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Willard House and Clock Museum Hosts Exhibit of Rare Musical Tall Clocks

M.A.D. staff | October 13th, 2013


Christian Eby, ten-tune musical tall-case clock with highly inlaid cherry case, Manheim, Pennsylvania, circa 1804.

The Willard House and Clock Museum in North Grafton, Massachusetts, is hosting Keeping Time: Musical Clocks of Early America, 1730-1830, an exhibit of nearly three dozen early American musical and chiming clocks. These fully functioning mechanical marvels were all made before 1830.

Early tall-case clocks capable of playing music are extremely rare. This exhibit includes one-quarter of the approximately 140 early American examples that are known to survive. At a time when few households contained a clock of any kind, these masterpieces were crafted at an original cost of two to three times that of a standard tall clock. They were within reach of only the most affluent citizens. The cases that house the musical movements represent some of the finest cabinetry produced in Colonial and Federal America.

The majority of the clocks in the exhibit are privately owned, and most have never been displayed in public. Some have been silent for decades, but for the exhibit they have been brought back to life to play the tunes that delighted their first owners. The 33 clocks on exhibit were crafted by over 30 different clockmakers from eight states. Works by acclaimed clockmakers, such as Simon and Benjamin Willard, Daniel Burnap, and Thomas Claggett, are included. Many of the cases were made by important early American cabinetmakers such as Major Stephen Badlam, Matthew Egerton Jr., and members of the Goddard-Townsend school.

Creating a musical clock movement was a high point in a clockmaker’s career. Highly skilled expertise was required to produce them as the elements were very intricate; only a small number of clockmakers possessed the necessary skill. Included in the display are examples of uncased working musical movements that can be studied in the round, so visitors can see how the clocks work.

The names of the tunes played are often inscribed on the clock faces. These tunes were personal choices that often reflected the political or cultural interests of the owner.

Guest curators Gary R. Sullivan, a nationally recognized clock specialist, and Kate Van Winkle Keller, an internationally known scholar of early American music, have assembled the exhibit. Their research will culminate in two books on early American musical clocks and the tunes they play. An exhibit catalog is available.

The exhibit runs through November 17 at the Willard House and Clock Museum, 11 Willard Street, North Grafton, Massachusetts. For more information, check the museum’s Web site (

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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