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Discover Mid-America— February 2011

Tick tock: 19th and 20th century novelty clocks valued for more than keeping time

There was a point in the 19th century where simply having a fine clock that precisely measured time was not enough. Makers sought to control the market with products that indicated time in an unusual way with striking features.

Thus was born the amazing era of novelty clocks.

“Stylistically, the early years of the 19th century were conservative,” notes Lucilla Watson, author of the book Understanding Antiques. “Clocks decorated with gilt bronze figures continued to be popular, but at the same time there was also a demand for novelties such as mystery clocks and skeleton clocks.”

Mystery clocks often included a figure standing above the clock itself holding a swinging pendulum not visibly connected to the movement. In skeleton clocks the movement was visible under a glass dome.

1970s German wind-up novelty clock (Photo by Rhiannon Ross)

By the second half of the 19th century clocks were being made in high numbers at a relatively low cost. Historians indicate than in 1855 the four largest companies in the U.S. produced more than 400,000 clocks. By 1868, the New Haven Clock Company alone was manufacturing more than 150,000 timepieces, using full automatic machinery. Their cost to fully create a one-day brass clock was estimated to be less than 50 cents.

“As the 19th century ran on, many makers had to find novelties to stay in business,” according to Eric Bruton, a contributing writer to the encyclopedia Discovering Antiques. “Some turned their attention to blinking-eye clocks similar to those produced in 17th century Germany. These cast-iron clocks were in the shape of dogs and lions, and the eyes moved with the beat of the pendulum.”

Bruton describes “one novelty clock of brightly-colored cast in the form of Black Sambo, which reflected the social attitude of the period.” Sambo, Topsy and other related clocks of the 1860s all bore similarly pivoted eyes that blinked with the motion of the clock’s regular mechanism.

By the 1880s the Ansonia Clock Company had taken an active role in producing various novelty clocks. Many were also modeled from earlier European ideas, such as a pendulum in the form of a child on a swing. Ansonia also included copies of French ormolu or imitation gold leaf once popular in the 18th century.

French Art Nouveau, metal figure, zodiac clock Henderson and Gaines, New Orleans. (Harris Auction photo)

At the same time other makers like Nicholas Muller’s Sons were producing novelty types including a hammered plaque on a plush panel titled Autumn, a wheelbarrow that moved, and a five-pointed star with cherub faces surrounding it.

The full glory of novelty clocks and the ability of manufacturers to create them arrived in the 1890s. An illustrated catalog from Marshall Field and Company of Chicago in 1893 contained a specific listing of novelty clocks. They included a clock with a figure of a lawn tennis player, a parrot atop a highly decorative clock, a clock on a wheelbarrow with a figure holding the handlebars, and several which incorporated dogs.

The department store also offered a selection of Romanesque figures, usually with a large clock between them. One such model, standing over 20 inches tall, listed at $55. The female figure of Commerce, in flowing gown, was the most expensive timepiece at $63.50.

Montgomery Ward was in the thick of the soaring novelty clock market in 1895 when their catalog offered an extensive selection. One honored Buffalo Bill, and included an ornamental horse and western rider. It was said to be “the exact reproduction of the famous Montana Silver Statue of justice exhibited at the World’s Fair.”

The catalog also listed from Ansonia novelty clocks including one with a couple playing croquet, and several that featured the prominent use of Cupid.

Elsewhere in the marketplace, Ansonia was successful with one clock that featured a hand-painted porcelain Cupid on a swing. It moved forward and backward as the time was recorded. The Waterbury Clock Company meanwhile had an equally wide range of novelty clocks including a reproduction in miniature of the Masonic Temple in Chicago. The Masonic Temple came with an alarm and sold for $5.50. Waterbury took things somewhat further with a selection of top ornaments and side figures that could be added to existing clocks. There were dogs, horses, the goddess Diana, Raphael, and Attila on horseback, whose sword extended the entire piece to a height of 15 inches.

Showcase if 21st century novelty clocks (Photo by Rhiannon Ross)

20th century novelty clocks

Ansonia continued its major role with novelty clocks into the 20th century.

“An important American contribution that became more than just a novelty was the ticket clock, showing the time in numbers digitally instead of by hands,” adds author Bruton. “The first version was known as the Plato time indicator and was patented in 1902. Within about four years, the Ansonia Company had made 40,000 of them.”

