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Luman Watson Clocks a Timely Addition for Collectors

by Wes Cowan (08/29/10).

An early example of a Read & Watson tall case clock, circa 1810-1815.

Time: We all worry about it; we all watch it; and none of us ever have enough of it. While most of us track the passage of hours and minutes digitally, many of us still have analog clocks, whether they’re a treasured heirloom sitting on the living room mantel or an uncle’s old wind-up pocket watch. Tall case—or “grandfather’s clocks”—have remained particularly popular, and are attractive antiques to serious collectors and for folks who simply like their stately look in an entry foyer or hallway.

One of the most important manufacturers of tall case clocks in the Midwest was the firm of Luman Watson, located in Cincinnati.

After America declared its independence from Britain in 1776, there was a shift in purchasing manufactured goods from Europe, as the former colonists began to ramp up production of distinctly American goods. The craft of clock making quickly transformed into an American industry, with the state of Connecticut its capital.

A cherry and maple Read & Watson clock is attributed to Wilmington, Ohio cabinetmaker Haines Moore.

A Luman Watson tall case clock, whose clock case is attributed to Elijah Warner of Lexington, Ky.

The cases of many of the earliest American clocks reflected English styles, but there were adjustments made based on the materials available in America. Brass—the favored material for the complex geared movement of the clock—was difficult to obtain in America. Yankee inventors in Connecticut found that gears made of hardwood could be substituted for brass. These so-called “wooden-works” movements were clearly inferior to those made of brass, and the gears demanded large teeth for strength. In general, most of these early clocks ran less than 30 hours before winding was necessary.

Clocks made with wooden movements were also easily damaged if transported long distances, and as the nation expanded westward, clockmakers from Connecticut were swept along. In 1809 Luman Watson, a mere boy of 17, emigrated to Ohio and, along with 19-year-old Ezra Read, began peddling the new-fangled wooden works to local clockmakers. By 1815 the duo had opened a factory in Cincinnati to manufacture wooden works clocks, employing local cabinet makers to make cases. Hiram Powers, one of the most important 19th-century sculptors in America, found early employment as a painter of clock dial faces in Watson’s factory.

A Read & Watson tall case clock with Masonic dial and a 30-hour wooden movement.

A Luman Watson tall case clock, whose clock case is attributed to Elijah Warner of Lexington, Ky.

In spite of a booming business, the partnership split within six months and Watson continued alone. Read and his twin brother relocated to Xenia, Ohio, and made the bulk of Watson’s cases, although Watson also ordered cases from other Ohio and Kentucky cabinet makers.

Cases are typically unsigned by maker, and are constructed of cherry. Occasionally, one finds use of imported mahogany veneers and other exotic hardwood veneers and inlay. The wooden works made by Watson in Cincinnati are often stamped on the seat plate with the initials of the finisher or the assembler of those works.

The firm was exceptionally prolific. It is estimated that between 1815 and 1834 (when Luman Watson died), more than 30,000 tall case clocks were manufactured. This figure is staggering, considering the fact that after about 1820 tall case clocks began to fall out of favor, and their production fell sharply. By about 1830, the firm had begun making large numbers of clocks designed to sit on a mantel or special shelf.

The “shelf clocks” produced by Luman Watson are typical of many produced by other firms. The case was tall and rectangular with a door flanked by half columns and topped by a scroll cut crest decorated with stenciled flowers or other ornamentation. The glass panels, or “tablets” in the door were most commonly mirrored glass, but many were painted with scenic landscapes or portraits of beautiful women. Portraits of popular political figures also appear, presumably specially ordered by an enthusiastic supporter.

This Luman Watson shelf clock shows the portrait of Richard Johnson, vice president under Marten Van Buren.

A Luman Watson shelf clock, with a case made by George Mitchell for Watson.

Many Luman Watson tall case and shelf clocks are still around. Expect to pay a few thousand for a respectable tall case example, and more if you’d like the best. Watson produced thousands of simple shelf clocks and these are readily available for a few hundred dollars. If you’re a clock collector, keep your eyes open for a true Luman shelf clock rarity: the Hollow Column, or “Portico” clock. This clock was made to resemble a Roman temple, with the case flanked on each side by two hollow wooden columns. The weights used to drive the works ran through each of the columns.

Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at info@historicamericana.com.

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