Eli Terry’s Connecticut Clocks
Clockmaker Eli Terry brings precise time to the average farmer with his Connecticut clocks.
Seth Thomas street clock at the American Clock and Watch Museum.
This is the December issue of Farm Collector, but it comes out in November, the month we get to perform the semi-annual exercise called “fall behind,” in which we set our clocks back one hour. Then, next March we’ll “spring ahead,” setting our clocks ahead one hour to usher in Daylight Savings Time. Most farmers dislike the “spring ahead” part. For one thing, the critters the farmers raise, feed and milk don’t look at the clock and don’t give a good wad of cud for where the big hand and the little hand are on the dial. Second, farmers usually start their workday at sunup and end it around sundown, again regardless of what the clock says.
Time as a luxury
Up until the 19th century, most folks paid little attention to clocks, especially the poor and middle class who couldn’t afford the expensive timepieces of the day. One writer said: “it is not ‘natural’ to want to know the precise time – that is, time as expressed in hours, minutes and subminutes.”
Public travel in those days was by a stagecoach that left whenever everyone was ready, or by a sailboat that cast off whenever the tide and wind were favorable. Of course the rich folks had fancy European-made clocks and an occasional pocket watch, but they were mainly for show and no one’s life was dictated by the clock, as is the norm today.
People could come within a half-hour or so of the time of day with just a glance at the sun or maybe by the rumblings of their stomachs. On cloudy days, you could rely on courthouse clocks and church bells tolling at certain times, as well as the occasional factory whistle to keep pretty much on schedule.
Tapping a market for time
Then, a man named Eli Terry – along with the development of the steamboat and the railroad – changed all that. Born in Connecticut in 1772, Terry was apprenticed to a clockmaker at age 14. He was a quick study and a superb mechanic and opened his own clock shop in Plymouth, Conn., in 1793. Clocks of the day were expensive, and Terry realized that if he could make a clock cheap enough that the average farmer could afford it, the farmer and his family would feel they had achieved a better social standing and a vast new market would open up.
Iron was scarce and expensive and brass even more so, so Terry built his clocks of wood. Of course, the wooden parts often warped and swelled in damp weather, making the clocks highly unreliable – but they were cheap. The only brass parts he used were in the pendulum and its pivot and the crown wheel. His shop contained a treadle-powered lathe and a hand-operated machine that cut the wooden gears. Terry would build a few clocks and then go peddle them himself. The story is told that he once took two saddlebags of salt pork in payment for one of his clocks.
By 1802, Terry had taken over an old grist mill and powered his machinery with the water wheel that formerly turned the millstone. In his new factory he was able to mass-produce wooden clock movements and that year he made some 200 clocks that he sold at $30 each. Soon he got the price down to $15; by 1810, he was producing 3,000 clocks a year.
Terry quit selling his clocks himself. The “Yankee peddlers” who traveled throughout the states and territories in their colorful wagons loaded with buttons, brooms, pots and pans, pins and needles, baskets, yard goods and thread, patent medicines and Connecticut clocks, helped bring to every isolated household in the new country of America the miracle of a ticking clock on the mantel.
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