April 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 3
At the end of the 1700s only one American family in ten owned a clock. By 1844 an English visitor could write, “Wherever we have been in Kentucky, in Indiana, … in every dell of Arkansas, and in cabins where there was not a chair to sit on, there was sure to be a Connecticut clock.” That change can be laid to one clockmaker and one clock: Eli Terry and his pillar and scroll.
Terry was one of those people who happened to be standing on the corner when history took a turn. Born in East Windsor, Connecticut, in 1772, he moved to the western part of the state in 1793 and set up shop in Plymouth as a clockmaker and watch repairer. This, while an honorable craft, was not widely viewed as a way to get rich. America was a nation of farmers in the 1790s, and most people lived by the sun and the moon. If they needed to know what time it was, they checked the big clock on the meetinghouse steeple. Clocks were rare and expensive items, each one made by hand to order. The total cost of a fine brass-movement clock and case might run as high as eighty dollars—this in a time when average annual income was around one hundred dollars.
But America was changing from an agrarian to an industrial society, and working in a factory meant keeping someone else’s hours. Terry saw a new market developing for a cheap, mass-produced clock that might go into the homes of working people. Around 1803 he put up a small building on a stream and began to experiment with large production runs in advance of orders. He would turn out not one custom part at a time, as clockmakers had always done, but dozens of interchangeable parts. It was the first time this was done on a large scale anywhere in American industry. Some accounts have him working up from twenty-five to a run of five hundred; Terry’s son Henry placed the number at one thousand in an 1853 memoir. Either way, “It was regarded by some at the time as so extravagant an undertaking as to subject him to considerable ridicule,” Henry Terry wrote. Eli let them laugh. In 1807 Edward and Levi Porter of Waterbury asked Terry to produce four thousand wooden clock movements. He accepted the order. It took him three years to fill, but the cost per movement, without case, dropped from thirteen to ten dollars, and Terry learned that production on a grand scale was possible.
Now all he needed was the right clock. From peddling trips in the early 1800s he knew that most working-class homes weren’t suited for the big tall-case clock. Around 1814 he invented a clock that would run for thirty hours before it would need rewinding. He mounted it in a plain case twenty inches high and four inches deep—just big enough to fit on the narrow mantelpiece of the average house. The box clock was functional, but it lacked a certain zip. Casting around, Terry found decorative elements to borrow—the pillars and brass finials of tall-case clocks, the scroll that was typical of Chippendale furniture—and combined them in the pillar-and-scroll shelf clock of 1817.
Priced at a low fifteen dollars, case and all, it was an immediate sensation. The pillar and scroll was the first truly beautiful clock that an average American could picture sitting comfortably in his own home. The example shown opposite, manufactured by Eli Terry & Sons sometime between 1823 and 1833, is typical. Elements of high style like the sinuous scrollwork and delicately legged base are balanced with the homey garden scene reverse-painted on the glass tablet. An opening in the tablet shows the pendulum behind, giving a reassuring glimpse of the works in action. (Terry pasted an instruction sheet right inside the case, one of the earliest examples of product instructional literature.)
Peddlers ranging south to New York and Pennsylvania found great enthusiasm for the pillar and scroll in most places and pushed it with entrepreneurial zeal everywhere else. Families that were reluctant to buy had clocks left with them on approval. By the time the peddlers returned a month later, the customers signed. Demand increased at a dizzying rate. Dozens of manufacturers turned out variations on the pillar and scroll; one present day scholar estimates the number only as “zillions.”
The pillar and scroll fell out of fashion around 1840, to be replaced by other kinds of shelf clocks. But its effect on American industry was permanent. In later years objects from typewriters to automobiles would be made according to Terry’s precepts of mass production and standardization.
But the greatest effect of the pillar and scroll was felt inside the home. Eli Terry irreversibly changed the way people thought about time. No longer something that was decreed from the skies above, it was now a fact of daily life ticking away in the living room.