Eli Terry’s Connecticut Clocks

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Seth Thomas street clock at the American Clock and Watch Museum.
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A replica of Eli Terry’s workshop with a wooden clock movement and an assortment of wooden gears on the bench. Taken at the American Clock and Watch Museum in Bristol, Conn. 
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Barnes Wing at the American Clock and Watch Museum.
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Portrait of Eli Terry.
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A tall clock movement made by Eli Terry in his Plymouth shop in about 1800. The inexpensive birch cabinet was probably made by a local cabinetmaker.
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A circa 1818 shelf clock made by Eli Terry and typical of the clocks sold by Yankee peddlers.
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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.

Clock becomes essentialAn Englishman named Featherstonehaug who traveled through America in 1844 wrote: “Wherever we have been in Kentucky, in Indiana, in Illinois, in Missouri, and … in every dell of Arkansas, and in cabins where there was not a chair to sit on, there was sure to be a Connecticut clock.” He went on to describe a peddler dealing with a farmer. After a period of local gossip and small talk, the peddler said, “I guess I shall have to sell you a clock before I go.”
The farmer replied: “I expect a clock’s of no use here; besides I ha’nt got no money to pay for one.”
“Oh, a clock’s fine company here in the woods,” the peddler noted. “Why, you couldn’t live without one after you’d had one awhile, and you can pay for it some other time.”
“I calc’late you’ll find I ain’t a-going to take one,” the farmer said.
The peddler turned to the farmer’s wife. “Well mistress, your husband won’t take a clock,” he said. “I suppose, however, you’ve no objection to my nailing one up here, ’til I come back in a month or so.”
When the peddler stopped back in several months, the farmer and his family had decided they couldn’t live without the clock, but it had been raining, the gears had swelled and the clock had stopped. The peddler gave them a new one, collected the money or a note for it, and down the road he went. He would stop, tinker with the clock to get it running again, and sell it at the next farm.
Minutes minced into hours
When the new-fangled steamboats began to make regular runs on the nation’s rivers, schedules of departure times were published, and clocks and watches became more than just status symbols. The tyranny of the clock became complete with the growing popularity of railroads. Most pictures of railroad conductors and engineers show them with an eye on the large pocket watch they’re holding. Legendary engineer Casey Jones supposedly went to his death trying to make up lost time. “Standard Time” was adopted in the U.S. and Canada on Nov. 18, 1883, mostly to make it easier to publish and adhere to railroad schedules
Not everyone was happy. Henry David Thoreau railed against his peaceful days on Walden Pond being “minced into hours and fretted by the ticking clock.”
Factory bosses and schoolmasters, however, loved it. Students and factory workers became slaves to the clock; tardiness was no longer tolerated. One writer observed, “The clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.”
Efficiency experts held stopwatches on workers as they performed their tasks and determined where wasted motion could be eliminated and time could be saved. This, of course, wasn’t all bad. The huge gains in productivity that have helped America to become one of the most affluent countries in the world couldn’t have happened without accurate clocks and watches.
So, I guess I’ll continue to “spring ahead” in March and “fall back” in November, just like everyone else in the country. FC

For more information: The American Clock and Watch Museum is open from April through November. Call in advance to verify schedules. The museum is located at 100 Maple St., Bristol, Conn.; (860) 583-6070; online at www.clockandwatchmuseum.org.
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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