logo - Join me in the 1900s mid C20th
The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Clocks in ordinary households
before we went digital

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Clocks rep­resent one of the most far-reaching changes of the world going digital.

Before the digital era, clock mechanisms contained moving parts and to keep good time, these parts had to be kept moving at a constant rate. There were various ways of achieving this - see below.

My recollections of clocks start from the early 1940s and are summarised below. I suspect, though, that telling the time was more or less the same during the earlier years of the 20th century and before.

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Where to find clocks

Clock in a large London station, 1948

Clock in a large London station, 1948. Detail from a poster in York Railway Museum.

Clock in the booking office of a small station, 1940s

Clock in the booking office of a small station.

Clocks were relatively expensive, but less so than watches. My childhood home, which was probably fairly typical, had one clock in the kitchen, one in the hall, one in the sitting room and one in my parents' bedroom. There was no means of telling the time in the other rooms. You may think, 'So what?' but it was more significant then because so few people had watches. Of course what we never knew, we never missed.

Apart from in the home, there were clocks in most major public places, for example in station booking offices, on church towers and inside larger shops. These clocks had big faces, so that they could be read at a distance.

Most owners of public clocks took pride in maintaining their clocks so that they kept reasonably good time. This involved regular minor adjustments to the mechanisms, as outlined below.

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Wind up clocks

The most common types of clock were driven by a spring which kept the clock going as it unwound. Before the spring was completely unwound it had to be wound up again. Otherwise the clock stopped. Clocks were wound with keys and it was important not to lose the key which was often tucked away behind or on top of the clock.

 Key for winding up a clock.

Example of a key for winding up a clock. They came in various shapes and sizes, but always seemed to be hollow to take the winding rod.

Some clocks had to be wound up every day, which was easy to forget, with the result that the clock stopped. Most, though, lasted 8 days, although some lasted longer, and it was usually the task of the man of the house to go round and wind them up. This was a weekly event. In our house it was on a Friday evening - which incidentally was also 'bath night'.

At the back of the clock was a small lever which could be moved one way or the other to make the clock run faster if it was found to be losing time or more slowly if it was found to be gaining. The adjustment, though, was trial and error. Ideally the clock would eventually run at the right speed, but this seldom happened totally satisfactorily. Even changes in temperature affected mechanisms.

Setting the time was merely a matter of moving the hands into position with one's fingers - but for chiming clocks this had to be done in a forward direction to protect the mechanism. So even if the clock was just a few minutes fast, its hands had to be moved nearly all the way round its 12-hour face. No clock in ordinary households had a 24-hour face.

Most wind-up clocks in the 1940s were in metal or wooden cases with a glass panel in a door at the front. The door had to be opened to get to the keyhole(s) in the clock face. Some clocks, though, had the controls at the back, as in the photo.

glass fronted beside clock, 1940s back of glass fronted beside clock, 1940s

Front and back of a typical bedside or mantlepiece clock in the 1930s to 1950s. The controls are at the back. The key can't be removed; it wound the clock in the normal way and was pulled out slightly to set the hands. There was a tiny lever to make the clock go faster or more slowly, but this was by trial and error and it was all too easy to under- or overshoot.

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Pendulum clocks

Grandfather clock

Grandfather clock, photographed in Milestones Museum.

Wall mounted pendulum clock, 1940s

Wall mounted pendulum clock in my parents' home, bought early 1940s.

Grandfather clock winding handle

Grandfather clock winding handle

Pendulum clocks were pieces of furniture and were necessarily tall and narrow to house the pendulum. They were in polished dark wood cabinets with tall doors at the front to get to the pendulum. This door usually contained a glass window as seeing the pendulum move from side to side was considered attractive - and was quite mesmerising.

My husband's parents had a floor-standing pendulum clock that had been in his family for generations and which was known affectionately as Grandpa, because these types of clocks were called grandfather clocks. My own parents - who came from more working class backgrounds - had a smaller pendulum clock which was wall mounted.

Grandfather clocks used a slowly falling weight to drive them. They needed to be wound up with a winding handle which required many turns. While turning the handle there was a continuous clicking noise and the weights could be seen moving up.

The pendulum clock in my family made a clonking sound which in some strange way we regarded as company.

Pendulum clocks could be made to go faster or more slowly by adjusting the position of the pendulum bob up or down.

All the pendulum clocks that I knew chimed the hour, and some chimed the quarter and half hours, although the chime could be turned off.

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Weight-on-chain clocks: cuckoo clocks

Cuckoo clock

Cuckoo clock

I first came across 'weight on chain' clocks as cuckoo clocks when I visited Austria. Although this was in the early 1960s, such clocks must have been in existence long before that. They were a form of pendulum clock, but much smaller, and they were driven by a weight on one end of a chain which passed over a pulley inside the clock and was left dangling below. The cuckoo clock was 'wound up' by pulling the free end of the chain, so raising the weight. As with all pendulum clocks the bob could be adjusted up or down to make the clock go faster or more slowly.

Cuckoo clocks were beautifully carved and painted, and owed their name to the carved 'cuckoo' which popped out and sounded 'cuckoo', usually on the hour.

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

I have no experience of these clocks, so have no idea how accurate they were.

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Later clocks

Leather travelling alarm clock, 1960s

Leather travelling alarm clock

As the century progressed, electric clocks entered households. My husband's parents had one which was an elaborate alarm clock which boiled water to make tea to wake them up in the morning. It was kept beside the bed and was called a Teasmade.

In the 1960s my husband wanted to buy an electric clock which would work off the mains. However, I was averse to trailing leads, so we bought one of the new battery operated ones instead.

Battery-operated clocks became very popular and were made in all sorts of designs. Particularly popular were travelling alarm clocks which would close up inside a leather case for travelling. My one had a case of red leather.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.