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What Is a Longcase Clock?

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  • Written By: E. Reeder
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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A longcase clock, or a tall-case clock, is a clock with a long case that began being commonly produced in England in the 1600s. While some were made in other countries, such as the United States, the majority were made in the United Kingdom. Most were produced between the 1600s and 1800s. These types of clocks, which feature lengthy cases in which to house the chimes and mechanisms, include grandfather clocks.

Earlier wall clocks that were driven by weight and table clocks wound by springs were not always accurate timekeepers. The long pendulum was invented in 1657 to combat the problem of clocks that did not keep reliable time. Long pendulums required long cases in which to be housed. This led to the development of longcase clocks, which became widely popular.

Mechanical clocks originally were endowed with long, wooden cases as a means of protecting the mechanisms from dirt, fingers and the elements. Over time, some of these wooden cases became more ornate and decorative, especially in expensive longcase clocks. The frames for less expensive longcase clocks remained fairly plain and practical.

The top sections of a longcase clock were made of wood, with the front section having a glass plate. Through the glass plate, the face of the clock and its hands were visible. Some of these clocks were programmed with gears to chime every hour on the hour.

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Various types of woods were used in manufacturing longcase clocks, including ebony, walnut, cherry, mahogany and oak. To be made suitable for housing a longcase clock, the wood was smoothed, sanded and usually lacquered to provide a smooth finish. The wood of the more expensive longcase clocks often was carved with highly intricate designs.

These types of clocks used metal gears and pendulums to keep accurate time. The pendulums were constructed and engineered to work with the gears so movement was continuous. Despite that continuous movement, longcase clocks had to be wound intermittently for the time showing on the face to be accurate. Some clocks had to be wound every day, while others — especially those of higher quality — may have required winding every week, month or year, in some cases.

Longcase clocks are highly collectible and often sell for large amounts of money. The collectability and price of a longcase clock depends on factors such as its condition, quality, decorative qualities and maker. Noted clockmakers such as Thomas Mudge, Thomas Tompion, John Knibb and William Dutton created elaborate longcase clocks of high quality that are sought by collectors.

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