The First One for August 2011
Michael Borgeest’s Gilbert shelf clock.
Michael Borgeest (NY)
I never knew my paternal grandparents. Both had passed when I was a small child. But I was very fortunate to have fabulous surrogate grandparents in the form of a great uncle and aunt. They lived some six hours away and would visit a couple times a year, most often during the summer months when we kids were off from school. They were childless Quakers and quite conservative when it came to material possessions. They actually had only one living room set their entire lives. They were very proud to tell us that they purchased the set brand new and simply had it recovered several times over its many years of use. When they would visit, I remember that they always brought a box or two of gifts. Not those fancy wrapped store types, but literally a cardboard box or two of flea market and acquired items they had found since their last visit. We would sit around the living room as they took turns removing items one by one and presenting the gifts with a sometimes lengthy explanation of where and why it was purchased.
My great uncle was both a tinkerer and a hobbyist. As was popular at that time, old scraps of wood from a variety of sources were salvaged to make spoon holders, small dresser boxes, and even a wooden tool box or two. So it was customary that whenever they visited, my mother would drive them around with a couple of us kids in search of garage sales and antique shops.
And of course anytime there was an antique show nearby, we would go. I don’t even remember if I was with my great uncle the day he bought the clock. What I do remember is that he removed the dial and had set the clock up on an end table alongside the couch. He opened the door and reached in several times to make adjustments. Before long the small little wooden clock was tick tocking away and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. And the sound was magical. My great uncle, it seems, sensed my fascination and began explaining how the clock worked and how very old it was. I didn’t know it then, but I was hooked. Before they left, I asked if I could have the clock. Well, fairness was a big deal with my great uncle. He explained that yes I could have the clock, but I had to pay just what he paid. He couldn’t just give me the clock because he had nothing else to give my brothers or sister. Thinking back, I think he was just testing my desire to actually have the clock. So on July 13, 1968, I paid my great uncle the exact amount he paid for the little Gilbert shelf clock, $19.76 including tax. I was fifteen years old. And I could not have been happier. We made several trips to his home in New Jersey over the next few years, and I had a new appreciation for the several clocks he owned. He had the entire story for each and every one: where he bought it, from whom he bought it, and of course how much he paid. The schoolhouse Seth Thomas that hung in the kitchen cost 25 cents! He said he bought it so cheaply because it needed a new piece of glass in the bottom door. He also had a simple little shelf clock he had built from wood scraps. Sadly, after he died, the little clock he built was given away. I did acquire his favorite and most prized clock, the Ansonia Niobe. It hangs with pride in my living room today.
That chance encounter with a little Gilbert shelf clock led to a lifetime of clock collecting. I of course still have the Gilbert and a few hundred others. Like so many collectors, it seems there is always an excuse to buy just one more.
Part of Jay Soemann’s clock collection.
Jay Soemann (NY)
When I was a very young boy, my father, who is a watchmaker and clockmaker, used to let me help him wind the many clocks that we had in our home. He also used to give me clock gears to play with while he worked. I would take the main wheels and spin them like tops on the hardwood floor near his bench and take the other gears to try to fit them together so that they all meshed. This would occupy me so he could get his repair work done.
I also played with the old clocks that he used for parts, which were kept in the closet next to his bench. Not long after that I decided that I wanted to try to “fix up” some of these old clocks and get them running.
My dad showed me how to clean and oil the movements and put them in beat. I thought this was great fun and got several of them working. Everyday I would come home after school and check on the progress of my patients.
At age 14, I served an apprenticeship under him and officially learned how to be a clockmaker. That was 36 years ago and I have been restoring clocks as a full-time profession ever since.
Today I am known as the antique clock doctor. I own the family business that was established in 1925, and I have over 500 clocks in my personal collection ranging from large jewelers regulators to tiny alarm clocks. My favorites are still those American hour/half hour strike clocks from the closet that I “fixed” when I was a kid.
So “my first one” was not really a complete clock, but a bunch of loose gears.
Seth Thomas 30-hour “column” shelf clock.
