Cover image of Banjo clock (55kB GIF)
American Banjo Clocks: by Steven P. Petrucelli and Kenneth A. Sposato. Published by
Adams Brown Company, Box 357 Cranbury NJ, 08512, 609-655-8269, FAX 609-655-8102
June 1995. 216 pp. over 300 photos, glossary of terms, fully indexed, annotated list of clockmakers and
Evolution of the American Banjo Clock
The American Banjo was invented by Simon Willard in Boston during the early years of the 19th century.
The term "Banjo" is a later attribution and is primarily due to the approximate similarity between
the musical instrument and the form of the clock case. Prior to the invention of the banjo timepiece,
New England Colonial clockmakers were at work fabricating and repairing tall case clocks, and early fusee
watches primarily of English origin. To a lesser extent, dwarf clocks, early shelf, and primitive 30-hour
wall clocks were made in New England as well. During the last quarter of the 18th century, wall clocks
were made in Grafton, Massachusetts by the Willards and represent the first major departure from the fabrication
of the traditional shelf and floor standing designs. The significance of this clock lead the inventor
to formally disclose the details of the "Improved Timepiece," in a United States Letters of
Patent in 1802. Unfortunately, a fire in the Patent Office destroyed many original documents as well as
the original patent model during the 1830's. In addition to the formal paperwork disclosure, inventors
were required to submit patent models at the time of Simon Willard's invention.
The prosperity and rapid growth of the young nation coupled with the intersection of an ever increasing
group of master craftsmen collaborating in the Roxbury community, produced the finest quality decorative
arts, furnishings and accessories. Simon Willard's "Improved Timepiece" was probably the result
of a series of paper designs, experimental models, trial and error, peer contribution, criticism, and
feedback from a select group of friends and customers. The "Improved Timepiece" was not conceived
in a vacuum, but rather in a workshop employing many gifted people. Simon Willard's achievements as a
master craftsmen, in conjunction with his association with financially stabile allied craftsmen created
an environment conducive to creative thinking, conceptual design, and the reduction to practice of abstract
ideas into the art of making clocks.
Many theories describing the genesis of the American Banjo have been developed. Simon Willard's timepiece
has been linked to English Dial clocks and Barometers as well as French and Dutch forms. For example,
Husher and Welch (1980) develop the thesis of Simon Willard's Timepiece as an outgrowth of the English
Barometer. The impact of the barometer case form on the final design of the timepiece is an interesting
theory, but probably represents only one of many contributing factors. A stronger argument can be made
for the adaptation of architectural and geometric forms passed down from the Greeks. While many researchers
have tried to link the development of the banjo to other clocks and decorative accessories, there is no
clear forerunner to this unique clock.
The conceptual design of the case form is based upon relatively simple architectural and geometric principles.
Consider the timepiece in it's most basic form as a clock face supported by an architectural column. Three
basic shapes are utilized in this design; viz: circle (head), trapezoid (throat), and a rectangle (lower
box). The validity of the column theory is partially supported in the Diamond Head cases where the upper
section of the throat is reeded in a manner characteristic of an architectural column.
There are three key features to the Banjo that distinguish this clock from any of its predecessors or
contemporaries. The proportions of the case are unique with a round head, tapered elongated throat, and
a rectangular lower box. Second, the use of painted glass tablets is a novel decorative treatment that
added imagery to overall appearance of the clock. Finally, the movement was designed with the pendulum
suspension mounted on the front plate, and the pendulum is designed to swing in front of the weight. These
three key aspects of the design of the banjo clock point to three distinct areas of craftsmen that collaborated
to build the resulting clock.
The first area is referred to in general terms as metal work which includes mechanical design and clockwork.
The clockmaker relied heavily on metal founders and smiths to supply the basic components required to
build clocks. The clockmaker was responsible for the overall design of the product, but relied heavily
on outside sources to supply many of the various component parts, and finished subassemblies from allied
tradesmen. The area of metal work includes the clock mechanism itself, pendulum assembly, weight, and
case hardware both structural and ornamental.
Banjo clock movements were fabricated from rough cast plates and wheel blanks. Typically, the clockmaker
purchased these "blanks" from a foundry. The brass plates were hardened by cold working techniques.
Rough cast wheel blanks were fabricated into gears using wheel cutting tools. A cutting engine was used
to cut the gears and pinions. Steel parts were used as hands, arbors, crutch, pendulum rod, pawl, and
dial blank. The clockmaker integrated the finished parts into a completed movement. Finished movements
were no doubt supplied to other tradesmen and merchants as well.
Case and ornamental hardware were cast in a foundry as well. Typically the rough castings were hardened
and finished by the clockmaker. The structural hardware included hinges, bezel, and tie down. Ornamental
hardware included brass finials and sidearms. The exposed surfaces of the ornamental hardware, as well
as the bezel were finely finished and polished. For example, compare the front and back sides of a pair
Cabinetmakers fabricated the basic clock case from domestic and imported materials. Native Pine and Chestnut
were the cabinetmakers choice for secondary woods. Primary woods comprising the case sides and frames
were typically made of mahogany imported from the West Indies. The cases that were supplied with gilded
frames, presentation brackets, and wooden finials usually employed softwood substrates. The basic banjo
case is a relatively simple structure, and was an order of magnitude less complicated than a Roxbury tall
clock case. The basic timepiece had only two exposed surfaces: the facings of the throat and box frames.
The challenge to the cabinetmaker of preparing these surfaces with veneers and inlay would not compare
to the work required in fabricating the drawer fronts on a Federal chest or the drawer fronts and cupboard
doors of a high style sideboard. Extending the argument further to include card and Pembroke tables, one
quickly realizes that the design and fabrication of a banjo clock case was a relatively straightforward
task for the skilled cabinetmaker.
The exposed surfaces of the banjo clock were the responsibility of the ornamental painter. The dial and
glasses comprise over 95% of the surface area of a banjo clock. Typically the dials were finished with
multiple layers of enamel, then lined with numerals and a time track. The glasses were a special form
of commercial art that is probably more closely related to the work of an engraver than a painter. The
early glasses were highly structured work with decorative repeating line work, semicircles, and radial
lines that produced a basic geometric pattern in a gold leaf base. Shading and highlighting was accomplished
through the use of soft background colors. The early glasses were executed using pink, robin's egg blue,
white, lime green, and blood red contrasting colors.
American Banjo Clocks may be analyzed chronologically in terms of four subgroups:
- First generation clocks made by the Willard school and apprentices primarily in the Boston area covering
the Federal period circa 1802 - 1815.
- Second generation makers including rural work in other states circa 1815 -1835.
- Production clocks fabricated by clock manufacturers of the New Industrial Revolution such as Howard,
Hatch, Polsey, Davis, Goodwin, Tifft etc.
- Production and Reproduction clocks fabricated in factories as well as individual makers beginning during
the Centennial period during the last quarter of the 19th century and continuing to the present date.
Review Copyright (c) Adams Brown Company, Inc. Steven P. Petrocelli
/ Clock Books / New Books