Meeting Recap: Simon Willard Eight-Day Clocks: In Search of the Finely-Divided Trade, 1785-1825

Robert C. Cheney, Executive Director of the Willard House and Clock Museum
September 10, 2019

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Returning from the summer break, the Horological Society of New York started the September lecture series with an overlooked facet of clockmaking: making a good living and the many trades involved in clock production. Those facets were discussed by Robert C. Cheney, Executive Director of the Willard House and Clock Museum (located in North Grafton, Massachusetts) with a lecture titled “Simon Willard Eight-Day Clocks: In Search of the Finely-Divided Trade, 1785-1825”. 

Known for his painted dials from Birmingham, England, Willard made 1,585 Eight-Day clocks - an incredible amount given that other clockmakers such as the Domini family made about 50 clocks in a 20-year period.

But how was Willard able to do it? Well, there’s clockmaking the traditional way and there’s clockmaking as a successful business, explains Cheney. The traditional way is when the clockmaker makes every part such as the templates, hands, weights, cases, etc., just like George Daniels did with his watchmaking. Willard took advantage of utilizing Peter Stubbs, a merchant who imported parts from Liverpool (the largest city port at the time), wherein Willard put the parts together and stamped his name on the product. Liverpool also had a significant number of clock workshops. Half of the workshops were attached to households which were mostly identified by the tell-tale bank of windows to let in natural light. There were around 17 different trades to make a clock - to name a few - spring maker, wheel cutter, brass founder, and the clocksmith for iron and steel work. As a side note, when it came to pinions, they had to be made out of high quality steel. Sheffield, England had the highest quality steel at the time and it was quite noticeable when low quality American steel was used.

Another interesting aspect is that Cheney made a reference to Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” on how the story of the clock is like the story of the 18th century common pin. There are 18 operations to make the common pin in which there are distinct different trades.

There were other individuals that Cheney mentioned, such as the likes of John McFarlane, Aaron Willard and the thousands of undocumented journeymen that worked on different aspects of a clock. It was amazing to realize how many people were involved in producing one item such the humble clock.

HSNY thanks Robert Cheney for his fascinating lecture!

Photography by Atom Moore
Submitted by Melody Benloss, HSNY Librarian & Recording Secretary