The shelf clock – what is it, exactly?

What is a shelf clock? If you have a number of clocks as I do it can be quite confusing describing each specific type to the average person but it is really quite simple. Let me explain how you can identify the clock you might be looking at. The term shelf clock is a broad category but I believe it can be classified in the following ways.

Some 180 years ago the first shelf clocks were OG (Ogee) clocks. These were the first mass-produced American clocks, were inexpensive, and were made up to about the late 1870s. They represented the early years of American clock-making and the transition from more expensively produced wood movements to cheaper brass movement clocks. OG clocks are so named because of the double-curved molding on the front of the clock. The curved molding was designed to hide the weights. Many of these clocks were weight driven with 30 hour or 8-day movements and had mirrored or painted tablets. OG clocks were usually 25 inches in height and 15 inches wide and had hardwood veneers covering a softwood frame. They were surprisingly accurate and reliable.

Spring driven and weight driven 30 hour OG (Ogee) clocks, made by the Canada Clock Company, circa 1872-76 (Canadian Clock Museum)

Later, more stylish clocks could be found. These are called Column clocks because they would either have a half column or full column on the left and right or even stacked half or full columns such as the one pictured below. Moldings on the top and bottom would be brought together by columns on each side of the clock with mirrored or painted tablets. Column clocks were almost exclusively weight driven with 30 hour or 8-day movements.

Column clock
Stacked Column clock, circa 1870 (Canadian Clock Museum)

At around 1840 Steeple clocks were introduced. They had a peaked centre section bordered by columns topped with finials and a peaked sash with a decorated (often hand-painted) lower tablet. They were spring driven with 8-day movements. Steeple clocks are very distinctive, stood about 15 inches high with veneered hardwood over softwood, often with reverse-painted scenes and made by a number of well known companies.

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Arthur Pequegnat Maple Leaf “fan top” Kitchen clock, circa 1905

Kitchen clocks (Gingerbread) were simple or ornate with carved or steam-pressed patterns made by quick-saws and heavy steel presses, stood 22-24 inches in height and about 15 inches wide, had a decorated sash which could be a very simple design as you see here or a much fancier reverse-painted glass scene. These inexpensive, visually pleasing timepieces sat in the kitchens of lower and middle class homes and were produced by the thousands. They were so named because of their likeness to the design of gingerbread houses at the time (early 1900s). They are usually made of oak, walnut or even walnut trimmings on oak with a metal clock face and many had a simple alarm mechanism. The Gingerbread clock you see here is the Maple Leaf “fan top” by Arthur Pequegnat. The Maple Leaf came in 4 unique styles all characterized by the maple leaf decal on the glass door.

Some kitchen clocks had beautifully carved features and figurines such this stunning clock made by the Hamilton Clock Company (Canada), though a clock such as this might be found elsewhere in the home and considered a parlor clock.

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City of Hamilton, made by the Hamilton Clock Company, circa 1880 (Canadian Clock Museum)

When spring driven clocks were introduced the Parlor clocks like this Hamilton Clock Company model became popular. They tended to be narrower than column clocks because they had spring driven movements. These clocks mirrored the furniture styles of the time. This one reflected the Victorian era with its bold figurines, carved finials, elaborate patterns etched into its wooden frame and the hand-painted floral design of the sash.

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Seth Thomas round top cottage clock, circa 1930

Cottage clocks are less than 15 inches high and typically 8 inches wide are small, simple in design and take up very little space. Many have basic alarm mechanisms, but have one feature that distinguishes themselves from other pendulum clocks. They have a clip or a clasp which secures the pendulum rod for travel. The “round top” you see here was sold by Henry Birks and Sons an upscale Canadian jeweler. Others had “beehive” tops, flat tops or octagon tops.

Pendulum rod clip
Pendulum rod clip for Seth Thomas round top

Smaller clocks are often be referred to as desk clocks. They are usually mainspring driven with a flat dial. This Kundo 400-day anniversary German clock is an example of a desk clock but it might also be described more specifically as a torsion clock. This one stands less than ten inches tall, has a glass dome, a weighted wheel with 4 balls suspended by a ribbon called a torsion spring and an exposed movement. It was typically given as a wedding gift.

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Kundo 400 day anniversary clock, circa 1970

Finally, the mantel clock.

Mantel clocks can be ornate, larger and the centerpiece in a room. This particular clock, a Mauthe pendulum mantel clock offers a precision built sophisticated German Westminster chime movement in a relatively non-descript but attractive and well-built cabinet that is simple yet elegant.

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Mauthe time. strike and chime, circa 1970

ASIDE: Is it mantel or mantle? I have always considered a mantle as something you wear, a garment or a part of the earth’s crust. A mantel on the other hand is a shelf above, say, above a fireplace. I see this word interchanged so often when clocks are advertised or described that either word is universally accepted. I prefer the word “mantel”.

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Ingraham Huron shelf clock, circa 1878

Mantel clocks were inexpensive to make, occupied very little space and were part decoration and part practical timepieces. Mantel clocks were made with brass, wood, porcelain, slate, Bakelite and metal though for the most part they were designed to be lightweight (slate clocks and cast iron clocks would be the exception), simple in basic design and very practical. Mantel clocks have lasted so long, over two centuries, because they are dependable, versatile and work so well in many domestic situations.

The categories of shelf clock also include carriage clocks and lantern clocks. One of the first clocks whose movement and external structure was made predominantly from brass instead of iron or wood was the lantern clock. Although the clocks shape looks somewhat like a lantern, the derivation of the name probably stems from the French word “laiton”, meaning brass. The earliest lantern clocks had striking mechanisms; later in the 17th century alarms were sometimes added. Some lantern clocks had pendulums, and could be hung on the wall.

Carriage clocks were spring driven clocks developed in 19th century France and are made of plain or gilt brass. They are often no more than 8 inches tall, designed to be portable and are characterized by a rectangular shape, glass or porcelain panels and a carrying handle on the top. If you have a Breguet carriage clock as part of your collection you are very lucky indeed!

This is by no means an exhaustive description of the types of shelf clocks. There are others such as swinging clocks, tambour clocks, pillar and scroll and so on. Whether you are shopping for a clock as a gift or adding one to your collection or even describing what you have seen to a friend, it is important to understand the distinctions between one type and another.