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Antique clock dials

The word dial comes from the same word used to describe sundials, the predecessors to mechanical time tellers. Sundials were most often made of metal and engraved with numerals. Prior to the 18th century, the devices were called “dyals,” and the art of telling time with them was called “dyalling.”

The most plentiful American types of antique clock dials – or faces as they are known now – are from these English and American grandfather clocks. Wooden cases were often destroyed before the metal works gave out, leaving an orphaned dial and clockworks. Sometimes day-running clockworks were replaced with more practical week-running (or “eight-day”) works and old dials were detached from original cases and works. The original dial languished in a repair persons shop for years before being recycled after these “updates” were made.
antique watches with enamel dial
Antique grandfather-clock dials took one of two basic forms: the square type (usually an 11- to 15-inch square) and the broken-arch type (in which a semicircular arch was added to the top of a square dial). Small dials about 11 inches square were used exclusively until about 1725; later examples were about 12 to 15 inches square and some of them were in the broken-arch style. During the 18th and 19th centuries broken-arch dials 12 inches square typically measured about 18 inches in height. These broken-arch dials sometimes had a “moving moon”: a round saw-toothed dial mounted behind the broken arch that revealed only part of the moon wheel, thereby indicating the phase of the moon. Moon dials began to he seen with some frequency about 1750.

Brass Dials

The earliest grandfather-clock dials date to the late 17th century. Made of brass, they were engraved and decorated with cast accoutrements that were applied to the dial base and held on by posts and taper pins or rivets or square-headed screws. Applied spandrels were cast in various patterns. Other parts attached to early dials included chapter rings (the circles of brass enclosing the numerals), a seconds ring, or a name boss.

Horologists (those who specialize in the study of clocks) spend much time examining spandrel patterns and trying to figure out just when they were used. Spandrels alone, however, are not a sure indication of a brass dials age. In general, spandrels could suggest a date by their size: Smaller spandrels were used on earlier dials. This follows logic, since small spandrels are associated with small dials, which date to an earlier period anyway. Other clues to age lie in the decorative embellishments: Earlier spandrels often showed human figures or cherubs; later spandrels featured purely abstract filigree patterns.

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On clocks that possessed only an hour hand, as was the style in early clocks and dials, chapter rings were often marked only inside the numerals and had four spaces between the numerals. Later, when minute hands became more common, each minute was marked off in a ring outside the Roman numerals; Arabic numerals marked each five minutes, leaving five spaces between numerals. The style of using both quarter hour and minute tracks inside and outside the numerals was transitional and used only when the minute hands were first introduced. A dial with both tracks probably dates to before 1740.
old enamel dial

A matte finish on the dial base within the chapter ring is a sign that a dial predates 1730; one engraved with patterning within the chapter ring may suggest a late-18th-century date. Plain polished brass inside the chapter rings was used throughout both eras. Roman numerals for the hours were engraved on dials dating before 1790 and after 1820, but clocks made in between these dates may have displayed either Arabic or Roman numerals.

As the fashion for brass dials progressed, the applied spandrels, chapter rings, and other ornaments fell into disuse, being replaced by engraving on the dial base instead. These engraved motifs were usually silvered, taking on a gray pewter color. The process, a less-expensive way to produce an attractive dial, made it easier to compete with the enameled or painted dials that began to be fashionable after about 1775.

A Pretty Face

So-called painted dials may have been made as early as 1768, but they were not widely known until 10 to 20 years later. The process for making these dials – a technique sometimes known as japanning – required a skillful hand. Such clocks probably came into fashion because dial makers touted them as being longer lasting and less of a maintenance problem than the competing brass dials – which, although they cost the clockmaker less to buy, needed to be resilvered or relacquered from time to time. By 1800, painted dials all but entirely replaced engraved brass dials.

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When painted dials appeared, plain styles were favored. Many were white with inked-on numerals and details. Often these “white-dialed” clocks had spandrel decorations that used just a single color, such as gold, with patterns of filigree, to resemble the applied spandrels on earlier brass dials. Until about 1800, painted dials had chapter rings outside their Roman numerals and dots for each minute and Arabic numerals for each five-minute segment – 5, 10, 15, 20, etc. After 1820, a calendar aperture, a hole through the dial rather than a subsidiary dial and pointer, was most common. The decoration in the broken-arch area could include a makers name boss (again like the brass dials of the same time) or a simple painting of a bird and florals, or just florals. A later development of the earliest painted dials was the use of simple florals, such as roses and strawberries, in the spandrel areas. For the most part, early dials were painted with restraint, the decoration not filling the spaces entirely as it did with later dials.

Although most early-19th-century dial painters are known to us only by the style of their work, a few – including Samuel Curtis of New England and Benjamin Whitman of Reading, Pa. – made names for themselves among clock buyers of the day. A great number of American clock dials of this period, however, are indistinguishable from their British counterparts, leading us to conclude that many were imported from England when trade relations between the two countries were good (which was certainly not always the case in our early years as a nation).

After 1800 in England, dial painters began to use Arabic numerals for the hour markings, and they decorated spandrel areas with things other than florals and filigree, including geometric fanlike designs (often wrought in vivid colors), figures, and landscapes. The broken-arch areas, too, began to show more elaborate handiwork, with polychrome painting filling the areas entirely.

Some of the most interesting and refined antique dials hail from this period. Many times the broken-arch areas had thematic motifs. English ones often showed Lord Nelson (who after his death in 1805 became a popular commemorative figure), naval victories, and allegorical proclamations of the greatness of Britain.

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During this period, the minutes ring changed again, and this time each minute was marked off with lines rather than dots, as they were earlier. Also, the use of numbering every five minutes (5,10,15,20,etc.) was changed to numbering each 15 minutes (15,30,45,60) or a total lack of numbering altogether.

Many Moons and Rough Seas

Although moon devices were used as early as about 1750, their visibility increased greatly during the early years of the 19th century. Often moon disks will be found with the original dial, attached to a post behind the dial itself. A special addition to the dials, particularly those of the period about 1800, was the attachment of some form of automation on the broken-arch area of the dial. Such a device might display a rocking ship (actually a painted cutout whose base was attached to the clocks pendulum), for example. Kindred forms of automation included woodchoppers, couples on seesaws, or Father Time with his scythe. These additions raised the cost of the clock dial – and clocks that feature them sell at a premium today.

Some horologists consider the years between 1820 and 1840 to be a period of deterioration for the art of dial painting. Such terms as “crude” and “dreadful” have been used to describe some of these later dials. The chapter rings on the later dials often included bolder, larger, usually Roman numerals. They ordinarily did not have minutes marked off, and on the minutes ring, each minute was marked off with a short line instead of a dot. Decorative themes were repeated, and the painting itself became stylized. Clocks of this era typically featured robust, polychrome spandrels and broken-arch areas that tended to fill up their spaces. The typically white dial and bold inked-on numbers stood in stark contrast, giving the painted areas a busier, fussier appearance than they may otherwise have had.

The bold yet more primitive nature of the painting found in these later examples, however, appeals to certain collectors. Lets not forget that many antique objects we now value as folk art were considered unremarkable when they were made.

Author: Gordon S. Converse (Gordon S. Converse & Co. in Spread Eagle Village in Strafford, Pa.)

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