Arts & Culture

The Familiar Tick-Tock of Heirloom Southern Clocks

A new exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg showcases how Southerners have kept time through the ages

Today, it only takes a quick glance at a smart phone to know exactly what time it is, down to the second. “But it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that clocks became more accessible and showed a more accurate time,” says Tara Chicirda, the furniture curator at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Around this time, Southerners began decorating their homes with tall case clocks—dark wood heirloom pieces most often thought of today as grandfather clocks. Clockmakers crafted the weight-driven movements out of brass or wood before cabinetmakers sheathed those inner workings in tall, decorative cases. Keeping Time, a new exhibition at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg, opens on November 14, showcasing a ticking timeline of these clocks in both the United States and England and highlighting nearly a dozen Southern-made and -used clocks. Grand clocks, with their regional styles that included meticulously painted figures and inlaid wooden elements, revolutionized both home décor and the fabric of a person’s day. “Before these clocks became popular, there were quarter hours, half hours, and hours,” Chicirda says. “To the common person in the early and even mid 1800s, minutes and seconds were a completely new idea.”

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A tall case clock with movements made by George Woltz in Hagerstown, Maryland, between 1795 and 1805. The unknown cabinetmaker who designed the case drew from British-inspired trends in nearby Baltimore. 

photo: Courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

A close-up of Woltz’s clock. 

photo: Courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

Hagerstown clockmaker George Woltz also crafted this tall case clock around 1800. A local cabinetmaker called on traditional Pennsylvania designs of the time but used local sumac rather than the fine-grained woods most often employed by urban cabinetmakers.

photo: Courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

A close-up of Woltz’s clock.

photo: Courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

Luman Watson, a clockmaker in Cincinnati, Ohio, fashioned the economical wooden movements between 1819 and 1829 and sold them to Lexington, Kentucky, cabinetmaker Elijah Warner, who crafted the cherry, tulip poplar, and mahogany case. The duo brought this streamlined style, already popular on the East Coast, to the inland South.

photo: Courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

A close-up on the Watson-Warner clock. 

photo: Courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

Johannes Spitler, a painter who descended from a Swiss Mennonite family that moved from Pennsylvania to Shenandoah County, Virginia, decorated this tall case clock in 1800. Spitler covered the yellow pine case with hearts, rosettes, and animals including a stag and a bird common in German-American art from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina.

photo: Courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

A close-up of Spitler’s clock.

photo: Courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg