The Curious Time Piece: A 19th Century Japanese Bracket Clock

A 19th Century Japanese Bracket Clock, circa 1840. With its wooden case intact, it would sell at auction for more than $5,000.

A 19th Century Japanese Bracket Clock, circa 1840. With its wooden case intact, it would sell at auction for more than $5,000.

One of the joys of being an appraiser is the number of truly wonderful things one runs into on what starts as an average day of cataloging items for sale or an estate clearance. After being in the business for years, one would think you had seen just about everything that was intriguing in this game, but every now and again, something is pulled out of an old suitcase, box in the attic, or from under the kitchen stairs that makes the game seem new.

The piece above is one of those things, something seldom seen in this country, and are real head-scratcher for the general public: It’s a 19th Century Japanese Bracket Clock, it’s hard to tell from the image, but these clocks are actually only about 6 inches wide by about
4 inches deep. These usually have a wooden case with a carrying handle at the top so it could be used as a portable alarm clock.

The really intriguing thing about these clocks was the way they told the time, as the Japanese had their own way of keeping time, not only did they measure time, but the hours of daylight and darkness as well. The typical clock had six numbered hours from 9 to 4, which counted backwards from noon until midnight; the hour numbers 1 through 3 were not used in Japan for religious reasons, because these numbers of strokes on bells or chimes were used by Buddhists to call to prayer. The clocks also allowed for the differences in daylight hours from season to season. Each remaining hour-mark is mounted on a small plate which slides in a grooved ring in the dial. In the traditional Japanese system, the sequence of strokes from midnight to noon would be: 9, 1, 8, 2, 7, 1, 6, 2, 5, 1, 4, 2.

In an agrarian society based on the passing of the seasons, planting and harvesting, such a clock made perfect sense. But as Japanese were forced to open trade by the American warships of Commodore Perry in 1854, modernization and the ways of the West began making quick inroads into traditional Japanese life. After the overthrow of the Japanese Tokugawa Shogunate Warlords in 1867, the writing was on the wall; the Japanese officially adopted the Western method of time keeping and the Gregorian calendar in 1873.

Today, these clocks are sought after items, seldom coming up at auction compared to European or America time keepers and selling for a good deal more. One similar to the example above, circa 1840, with its wooden case intact would now sell at auction for more than $5,000.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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  1. Mike,
    Thank you for the information. I’ve never seen anything like that and especially like knowing how they calculated time. Fascinating.