Born in the Winter: Black Forest Clock Making

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When  time, incentive, and patience come together, something great can happen. And it did. The tradition of Black Forest clock making began with those three ingredients, some farmers, and the craft of wooden gear clock making, back in the last half of the 17th century.

 

During the long winter months when sowing, tending, and reaping were at a standstill, the farmers had plenty of time on their hands. And in that pause, a need was filled.

How? In the Black Forest, it was customary for a farmer’s oldest son to inherit the farm–-the younger son or sons were given only a small parcel of the farm. That created a need. Looking for additional ways to earn their living–here’s where the incentive comes in–some of the younger sons began crafting wooden clocks during the winter months to supplement their income. There were also cottagers and poorer farm families who took up the craft.

Clock making was a likely choice for their new venture, as linden wood was abundant in the region. The wood was soft enough to carve, yet hard enough to support the structure, and there were plenty of rivers and streams to power the lumber mills. The rocks that were used to power most of the weight-driven “Waaguhr” clocks, as they were called, were also in abundance.

Now for the patience: Farmers know that seeds grow at their own rate, and that mother nature can’t be rushed. Farmers know how to wait. Knowing how to be patient prepared them well to be clock makers. For long hours they could sit at their benches using their skill,Wood-Gears#2-uh.edu inventiveness, and the simplest of tools. The movements of the clocks, including the gears, were all made of wood. Without the benefit of electric-powered jigsaws, they had to hand-cut, file and shape every tooth on each gear, one at a time, carefully, slowly and precisely.

How many gear teeth did the average Waaguhr have and how long do you think it took to make such a clock? Based on our research, we estimate that the movement had, more or less, 140 to 150 gear teeth among its three gear wheels. As for how much time it took to make one of these timepieces…we can only guess! But the winters were long, and it was good that they were.

When spring came it was time to, so to say, “harvest” the clocks and bring them to market. The farmers gathered them up, and had traveling clock peddlers find eager homes for them. These were the first, the simple Waaguhr clocks, which were followed some decades later by the immensely popular cuckoo clock. Artisan clock makers steadily developed their own styles in the designs of the cuckoo clocks, and the Black Forest gained a worldwide reputation for producing timepieces of great beauty and craftsmanship. What had begun as a small cottage industry, in the pause of winter, grew and flourished throughout the region and beyond. In time, the clock making tradition of the Black Forest gained worldwide recognition.

So, great things did happen…when time, incentive, and patience came together.

Below is the “Hohenzollern”, a 17th century replica by Rombach and Haas. Click here for more details.

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Photo credits:

Photo # 1 – Potato Planters by Jean-François Millet – hoocher.com

Photo # 2 – 17th century replica of a Waaguhr style wall clock – uh.edu

Photo # 3 – 17th century replica  ” Hohenzollern” – Waaguhr style clock by Rombach and Haas

 

 

The History of the Cuckoo Clock

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It seems that disagreements about when an invention was invented and who did the inventing, tend to bubble up here and there, and so it is with the cuckoo clock.

Hundreds of years have passed  since the famous clock first appeared in the Black Forest,and today horologists are still in disagreement about its beginnings. Maybe it’s understandable, because the Black Forest has always been a place of myths and fairy tales.

 

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The popular and traditional belief, which has lasted through the centuries, is that the cuckoo clock History-Cuckoo-#2-Bellows-Clockworks.com-cu2was invented in 1740 by Franz Anton Ketterer, a master clock maker from the small village of Schoenwald (photo above) in the heart of the Black Forest of Germany. It is said that he was the one who devised a clever mechanical system using two small bellows and wooden whistles, much like the pipe organ, to reproduce the two-note call of the cuckoo. (photo on right).

 

Maybe the reason Ketterer chose the cuckoo for his clocks was because he knew that the familiar cooing sound of the cuckoo bird would perk people up, the bird being a welcome sign of the coming of spring and History-#2cuckoo-Sepia-Natural History- Birds by Philip Henry Gosse the end of winter. Before Ketterer added the cuckoo to his wall clocks, clockmakers had used a variety of winsome, animated figures such as dumpling eaters, laughing faces, beer drinkers, trumpeters and the like to bring mirth and appeal to their timepieces.

