History of Mantle and Cabinet Clocks
Since the time when clock movements were placed in a cabinet, mantle clocks are referred to by several different names. Though the clocks may all work in the same way, each style of mantle or cabinet clock has its own particular story to tell.
Not surprisingly, any clock with an enclosure surrounding the inner works is considered a cabinet clock. In the early days of the pendulum clock, it was not uncommon for the works to be completely exposed. The term cabinet clock is often used interchangeably to describe floor clocks, mantel clocks, table clocks and wall clocks. The first mechanically powered clocks are thought to have appeared in Europe during the early fifteen hundreds. Some historians place the development of mechanical clock works back to as early as the thirteenth century.
The broad use of spring power to drive the clocks movement is said to have began in the seventeen hundreds. Cabinetmakers turned their attention to producing enclosures or cases for clocks. Those households that could afford to buy a clock would keep the clock on a table of fireplace mantle. These two areas of the home were used as gathering places and as such gave the clock a very prominent presence.
The mass production of clocks was still decades away and every clockmaker introduced their own signature features to their clocks. Clocks made during this period were made by hand. Artisans saw an opportunity to add design touches that made each clock unique. In addition to the case or cabinet, the clock dial served as a canvas for artists. Often embellished with elaborate designs, the ornate dials of vintage clocks added to the value making the clock more collectible. Though some clockmakers did introduce certain levels of part standardization, it would be centuries before large scale attempts at mass production would take hold.
Bracket Style Clocks
A style of cabinet clock that gained a great deal of popularity came to be known as bracket clocks. Bracket clocks are quite portable and often feature a handle on the top of the case. The antique bracket clocks are as ornate as they are utilitarian. The case of the bracket clock was very architectural in design. The designs of the sixteen hundreds moved from a basic box shape to more decorative and elaborate.
While English designs favored the square box design, French and German clockmakers designed curved cabinets that help to accentuate the roundness of the clock face.
Like most small cabinet clocks, bracket clocks could be displayed on a table, fireplace mantle or shelve. Many of the bracket clocks of the seventeen hundreds were spring powered with eight day movements.
Mantle Style Clocks
Characterized by sweeping curves, tambour style clocks are most often seen adorning shelves and fireplace mantles. The case follows the circular shape of the dial, tapering towards the outer edges of the case. The hump shape has become a classic. Antique and vintage tambour clocks, more commonly referred to as mantle clocks feature a spring powered movement that requires winding every week. Many modern mantle style or tambour clocks retain the classic lines of the cabinet though the movements have taken advantage of advances in timekeeping.
French Tambour Mantle Clocks
Tambour clocks from French designers very often take the shape of an inverted bell clacker. Starting at the base, the body of the clock narrows, finally taking the round shape that accentuates the shape of the clock dial. This is in stark contrast to the squared shape of most small bracket clocks. This column style of French tambour clocks is thought to be modeled after the capitals of ancient columns. A capital is the decorative formation used to top a column or pilaster. In this case, the housing of the clock dial and works forms the capital, or top of the column.
Mantle Clock Movements
Modern clock movements make use of electrically powered movements that never need winding. The source of power may come from the common household electrical outlet or from batteries. The same quartz crystal technology that is found in most modern wristwatches has been in modern clock movements for many years. Electromechanical clock movements have been used since the turn of the twentieth century. These movements are extremely accurate and require far less maintenance than mechanical, spring powered works for mantle clocks.
Electromechanical clock movements work in very much the same way as their spring powered cousins. Small, precision electric motors are used to replace the mainspring. The balance of the movement usually consists of the same gear trains found in mechanical clock works. Maintaining an antique electromechanical clock movement is still needed. Since the movement is not completely sealed, dust and dirt can accumulate in the gears and other wear surfaces of the movement. Just as with gear train movement, the oils and grease used to lubricate breakdown over time and also attract dust and dirt.
Cleaning and lubricating any type of mechanical clock movement should be done every few years. While some clocks can be a do it yourself project, the task of cleaning and oiling a vintage clock may be better left to a professional. Using the wrong cleaners to remove old oils and grease may irreparably damage the works. Failure to lubricate critical wear points may cause premature wearing of bearings and gears. Some mantle clock manufacturers offer cleaning and lubrication kits that provide precise instructions for those owners who feel up to doing the job themselves.