Farm story 16: Watching the clock


Olof Johansson, Olle’s paternal grandfather, was born in 1844 and died in 1925 and so lived at a time of enormous social change and economic expansion – not only in Sweden but around the world.. He seems to have had a good business head on his shoulders, making a tidy profit in the early 1900’s by rowing the 12 km to the island of Marstrand where king Oscar II spent his summers, and where Olof sold his potatoes to the monarch and his court.

Thirty years before, Olof had made the decision to invest some of his hard-earned money in a clock. Like most farmers of the time he was not used to flashing the cash, but must have realised that the farm needed a reliable timepiece as modern 19th century life, with its timetables and schedules, became increasingly regulated. Perhaps you didn’t need a clock to tell you when the cows needed milking, they’d make enough noise to let you know, but you might if you were catching a ferry to the mainland, or you had to ensure that children set off to school in good time.

The clock Olof bought is probably the object in the farmhouse which has travelled furthest – it’s our Amerikaklocka or American clock. It must have been one of the few items in the house in Olof’s day that wasn’t either home-made or locally produced and as such it must have been greatly prized. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ships regularly made the long crossing from the United States to Europe, and whether the clock was exported directly to Sweden from the US, or was bought in England by some seafaring son of Tjörn (of which there were many) is an open question. It is, at any rate, a handsome rectangular wall clock, 39 cm wide by 65 cm long and 11 cm thick. In Swedish it’s sometimes called a sillåda klocka (herring box clock) as the basic rectangular shape has about the same dimensions. It’s a sensible shape for objects that have to travel thousands of kilometres over land and sea, for it makes them easy to pack and there’s nothing to chip or break off. They’re also remarkably common on the island. Of all the houses I’ve visited on Tjörn around a third of them either have the same clock on their wall (though they may be decorated differently) or the homeowner has told me about someone they know who has the same model.

Looking at it from the front, the veneer is mahogany although the back is simple painted pinewood. A large door with straight sides makes up much of the front of the clock and this door is divided by a straight crossbar, above which is a clear glass square of 20 cm square, through which you can see the clock face. The lower part of the door is a little larger, 20 by 25 cm, and is also made of glass. However, the glass here is not transparent as it has been painted white on the reverse side. On the front is a pretty design, with an elaborate golden border framing a white oval with round yellow plums, green foliage and a little white blossom. I love it. I like the almost botanically correct picture of the fruit and the proportions of the glass door, divided into clear and opaque panels. I also admire the way the wood which makes the frame of the little door is a few shades lighter than the rest of the clock case and the way the casing into which the door is fitted curves, so that the grain of the wood catches the light. It is in short an object designed and made by someone with a good eye for detail and is both attractive and functional.

Like so many other things at the farm, I never asked Olle where the clock had come from or how old it was. Then one day I opened its little door and took a good look at the tattered dark-brown paper pasted behind the pendulum. It gave the manufacturer’s name, Jerome and Co., below which was written New Haven, Conn. When I googled the name of the company, I chanced upon a very informative website called, A Chauncey Jerome Clock Collector and wrote to the man who runs it, attaching pictures of the inside and outside of my clock. Amazingly, it took Mike Bailey less than 24 hours to reply with all the information I could have wanted. This is part of his email from December 2021.

If you look closely at the bottom of the label, just inside the border, you’ll see that the label was printed by Goddard (F.L. Goddard). He was active from about 1870-1872, which allows dating the clock to that period. The clock was made by the New Haven Clock Co., using the trade name “Jerome & Co. …New Haven” ……it sold thousands and thousands of clocks in Europe. They were imported through their office in Liverpool, England.”

This mass production was possible because Jerome was one of the first to make the working parts of clocks out of hard-wearing brass, which could be produced quickly and cheaply by stamping rather than casting. But it wasn’t just engineering which was developing at lightning speed in the 1800’s, for Jerome adopted what he called a “systematic approach” to production, preceding Henry Ford’s 1908 car assembly lines by decades. As production increased and costs fell it was also possible to reduce the price of his timepieces, making them affordable to the middle and working classes in the US and Great Britain. And because the clocks were attractive, good-quality objects they sold well.

The life of the man who led this revolution in clockmaking, Chauncey Jerome, sounds like a work of fiction. The poor son of a blacksmith, by 1840 he was producing up to 20,000 clocks with brass movements annually and later the same decade the figure rose to 150,000. By 1850 he was making 444,000 timepieces every year for an international market. But then disaster struck. He made a disastrous decision to buy a company controlled by the businessman and showman PT Barnum, and both men lost their entire fortunes. Jerome died penniless in 1868 having sold his company, but Barnum fared better. At the age of 60 he established, of all things, a hugely successful circus, which travelled the length and breadth of the US on the newly-developed railroad system.

Ours is a “time and strike” clock but hasn’t been wound up for at least twenty years, not because it’s broken or keeps poor time, but because the ticking is loud enough to drive you mad and its chimes could be heard by neighbours in the next street. Its workings are easy to identify, even by a lay-person: the pendulum with its disc-like weight, the wire coil which produces the sound, and the striking mechanism with its little hammer. People in the know say that these clocks are robust, reliable and simple to maintain and I believe them – they have an honest look.

Mass-produced timepieces like ours weren’t designed to be personalized, but surprisingly this one bears a signature belonging to a family member. Despite all of Olof’s ingenuity and hard work, life on the farm in the last quarter of the 19th century was still limited by lack of money. Compulsory schooling for all had been introduced in 1842 but education was not yet regarded particularly highly by most Tjörnbo and the idea of parents spending hard-earned money on paper on which children could write or draw, would have been regarded with incredulity. The result was that when Olle’s numerous aunts and uncles were small they used anything they could find to scribble on or practice their handwriting - including a law book (See Farm story 5).

Jenny, one of the middle daughters, was a particularly enthusiastic signer. Her careful signature even appears in the space above the first verse of Genesis in the old family bible. I don’t think this was her way of protesting against established religion in general or the Lutheran church of Sweden in particular, it was simply that the bible had been “de-commissioned” in the way that old churches no longer in use are sometimes converted into homes or restaurants. As the family had bought a new bible, and the habit of re-cycling was engrained in everyone from birth, the old one was regarded as the perfect place to practice your autograph. And Jenny didn’t confine her efforts to books. When you open the little glass door in the front of the clock and look carefully at the white paint on its back you can see the name Jenni , and the first letters of her second name, Ols for Olsdotter (or Olsson ) in joined-up writing. She’d tried higher up first, managing a very creditable fancy J before starting again lower down the glass panel, indicating that the chair she was standing on to write wasn’t quite high enough. Interestingly, her first name was actually spelled with a y , so whether she was experimenting with an alternative spelling or had been caught in mid-stroke remains a mystery.

She can’t have been very old when she decided to practice her penmanship in such an unlikely place, otherwise she would have realised that her parents would discover her crime sooner or later and that the consequences might be severe. But whatever the sequel that day, life went on. In 1921, at the comparatively late age of 38 she married a man seventeen years older than herself and left the farm. This was the same year that her young sister-in-law Axelina had died, and perhaps Jenny decided that she didn’t want to keep house for her brother, a household which also contained a four-year-old child and her elderly father, Olof. It’s also possible of course that she’d simply fallen in love. At any rate, she made the neighbouring island of Klädesholmen her home, dying there in 1966 when she was 82. But on the back of the glass door of the Amerikaklockan , Jenny’s unfinished signature reminds us that she too had once been a child.

© Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023 See more pictures of the farm on Instagram: gwyneths_swedish_farm

Website - A Chauncey Jerome Clock Collector

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