Monday, February 5, 2018

Eighteenth-Century Time, and Two Tall Clocks That Told It, c1796

Monday, February 5, 2018

Susan reporting,

Today, we're all accustomed to lives that are driven and measured by time. Watches, clocks, and cell phones are synchronized in precise unison, and each day we work and play, attend meetings, movies, games, and performances, catch trains and eat meals, rise and sleep, by a clock's measurements.

But it wasn't that way in late 18thc America. Precise measurement of time was an elite luxury. The majority of people didn't own watches or clocks. Even for those with sufficient wealth to possess a watched tucked into a fob pocket or clipped to a chatelaine at the waist, accuracy was variable, and being punctual was subjective. Instead people relied upon more general ways of determining time based on the sun and moon in the sky, or the cries of a watchman, or the still-rare public clock in the tower of a church or other public building. The average workday wasn't nine-to-five; it was from sunrise to sunset, and varied with the seasons.

The two case clocks shown here are the exception. Both are the work of Robert Joyce, a clockmaker who trained and worked in London and Dublin before establishing himself in New York City, where these two clocks were made in the 1790s. Although elegantly encased in gleaming mahogany with inlay work (the ovals of sixteen stars represented the then-number of states in the union). The clocks would have been the epitome of modern technology at the time, with 8-day weight-driven movements. They're also very tall, over ten feet in height. They would have been impossible to ignore, which was likely exactly what the man who commissioned them would have wished.

Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) was one of the most productive men of his age (or any other, for that matter.) He was a workaholic long before the word existed, and in the course of his short life, he wrote letters by the thousand, juggled complicated matters of government policy and diplomacy, handled precedent-setting-legal cases, and created the basis for the American financial system. It's not surprising that during the Revolution, he became Gen. George Washington's favorite aide-de-camp on his personal staff. Hamilton got things done.

As the new country's first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton oversaw the largest single office in the federal government in the then-capital of Philadelphia, and he expected his clerks and other employees to share his ferocious work ethic. Even during the onslaught of the city's Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793 - a terrifying disease that claimed hundreds of people, rich and poor - many of Hamilton's clerks continued to report for work until the office was officially closed.

By tradition, Hamilton commissioned the clock on the top left for the Bank of New York, which he had established in 1784. Its near-twin on the lower left was made for the First Bank of the United States, lower right, (and more info here about plans to restore it) which Hamilton helped charter in 1791. Both clocks were made about 1797. The two banks were grand, imposing buildings, and the towering clocks would have been designed to fit the financial magnificence. Clocks represented efficiency, an admirable quality in a bank, and a clock of this size and obvious expense would also have suggested prosperity and permanence.

Still, I can't help but imagine the effect that such a clock's size and relentless ticking must have had on the clerks who toiled nearby - a painfully modern reinforcement that time is money, and money time. Each click of the hand must also have been an unending reminder of Hamilton's own determination to squeeze as much as he could from every minute - a daunting expectation in any workplace.

Above left: Tall Case Clock by Robert Joyce, c1796, New-York Historical Society.
Above right: Tall Clock by Robert Joyce, c1797, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lower right: First Bank of the United States, completed 1797; now part of Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia.
Photographs ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott

Read more about Alexander and Eliza Hamilton in my newest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere. 


Historical Ken said...

Excellent posting on "time" past - - - I very much enjoyed it.

Traci Moore said...

This is a wonderful post. I’ve never consciously thought about how it must have felt to loosely go by where the sun is at in the sky to being aware of every single passing minute with precision. What a difference!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. This article is why I love this blog so much. I'd never realilzed that clock-watching was a modern invention, and not necessarily a good one either. What a huge difference such a small thing would make in colonial lives vs our own.

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