A Massachusetts Shelf Clock, Aaron Willard, about 1820

Certain factors peculiar to the American colonies guided the inventive activities of colonial clockmakers. Brass, the customary material for clock movements, was expensive. The market for large, complex, and costly clocks was small; people wanted inexpensive, reliable timekeepers. American clockmakers responded by substituting wood for brass, designing radically new case styles, and introducing mass production.
The shelf clock, a distinctly American design, fitted conditions in the colonies perfectly. The Massachusetts shelf clock, or half clock, was developed in the 1770s, with the Boston area's Willard brothers playing leading roles. Massachusetts clockmakers continued to produce it for about half a century thereafter. It was in essence a tall case clock with the trunk left out, consisting only of a hood and base about three feet tall. Its brass movement resembled the traditional tall case movement, only simplified and much reduced in size.
The specimen shown is marked "Aaron Willard/Boston." Like his older brothers Benjamin and Simon, Aaron Willard (1757-1844) moved from the family homestead in Grafton, Massachusetts, to Boston around 1780, where he became a prolific and prosperous clockmaker. He retired in 1823 and turned his business over to his son Aaron, Jr. The clock is of a design that Aaron produced late in his career and apparently in considerable numbers. The clock is an eight-day "timepiece," that is, a timekeeper without the means to strike the hours. Instead it has an alarm mechanism that creates a rousing noise by rapping the inside of the wooden case.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Date made
ca 1820
Willard, Aaron
Physical Description
"brass" (movement material)
wood (case material)
overall: 35 1/2 in x 12 3/4 in x 6 1/4 in; 90.17 cm x 32.385 cm x 15.875 cm
base: 15 in; 38.1 cm
face: 5 in; 12.7 cm
place made
United States: Massachusetts, Boston
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Domestic Furnishings
See more items in
Work and Industry: Mechanisms
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

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