The New Haven Clock Company also produced a novelty calendar clock in the early 1900s, along with a silver and gilt lighthouse with revolving lanterns, an acrobat, cigar lighter and paper weight.

A competing Seth Thomas Clock Company offered a harp player seated on a clock, titled Serenade. Also in their selection were clocks with bronze busts of Shakespeare and Mozart, and a hanging wall clock of the ill-fated ship Lusitania.

By 1905, the E. Ingraham Company of Bristol, CT, was offering commemorative clocks with a wooden bust of President William McKinley and stenciled patriotic glass-bearing guns and a battleship. Ingraham also sold a similar Admiral Dewey model with stenciled glass. Welch Manufacturing Company likewise marketed a novelty commemorative Admiral Dewey clock, as well as one in honor of the Battleship Maine.

Other popular mid-20th century novelty clocks were Lux and Keebler pendulettes. Pendulettes are small, novelty wall clocks that were primarily made by Lux Clock Manufacturing Company beginning in the 1920s and ending a few years after WWII. The Keebler Manufacturing Company of Chicago didn’t make pendulettes but distributed them. At times, both companies marketed the same clock but under separate names, according to an article printed in the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC) Bulletin.

Wayne and Ruth Herrmann, Lenexa, KS, authored a book on pendulettes titled The Wonderful World of Pendulettes, (available through rway51@aol.com; $40). Wayne Herrmann also serves as president of the Heart of America Chapter 36 local of the NAWCC.

“The pendulette themes were about current events,” Wayne Herrmann said. “President Roosevelt’s Scotty dog was one. So was Sally Rand the fan dancer, Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, Mary had a little lamb, and the U.S. Capitol building.”

Al Capp’s fictional cartoon character known as “shmoo,” popularized in his classic comic strip Li’l Abner, was yet another, he added.

“It was reported that the Lux Company turned out 3,000 clocks a day in the 1930s during the Depression years,” Wayne Herrmann said. “It’s hard to imagine that kind of industry in those very difficult times.”

Appraisals for Lux novelty clocks can range from $30 to $40 for more common clocks to as much as $2,000 to $3,000 for more valuable ones, Herrmann said.

The Christmas wreath pendulette is one that commands high value, he added, because very few remain in circulation. The bulldog pendulette also is very valuable, said Ruth Herrmann.

The Herrmanns recommend buyers use caution when buying all pendulettes because reproductions exist of some of the more expensive ones.

“For example, there are so many reproductions of the bulldog clock coming out of China,” Ruth Herrmann said. “It’s not good for the market.”

Some novelty clocks introduced in the mid-20th century are still manufactured today, said Scott Hinman, owner of Timekeeper’s Clock Shop, Lee’s Summit, MO.

“Kit-Cat Klocks are novelty clocks still being made today,” Hinman said.

Pendulette (Photo by Rhiannon Ross)

The Kit-Cat Klock (a.k.a. Felix Cat Clock) is an art deco novelty-style clock first manufactured in the 1930s by the California Clock Company of Portland, OR. It’s shaped like a black cat with a pendulum tail and rolling eyes that appear to follow the viewer.

“Rhythm clocks also are modern-day novelty clocks that play music,” Hinman added. Rhythm Watch Company, established in 1950, is perhaps best known for its Small World and Magic Motion clock models.

Sentimentality is important in the marketing of novelty clocks, said Darrell B. Carr, of Antique Clocks, Lenexa, KS.

“Some tell a story, like the Lux clocks do,” Carr said. “But novelty clocks are more for looks. They’re not always accurate timekeepers. And most are 30-hour clocks that you have to wind every day and most people won’t do that.”

Authentic novelty clocks made in the mid-20th century also are hard to find, said Kent Smurl, Benton, AR, who repairs clocks for jewelers and antique shops in his area.

“That’s because very few of them survived,” he said.

A novelty clock that gives Smurl a chuckle is a cuckoo clock manufactured in the 1960s.

“It’s of Tweety Bird and Sylvester the Cat. On the hour, Tweety pops out holding a hammer and says, ‘I thought I saw a putty cat’ and hits Sylvester on the head,” he said, laughing.

Anyone lucky enough to find this clock in good condition, however, could get more than a good laugh. Smurl appraised this plastic, battery-operated clock at $100 to $150.

Robert Reed can be contacted at acns@aol.com. Rhiannon Ross (editor@discoverypub.com) also contributed to this article.