Chris H. Bailey (FL)
The saga of my clock collecting days began in July of 1959 at the age of 12. My mother and I happened to be in the small southern Illinois town of Hutsonville (population then and now about 900). It is about 10 miles from Robinson, IL, where I was born and raised. My mother was born in Hutsonville and had taken me to see the site of the home where she was born. The house itself was gone, but a local household auction was taking place that afternoon at a neighboring residence, so we walked over and I began looking over the old furniture that had been hauled onto the lawn for viewing while my mother began chatting with an old neighbor, Ada York, whom she had run into at the auction.
Among the many items in the auction was a Seth Thomas 30-hour OG shelf clock. Though it was a shelf clock, someone had attached a hanger to the back and screwed a shelf into its bottom so that it could be hung on the wall, but would appear to be sitting on a shelf. It was an easy alteration to remedy. I was aware of mechanical clocks because my father, an instrument mechanic for a local gasoline refinery, occasionally brought home an old clock that he had been asked to oil and set going. In fact, several years before someone had given him an old oak “kitchen” clock, but he allowed my younger brother and I to play with it and it was soon reduced to clock parts and discarded.
I became quite fascinated with the Seth Thomas clock at the auction because I realized it was weight-driven —a power source for clocks I was not then aware of. At that time I thought all old clocks were spring-driven and most modern clocks were plug-in electrics. I didn’t have two nickels to rub together myself, but I drooled over the clock for quite a while hoping my mother might notice my interest and perhaps buy it for me.
Finally, the OG clock was taken up to the front and the bidding started. It climbed to five dollars—at which time the hammer dropped and the auctioneer indicated someone behind me had bought it. I turned around to discover he was pointing at my mother. Wow, she noticed and had bought it for me, I thought! My moment of ecstasy was immediately dashed when she turned and said to the auctioneer—“I wasn’t bidding on that clock, I was just talking to my old neighbor.” Grumbling about not waving your hands, the auctioneer resold the clock to the underbidder for four dollars. Bummer.
Soon after we prepared to leave for home and my mother offered Ada, the gabby neighbor, a ride home. I sat in the back seat, a bit disappointed. My mother apparently noticed I was unusually quiet and said “You didn’t really want that old clock, did you?” “Well,” I admitted, “I thought it was rather neat.” At that point Mrs. York turned and said, “Oh, if you want an old clock, save up your money and come and see me. My husband and I go to auctions all the time and often buy old clocks. I’ll sell you one for just what we paid for it.” (I later learned that many suffered a terrible fate because her husband often gutted spring-driven movements out of their old cases and put them in horrible, ugly modern cases, which he made and sold—obviously to people who had not seen a good looking clock!)
It did not take me long to start saving for my first clock. Since my allowance was only 50 cents a week, I turned to my lawn mowing for the big cash. I usually charged $1 per lawn. In a week or two I had mowed a number of yards and had nearly a dozen dollars saved up. Then one neighbor lady asked me to cut and clean up her yard. It was a jungle with the grass at least a foot tall in many places and the back was particularly nasty because she liked to throw her garbage out the back door. I agreed to do this unpleasant task for the huge sum of $2.50. I struggled and spent an entire day mowing the jungle and cleaning up the garbage dump. I had to go to her husband’s shoe store for payment and he balked at my bill, but I stood fast and he finally paid me.
Armed with $15 I went to buy my first clock. Ada had a number of clocks, but only one clock was weight-driven. By then I was spoiled and it had to be weight-driven. It was a Seth Thomas 30-hour “column” model shelf clock that dated to about 1855. She sold it to me for her cost—$13. I took my prize home and had a great deal of enjoyment cleaning up the case and the original movement. The reverse glass door tablet was original, but had lost some asphaltum backing, which I repaired. The pendulum, weights, and hands were intact. The original paper label was in poor condition; for the most part it had come off the backboard and was in many brittle pieces in the bottom of the case. Fortunately, I had more patience then than today and laboriously removed and assembled the jigsaw of pieces and glued them onto the backboard with Elmer’s glue. This procedure would probably be frowned upon by paper conservators, but I can only say that 52 years later the label looks just as good as the day I repaired it. Soon the clock was ticking away and being wound daily.
Over the past five decades many clocks have come and gone from my collection, but among those still with me is old No. 1. It will probably remain in my possession until the grim reaper parts us. Its present-day value is probably only $150 on the best of days, but its monetary value is of little consequence. It started me on clock collecting or, to put it another way, it opened the gates on the road to the poor house.