lifelong involvement in Masonry.
For more information on this and other exhibits at the National Heritage Museum, visit www.monh.org.
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