The earliest domestic clocks in the American colonies were English-made "lantern" clocks, with brass gear trains held between pillars. Along with fully furnished "best" beds, looking glasses, sofas, silver, and case furniture, such clocks were the household objects consistently assigned the highest monetary value in inventories of possessions.
By the 18th century, the most common style of domestic clock came to look more like a piece of household furniture. A wooden case enclosed the movement, weights, and pendulum. Through a glass window the dial was visible.
In 1769, Pennsylvania clockmaker and millwright Joseph Ellicott completed this complicated tall case clock. On three separate dials, it tells the time and shows the phases of the moon; depicts on an orrery the motions of the sun, moon, and planets; and plays selected twenty-four musical tunes on the hour.
The musical dial on the Ellicott clock allows the listener to choose from twelve pairs of tunes. Each pair includes a short tune and a long one. On the hour only the short tune plays, but every third hour, both play. During a tune, automaton figures at the top of the dial appear to tap their feet in time to the music, and a small dog between them jumps up and down.
Joseph Ellicott moved from the Philadelphia area to Maryland in 1772 and, with his brothers Andrew and John, set up a flour-milling operation in what is now Ellicott City. The clock was a centerpiece in Ellicott family homes for generations.
Who else owned clocks in early America? Clock owners, like the American colonists themselves, were not a homogeneous group. Where a person lived influenced the probability of owning a timepiece. In 1774, for example, New Englanders and Middle Atlantic colonials were equally likely to own a timepiece. In those regions, roughly 13 or 14 adults out of 100 had a clock in their possessions when they died. Among Southern colonists at that time, only about 6 in 100 had a clock.
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