 

It wasn’t a surprise that before long the cuckoo clock gained popularity throughout Germany. Artisan clock makers of the Black Forest steadily developed their own styles and themes in the designs of their clocks, and clock peddlers traveled the countrysides and beyond, to far away places, selling the cuckoos.  Over time the wooden mechanisms of the clock were replaced by brass and other metals, and eventually History-#2-rombach-8222two main styles of cuckoo clocks emerged: the ornamented “railroad house” style known as the “Bahnhäusleuhr” (far left photo)History-RE-SIZED-Anton-schneider-8T-215-9 and the decorative “traditional style” known as the “Jagdstück”, (middle photo) which had  elaborate, hand carved hunting themes . Toward the end of the 19th century, modeled after typical Swiss and German chalets, guide-2--anton-schneider-cuckoo-clock-1686-91the “Chalet” style cuckoo clock emerged (photo above on right); some featuring music boxes and animated figurines and waterwheels to liven things up. Over time the cuckoo clock has become a worldwide symbol of the Black Forest.

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In the span of three centuries, the cuckoo clock has remained in a mostly unchanged state. But now, there are more style choices, including quartz models and the contemporary/decorative designs that are usually smooth, flat, minimalistic and geometrical in shape. But regardless of its style, the whimsical charm and kinetic experience of a cuckoo clock, and the relationship it engenders, is still very much the same.

 

Well, whether it was Ketterer or someone else who first invented the cuckoo clock, congratulations for a job well done, for we can now enjoy the mirth of these charming creations. As for our other animated friends, the dancing figurines, beer drinkers and other characters, they’re also found on many a cuckoo clock, spinning, dancing, moving about and making merry. Some things just don’t change.

Check our large online selection of heirloom quality cuckoo clocks.

 

Photo credits:

Photo # 1 – Clock maker in his clock shop – burtonlatimer.info

Photo # 2 – Village of Schoenwald, Germany – black-forest.org

Photo # 3 – Cuckoo clock bellows and pipes – clockworks.com

Photo # 4 – Cuckoo Bird drawing – from “Natural History: Birds” by Philip Henry Gosse

Photo # 5 – Rombach and Haas “Railroad house” style cuckoo clock

Photo # 6 – Anton Schneider traditional style cuckoo clock

Photo # 6 – Anton Schneider chalet style cuckoo clock

Photo # 7 – Rombach and Haas modern style cuckoo clock

The Clock Peddlers

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Anton-Shneider-2-clock-peddler I can remember the mid 60′s in New York City…

when door to door peddlers still made their rounds. I didn’t know then that I’d be writing this now with a nostalgic feeling for the simplicity and warmth those peddlers brought to our lives. At that time their numbers were dwindling, but they hadn’t yet disappeared completely. A well-rounded variety of them still came around selling brushes, soap, encyclopedias, vacuum cleaners and other household items that we all needed. One kind of peddler that I know I’d remember would be a clock peddler. But I never saw one. If I had lived in the Black Forest region of mid-nineteenth century Germany, I would have.

If you roll history back far enough, there was a time when clock peddlers sported their goods through hills, forests and countryside, and that happened on their regular routes through the region. On foot they carried all sorts of clocks tied with rope to large backpacks. These hardy entrepreneurs of old were called “Ührschleppers” in German.

Here’s where it gets really interesting…

There is a fable* told by Father Franz Steyrer in his book, “History of Clock Making in the Black Forest,” written in 1796. It was about two peddlers from a town called Furtwangen in the Black Forest of Germany who met a traveling Bohemian clock merchant. BLOG-Kleiser_ClockThe peddlers were so enthused that they purchased one, brought it home, and made copies, then showed them to other clock merchants. The clock caught on in the region and more and more clock makers started to build them. It turned out to be a seasonal business: during the long harsh winters the artisans crafted the clocks, and then in the spring went about the countrysides and beyond to far away places selling the cuckoos. The fable has it that those clock peddlers played an important role in launching the popularity of Black Forest clocks. Today, the image of the clock peddler is a prominent symbol of the Black Forest clock industry.

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In modern times we no longer have…

any clock peddlers.  But if I get nostalgic, I can always look at the clock peddlers preserved as wood carved figurines on some of our beloved cuckoo clocks. On the left is a sample of one. 

 

In case you’re curious about the below photograph…

it’s a rare (yes, it’s worth thousands) and very collectible table clock, a Black Forest clock peddler timepiece from 1850 to 1860. Peddler2-Justin-685x1024The small clock he’s holding is a working clock with a porcelain dial. The figure is made of formed sheet tin and is hand painted. Don’t you just love the peddler’s old-world attire?

One last thought…

Although I’ve never been eyewitness to a real live door to door clock peddler standing at my threshold, if by some chance you’ve ever had a visit from one, we’d like to hear from you. Please leave a comment and let us know the details.

PHOTO CREDITS:

1. Schneider Cuckoo Clocks

2. German clock shop street sign

3.  North Coast Imports

4. BlackForestClocks.org