Grandfather Clocks...

Tales of the Tall-Case Clock

By: Carly Hill, Staff Writer • Dec 20, 2011 • 2 Comments

The imposing and dignified tall-case clocks that have added a touch of majesty to our homes for ages originated in 17th century England and northern Europe.  Galileo Galilei came up with the concept of the pendulum clock while intensely observing the swinging of an alter lamp during a prayer service at the cathedral.  He realized that the swing of the lamp kept the same time whether the swing made a wide or small arc, using his own pulse to measure it.  Galileo never created a working clock, however.  A Dutch scientist named Christian Huygens actually made the first pendulum clock in 1657.  It soon became obvious that the swinging pendulum needed to be encased, so that’s when William Clement stepped in and made the first tall-case clock as we know it.  He discovered that clocks with a longer pendulum were more accurate at keeping time; and with his invention of the anchor escapement, the longer pendulums didn’t require as much power to stay in motion and the clocks were, as a result, much more accurate. 


What’s in a name?

About 200 years after their creation, tall-case clocks took on the new name – “Grandfather clocks.”  In the 1800s, the Jenkins brothers managed The George Hotel in Piercebridge, England.  The story goes that when one of the brothers passed away, the tall-case clock in the hotel, which was renowned for its accurate timekeeping, began to lose time – 15 minutes every day.  Clocksmiths would come and go, trying to correct it, but it only got worse – eventually losing up to a hour a day.  When the surviving brother died at age 90, the clock was said to have stopped functioning completely.  After that, no one attempted to repair it.  It was left in the lobby to honor the Jenkins brothers.  When American singer/songwriter Henry Clay Work stayed in The George Hotel and heard the story of this clock, he wrote the song “My Grandfather’s Clock.”  The sheet music sold over a million copies and the name “Grandfather clock” was born.

It's all in the winding

Nowadays, having to change the battery in your wall call clock can feel like a chore, but owners of tall-case clocks have always enjoyed the ritual of winding their clocks.  These clocks needed to be wound in order to keep proper time.  Clocks set to the year or even the month weren’t accurate because of the fact that earth’s orbit has a varying speed throughout a calendar year.  So, most tall-case clocks were set to function for a week.  They were called “eight-day clocks” – the extra day for winding. While eight-day clocks were the clocks of status, the less expensive one-day clocks were also produced during this time.

Eight-day clocks encase two weights – one that moves the pendulum, and one that triggers the striking mechanism which sets off the chimes (click here to listen to the most popular chiming sequence - the Westminster chimes  These clocks have two keyholes allowing you to wind each mechanism independently.  One-day clocks have only one weight to control both the pendulum and the striking mechanism and require daily winding.


A Family Affair: Grandmother and Granddaughter Clocks

Grandfather clocks were (and can still be) very expensive, so soon came the (more affordable) grandmother clock.  These clocks are similar, but slimmer, shorter (5 – 6 feet tall), and slightly different in works.  While the grandfather clock has a pendulum and weights, the grandmother clock is mainly spring driven.  Although grandmother clocks are shorter, they are not called “short case clocks,” as logic might lead you to believe. 

Grandmother clocks were made early in the 20th century, so most of them fit into the “almost-antique” category, as their name wasn’t even coined until 1920. Granddaughter clocks are an even smaller version – standing between 3 – 5 feet tall.  Granddaughter clocks are not considered antiques by defintion though because they didn’t make their debut until the 1930s. 

If you are considering adding a tall-case clock to your collection, but you think something as large as a standard tall-case (6-8 feet) would overpower your space, you might consider investing in a grandmother clock. Although shorter and slimmer, the grandmother clock possesses an undeniable presence that is truly magical. 

Setting the time

To set the time on an antique tall-case clock, move the minute hand clockwise, stopping to allow a full chime each time you pass twelve.  Otherwise, you can damage the striking mechanism.  Never move the hour hand or go backwards.   As mentioned earlier, the time of these clocks is affected by temperature, so the length of the pendulum may slightly alter in different rooms or environments, causing slight inaccuracies in time.  The easy fix for this is to adjust the pendulum’s length regularly.  If time is running slow, shorten the pendulum by slightly turning the nut at the base of it clockwise.  In turn, if time is running fast, you’ll want to loosen the nut by turning it slightly counterclockwise.


In regards to the casing, if your clock is made of mahogany, walnut, satinwood, or ebony,  just lightly dust it when cleaning. You can also wax the  clock’s casing using beeswax or furniture wax. The likes of Pledge furniture spray is not recommended.


Where to Find Your Clock

You can find a wonderful selection of tall-case clocks right here at Latique. Peruse our selection now...and Happy Latiquing!

Pictured above is a 19th century Walnut Morbier tall-case clock from Latique's own Country French Interiors Have a look!




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