Collecting Antique Clocks Hooded Clocks
The hood is the upper part of a longcase clock which contains the movement and through which the dial shows. A 'hooded clock' is therefore the name we give today to a kind of wall clock which resembles the top of a longcase clock, and a hooded clock looks at first sight pretty much the same thing as a small longcase clock without a body. In fact hooded clocks are built along the same mechanical principles as a thirty-hour pull-wind longcase clock, but it's not quite that simple. The hooded version was obviously cheaper to make and took up less space, but there are other differences too, some of them to do with cost, but others with the function.
Hooded clocks were made mostly by rural clockmakers supplying a less-than-wealthy clientele, for whom the most essential ingredient in any kind of clock they might hope to buy was a low price. A few are known by city clockmakers, who may have supplied them for the servants' quarters of grander houses, but by far the majority were made by rural clockmakers and were made as simply as possible and as cheaply as possible. A country farmer had little need for a clock, as he worked when it was light and slept when it was dark. Daylight was working time, and every rural worker pretty well knew what time it was by the height of the sun against the horizon, so the last thing he needed was a clock to tell the time by. To sell a clock to such a customer, the clockmaker had to make it very easy on his pocket and simple to understand, and the hooded clock was both.
Of course there had been wall clocks since the beginning of clockmaking, which in this country was about the year 1600. The earliest ones were lantern clocks, but these were made largely of brass, were costly, and because of their cost, were available really only to the gentry. Hooded clocks were a simplified and much less costly form of lantern clock, using for cheapness a greater proportion of iron to brass. Another form of hanging wall clock also existed from the late seventeenth century alongside the hooded clock, known as a hook-and-spike clock. This was essentially the same sort of thing as a hooded clock, but which hung directly from a hook on the wall without any hood and was the very cheapest form of all. But a hood boxed everything in to keep out the dust and in all looked a far more professional job.
Almost all hooded clocks are of thirty-hour duration, wound daily by pulling up a rope or chain, a more robust system than an eight-day and with less to go wrong. What's more it is such a simple affair it could literally be wound by a child, in other words was more or less customer-proof. An eight-day would also have been a much costlier version, which would have defeated the object. Apart from other factors an eight-day would have had to support two twelve pound driving weights, which is a lot to ask of a hook in the wall, whereas a thirty-hour timepiece would run on a tiny weight of about four or five pounds.
Many hooded clocks are single-handed clocks. Today we are familiar with clocks from childhood, but at the time these clocks were made, many of the rural population had never before had a clock in the house. A single-handed clock reads time in hours, half hours and quarters - just as a sundial did, which was a well-known feature of every churchyard. A sundial has a single shadow to mark the hours, and a single-handed clock was in effect a mechanical sundial. A single-hander was therefore easy for all to understand, educated or not, without the complication of a minute hand, and what's more was cheaper to make than a two-hander! Two-handed hooded clocks are sometimes seen, but usually much later, in the late eighteenth century or early nineteenth.
Given that these cheaper wall clocks were thirty-hour single-handers, the majority did not have strikework (a normal feature of a longcase clock but which would have meant more expense in the making). A non-striking clock is called a timepiece, which is what most hooded clocks are. But instead of striking, they very often had a feature which a country population, whose work was largely based on agriculture, would have found useful, particularly on dark winter mornings - they had an alarm. An alarm clock would perhaps be hung in the landing, or somewhere within earshot of the bedroom, but wherever it was located the noise made when the alarm goes off would be audible for quite some distance within the house. The alarm feature was not costly to make, certainly a much cheaper alternative than the strikework that almost all longcase clocks had, and of course it is unlikely you would want a clock situated close to the bedroom to be striking the hours all night long. The need for mechanical simplicity comes into the equation again, as strikework has more things to go wrong than alarmwork, in the hands of a careless owner. These clocks were robust items, very unlikely to break in normal use. The clock's worst enemy was the owner, who might fiddle with it or abuse it or.
