November 11, 2020 5 min read

It may look the part, but how do I know if my grandfather clock is antique? With ‘antique’ usually used to describe clocks over 100 years old, most are. Modern forgeries are rare as plausible fakes are difficult to make and enough genuine examples still exist to supply the demand. As the components of genuine grandfather clocks were all hand made, it is easy for experts to spot imitations. This is not as easy for the layman, but there are a number of signs that can be used to give a close approximation of age.

English grandfather clock manufacture died off after 1880 when mass produced American and German imports flooded the market. While custom built commissions were still built (and still are), this spelt the end for the English grandfather clock industry. For the previous 200 years, grandfather clock design went through many trends and fashions. As the mechanisms went largely unchanged, it is these artistic flourishes that provide the clues to a clocks age. While no one of these can give a definitive age in isolation, when taken as a whole a close estimate can be made.

How can you tell how old a grandfather clock is?

1.      Manufacturers Marks

Unlike their European counterparts, from the 19th century onwards almost all American clockmakers and companies put their name on their product. This can be found printed or engraved at the centre or edge of the face or stamped on the movements backplate. This is sometimes accompanied by a serial number on the back of the dial that can give a very accurate date and place of origin. While some English clocks have a clockmakers name and location, there were many individual clockmakers who never included this. Some only made a few clocks in their lifetime for extra income and remain anonymous.

2.      Dial Design

Between 1680 and 1770, virtually all grandfather clocks had engraved brass dials. While some southern clockmakers continued to use brass until 1830, from 1775 these usually had an engraved silvered dial centre. Until 1750 the winding holes in 8 day dials had decorative rings and from 1760 scalloped edges were added to any cut outs. The style of decorative brass spandrels surrounding the dial can also give an indication of age, but this requires an expert eye. In 1772 the first white dials were made in Birmingham, growing more common until 1880, replacing brass dials almost completely. Early examples were simply decorated with painted golden spandrels and occasional simple floral designs on the dial face. From 1800, with the change in numerals, corner decoration became more complex, with painted scenes sometimes replacing the simpler designs.

3.      Numbering

Roman numerals have always been the norm for grandfather clock dials, with the half hour mark represented by a cross with an arrow head until 1705. These became increasingly decorative until 1750, after which they were replaced by a simple diamond shape or omitted entirely. Until 1695 the minutes were numbered within the minute band. After 1695, these were engraved outside the minute ring, which was moved inwards on the chapter ring. From 1770 to 1800, the minutes were represented by dots and only numbered every five minutes, then every fifteen minutes from 1800 to 1820. After this date, minute numbers were not used apart from on some bespoke commissions. For about thirty years from 1800, Arabic numerals became the vogue, after which they returned to the traditional Roman numerals for good. Between 1720 and 1830 the Roman numeral ‘IV’ was replaced with ‘IIII’ to indicate the number 4.

4.      Movement and Pendulums

The style of movement pillars falls into three periods, the earliest (until 1740) possessing three rings and four fins. In the middle period until 1800 the fins were lost and from 1800 until the present a more organic curved design replaced this. Before 1750, square headed screws were used in the clock movement, being replaced after this with round heads and more precise thread profiles. The earliest pendulums were usually a thin rod with a small round plain lead weight, or bob. After 1740, the bob became more flattened into the now familiar form and was usually encased in brass. From 1800 onwards, the wire was replaced by a flattened iron strip and occasionally a painted cast iron bob in gold or black. Lead weights, sometimes brass cased, were used in all grandfather clocks until 1770, being replaced with cast iron on painted dial clocks.

5.      Dial Size

The earliest long case clocks possessed small dials of eight or nine inches square, although smaller ones existed. As the clocks themselves became larger and grander, this gradually increased to follow suit. From 1700, the standard dial size increased to ten inches, then eleven inches after 1740. By 1770 the standard size of twelve to thirteen inches square was reached, remaining largely unchanged until the present. However, from 1830, some huge grandfather clocks were built, with dials up to fifteen inches square.

6.      Hands

All brass faced clocks had brass hands and before the 1730s, many only had one hand to indicate the passage of hours. By 1730, most included a minute hand and from 1750 date apertures appeared with the date numbered on a wheel rotating behind the face. Provincial clockmakers were slower to adopt these improvements though, so they are not a guaranteed indicator of age. The design of the hands themselves evolved over time and similarly to spandrels an expert could use this to narrow down the date of manufacture. There is no guarantee that the hands on an antique clock are the original components though. As one of the most delicate parts, they are easily broken and were often replaced. With the advent of painted dials on grandfather clocks, blued steel hands were added. While delicate, these are stronger than brass hands and are more likely to have survived intact. From 1830, highly decorative brass hands became popular and these were used until the 1880s and the end of widespread manufacture.

While none of these factors can individually give an accurate age, combined they can help in antique grandfather clock identification. If in doubt, consult an expert, their experience and knowledge can be invaluable. Clock Corner is a family run business specialising in the repair and restoration of antique clocks and timepieces. We also sell exclusive, premium items from all eras, from the 18th century to the present day. Whatever your needs, contact us, our friendly expert staff will be glad to help.