Briefly—but spectacularly—during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a peculiar set of clocks excited the interest of the American public. These were monumental clocks—towering agglomerations of clockwork, decorative flourishes, animated panels, and mechanical music. Between roughly 1875 and 1900, more than two dozen such giants appeared and toured throughout the United States and Europe.
These huge clocks were built to compete with the cathedral clock of the French city of Strasbourg. Completed in 1352, it had long been Europe's most famous clock. As the United States became a leading industrial power in the nineteenth century, American clockmakers strove to build monumental clocks greater than Strasbourg's.
Although the American clocks differed in details, they shared several features—elaborate ornaments, astronomical indicators, and celebrated scenes and figures from the American past. With one exception, each was a labor of many years by a lone craftsman, usually a jeweler by profession and a recent immigrant. Each clock was covered with a riot of colorful folk decorations combining Christian and patriotic items, some mechanically animated. Almost every clock had a professional manager, distinct from the maker, who promoted the clock as the mechanical wonder of the age. The Great Historical Clock of America epitomizes these clocks.
Regrettably, little is known of its history or its maker. Since Benjamin Harrison is the last president to march by in the procession of figures we assume it was completed about 1893. Handbills found in the clock's packing crates indicate that it toured with Bent and Bachelder's Anglo American Christy's Minstrels as far as Australia and New Zealand. The clock spent most of the twentieth century in a New Hampshire barn, where the owners charged twenty-five cents for a peek at it.