If a ticking clock was once the heartbeat of the American house, the Seth Thomas Clock Company probably put it there.
Few watchmakers were so prolific or enduring. Seth Thomas was the Chevrolet of American watchmakers: good quality, reliable, and available in an astonishing range of sizes and configurations. You might be looking for one right now. Let’s roll the clock and go back in time.
Seth Thomas himself was a real person. Born, raised and died in Connecticut, he lived from 1785 to 1859 and managed to avoid most of the floods and fires that damaged so many manufacturing companies during this time. Originally trained as a carpenter, Thomas entered the watchmaking industry as an apprentice in 1807 and within five years he was doing it alone.
At that time, most clocks had wooden gears and movements, but change was in the air. After experimenting with metal timepieces, he switched from wood to brass parts in 1840 and never looked back. Brass – a combination of copper and zinc – was relatively easy to work with but much more durable than wood and less sensitive to heat, cold and humidity. Using such robust movements, Thomas himself built clocks as well as parts for other manufacturers and ran a successful business until his death in 1859.
After his father passed away, his son Aaron took over the business and turned out to be an heir of old. After the Civil War the company grew steadily and by 1885 was producing 135,000 clocks per year. In 1926, she obtained trademark protection for the name Seth Thomas in the manufacture of quality watches. Since then, the company has had its ups and downs: winning military contracts during the two world wars, then falling behind cheap imports in the second half of the 20th century. Ultimately, the company was sold, then resold, went into receivership, and now operates only as a licensed brand.
Despite his stumbles, Seth Thomas remains a name of lasting repute today and is best known for the breadth of his product line. Their regulator (wall pendulum) and spring clocks both predate the Civil War and were introduced at a time when precision manufacturing was in its infancy. Later models include perpetual calendar clocks, kitchen clocks, fireplace and drum clocks, some with resonating chimes and marble cases. Many have survived in working order and are staple of antique shops across the country.
A little known fact about Seth Thomas’ early clocks is that many were time stamped on the bottom in a simple code. The year of manufacture was printed in reverse order, followed by a sequential letter indicating the month. So a clock made in April 1901, for example, would bear the 1091D imprint. Although this practice was discontinued at the end of World War I, online resources have since been developed to provide a comprehensive overview of Seth Thomas’ manufacturing history.
When it comes to prices, Seth Thomas clocks remain one of the best values in the watch market. Practical examples can often be found for under $ 100, and even high-end examples rarely fall into four digits. Due to the large number of Seth Thomas clocks made and the relative simplicity of their movements, parts and repairs are also generally less expensive than for manufacturers such as Chelsea. It’s hard to go wrong with a Chevrolet – and the same is true of a Seth Thomas.
Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award winning catalog editor and wrote seven books as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Palm Springs Antique Galleries. His antiques column appears on Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Drop him a line at [email protected].