Most hooded clocks then were made down to a price, were simple and therefore cheap to build mechanically, were simple for the owner to understand and set up, were single-handers, and had alarmwork. They were made from the end of the seventeenth century right up until the middle nineteenth, when they became replaced by the mass-produced spring-driven bedroom alarm clock, which wound with a key and sat on a bedside cabinet. But the very fact that these clocks were made as cheaply as possible has meant that their survival rate is low, because many were scrapped (and still are) in favour of 'better' sorts of clocks as the prosperity of families gradually increased with the years. Only recently a late seventeenth-century example turned up at auction which had been rescued from a waste skip, and brought several thousand pounds! Today these clocks are quite scarce, not because few were made, but because of their high destruction rate. Moreover their small, neat and primitive nature means that they appeal greatly to clock collectors, with the result that many fail to come onto the market but remain in private collections.
The cases (hoods) these clocks were housed in were usually of oak, but sometimes of pine, the latter generally painted or stained to simulate a better wood. Pine is notoriously prone to woodworm, and the soft nature of the wood itself is a further reason for the high destruction rate. We quite often come across hooded clocks which have survived without the hood, since the brass and steel dials and movements are almost indestructible, but the wooden parts are more prone to damage. Many examples are extremely simple in styling, partly to keep the price down. Access to the clock dial for purposes such as re-setting the clock hand(s), was usually gained by sliding forward the front (glazed) section of the hood, just as in a longcase clock. However some examples are so basic that there was no glass to protect the dial, which just sat there exposed, and therefore a simpler, and even cheaper, case could be made requiring no slide-off section and no glass.
It is very rare for an example to have survived today from the seventeenth century, or even the early eighteenth. Many we see will date from the second and third quarters of the eighteenth centuries. Up the this time all these clocks had brass dials, but after the introduction of japanned dials in the early 1770s, we begin to see examples with painted dials. In line with their cost-conscious nature, they normally had tiny dials, anywhere from four to six inches square, occasionally seven or eight inches. There was no need for the larger sized dials which longcase clocks had, which were seldom less then ten inches and often more than twelve, and of course were much more costly than a small dial. If you do see a hooded clock with a large dial, beware it is not a longcase clock that has lost its case and had a hood made for it instead as an easier option. We see quite a few of these about masquerading as hooded clocks.
It is in the nature of their cheaper market that clockmakers would cut every possible corner to save money when making these clocks. Sometimes they would use old scrap pieces of brass, or re-use bits from other worn-out clocks, to save on the cost of metals used. Occasionally we might see one of the two plates which hold the clock together made of brass and another on the same clock made of copper, or even of iron, as clockmakers used anything suitable that was to hand. All clockmakers used to take old clocks in part exchange towards the cost of a new one. This was not because they wanted to repair the old clock for re-sale, but because they could plunder its re-useable metal parts. A customer buying a clock at a low price, was not going to object if its interior was a bit of a mixture of metal oddments, and the value of the metals used was an important factor in the cost. Furthermore the protective hood served to hide away the movement, so that any mismatch of materials would not be visible.
The movements, as we have said, were made along the same principles as a non-striking thirty-hour longcase clock, and, like longcases, the movements could be of the plated or posted type. The wheels and axles (known as arbors) in a plated type of clock were held between two vertical plates back and front. An example is seen in the movement of the clock by Jones in plate 8. Posted, or post-framed, movements held the wheels between upright bars set within a four-posted frame, rather like a four-poster bed.
There are exceptions, but post-framed movements were generally found principally in Southern England, whereas northern makers more usually preferred the plated type, which in longcase clocks eventually predominated. In fact the production of hooded clocks had largely faded out by the end of the eighteenth century, or at latest the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth, and this was before the plated form took over fully in longcase clocks. This means that the phasing out of the posted-movement form did not take place in hooded clocks in the way it did in thirty-hour longcases.
Prices of such clocks are very variable. A less desirable example, neglected, abused or in poor condition, with parts missing and in need of serious restoration, or with the wrong hood, might sell for a few hundred pounds. A good example could sell for anywhere between £1,000 and £3,000, depending on just what it was and its age. An exceptionally early or good one could bring much more.
A version of this article was originally published in Antique Collecting magazine.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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