Clocks: KEEPING TIME IN THE OLD TIMES NOSTALGIA IS MAINSPRING OF THEIR POPULARITY

May 12, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Nostalgia is a big business in America. We found out at least one expression of this phenomenon while out buying a clock one day.

The simple little thing had big figures on the dial for the faraway, wall-sized treatment. It worked, apparently forever, on about $1.69 worth of batteries.

But when we got close, we heard the sound of nostalgia. A tick . . .

Why did this wonder of modern miniaturization need a tick? For atmosphere, and nothing else. Electric clocks and battery models, as soundless as the deepest chamber in Carlsbad Caverns, have been around for years. Yet today they have to sound like something Aunt Martha bought at auction back in 1927. And even look like it. Never mind the lack of a gong or pendulum as long as that tick is there. (Though many of the new models are equipped with false pendulums, balanced little items that spring back and forth uselessly, another example of nostalgia overkill.)

Still, the fact is that there is something inherently homey, even comforting, about the steady tick-tock of a familiar timepiece. And there are plenty of the real old-timers around for those who want to determine the hour in a historically appropriate fashion.

A virtual museum of old clock lore is a leading attraction on the Hampstead antique circuit, the 51-year old clock store founded in 1940 by Roy W. Ashe, now a resident of Deland, Fla., with son Steve doing the local honors.

"We have up to 500 clocks at any one time for sale," says Steve Ashe as he stands in the midst of an array of timepieces going back two centuries and more. Roy's Never Stop Clock Shop, as the business is named, attempts to live up to its name with clocks that bong, cheep, cuckoo, tick and also thump out the chimes of Westminster, Winchester or the lesser-known bongs of St. Mary le Bow, London, or St. Michael's Church, Charleston, S.C.

The Ashe shop is housed in an ultra-solid turn-of-the-century bank building, former home of the First National Bank of Hampstead, which went belly up in 1932, Mr. Ashe relates. (The heavy vault has an inner spheroid vault that turns so that none of its action is exposed to the bad guys. This unique and apparently crackproof banking relic was made beginning in 1873 by the Corliss company and was formerly in the Eutaw Savings Bank of Baltimore.)

Mr. Ashe will tell visitors about the mysterious wax residue sometimes found inside old clocks. It's there because craftsmen would use candles to light clock interiors when they were repairing them. He is full of lore about the national nature of

clocks:

"French clocks are picky about where you put them. The surface must be absolutely level. American clocks will usually work more easily even with a slight tilt."

In one corner of the jampacked shop is a very old French wall clock, with its giant brass pendulum, one of the curiosities of European decor.

The royal government, it seems, taxed only clocks that stood on the floor, hence the huge clocks with their giant pendulums that were hung on appropriate wall spaces.

Many clocks tell a story, because they were presentation pieces for special occasions and awards. In the Ashe store is an elaborate, American-made rococo model in gilt with matching candelabra presented in 1902 to George H. Zimmerman by "his Democratic friends" in Baltimore's 19th political ward.

Probably even more popular with collectors than such Victorian froufrou are the earlier American models that poured out of New England between the Revolution and the Civil War -- with names like Terry, Seth Thomas, Daniel Pratt, Sperry & Shaw, Chauncey Jerome, Birge & Mallory and Ingraham. Connecticut was the Athens of the great 19th century clock boom.

Sounding the hours was a very practical affair, because it was the only way that residents could tell time without getting out of bed at night or lighting candles. Often clocks were made to ring the hours twice so that you got a second chance to find out whether it was 10 or 11, and so on, Mr. Ashe relates.

The clockmaker ascribes the current grandfather clock boom to the recent affluence of middle-aged people. "It's a finishing touch, a final accessory for people's houses these days. Today the clocks are fine-tuned so that they have self-adjusting pendulums and can be used on flooring not absolutely level," Mr. Ashe says. Among workaday time pieces that bring big prices today are time clocks for industrial employees from the turn of the century. Roy's will restore or sell one, complete with an employee punch in/out deck. It's a Connecticut model marketed by International Time Recording Co., which Mr. Ashe says is an ancestor of IBM. Mr. Ashe calls such timepieces his "most hated" types.

Another unusual shop item is a so called "slave" clock, a double-sided hanging clock from the old Western Electric plant. Such instruments were actually powered by a third clock in a railroad or plant office. In the same choice category are the "regulator" clocks of railroading days that performed accurate timing for rail travel.

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