Hearing the resonant sounds of a clock when it strikes on the hour can send you back in time. Today, we just have to reach into our pockets to see what time it is anywhere on Earth. But tracking time was a luxury in the past, and it was a privilege commemorated by beautiful decoration and design. Victorian clocks are some of the most memorable of these antique timepieces, and your family just might have passed one down from generation to generation until it ended up with you.
Do I Have a Victorian Clock?
The Victorian period spanned about six decades in the mid to late-19th century, and it was ripe with cultural and aesthetic changes. People were just as inspired by the past as they were with the future, and artisans created objects that mingled past styles with current trends. The same can be said for clock makers during the period.
It's pretty easy to know when you have something that's older. Pieces that are older than a few decades just have a different glow and construction to them. Often, you'll find saw marks, flat screws, and the hand-scoured details that speak to a hand-crafted technique on truly antique pieces, because mass-manufacturing didn't appear until the latter half of the century.
Some other questions to answer when you're looking at a potential Victorian clock include:
- What color is it? Largely, darker stains and woods were all the rage during the Victorian era. Look to see if your wood is rich and dark or much lighter.
- Is it smooth and simple or full of curves and carvings? Victorians loved decoration, and they were huge fans of carving all sorts of imagery and geometry in their clocks. If it's a large piece and it's really simple, it's probably not from the period.
- Does it have a patent mark? Some artists signed and dated their pieces to promote their work. You'll want to open the face and see inside the mechanisms to look for any written notations about dating or patenting that can give you a hint as to when it was made.
- Has brass been used in the face, pendulum, or frame? Brass was a popular and economical metal used during the Victorian era, and it brought a pop of color to their natural clocks.
Victorian Clock Styles You Might Own
There wasn't a specific clock type or style that dominated the Victorian era. However, there are a few standouts that were abundantly made, many of which have survived today. From teeny clocks to massive longcases, these are some of the Victorian clocks you might have in your house.
Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the carriage clock in 1812 specifically for travel. On top of being smaller than most clocks, these were revolutionary for having handles as they were meant to be carried around. Businessmen would add these small, rectangular clocks to their luggage as they traveled, and employers often gifted them to their retiring employees.
These rectangular clocks were ornate and decorative, as they were a sign of a worker's status and wealth. You could find them commonly bordered in brass gilt, with the more expensive ones featuring decorative paintings on the space around the clockface.
Undoubtedly, the antique clock that comes to everyone's mind when you think about the past is the longcase. Longcase clocks, which include grandfather and grandmother clocks, are tall wooden floor clocks featuring a face in the top section and a swinging pendulum in the bottom. Not only are these very heavy, but they can come in highly decorated styles.
Victorian style wall clocks were really popular because they were the tools that people kept around the house to keep time. This style is where clockmakers experimented a lot, and a few notable types were wag-on-wall clocks, cuckoo clocks, and banjo clocks.
- Wag-on-wall clocks were a uniquely English design resembling the pendulum-like interior of a longcase but without the enclosure. The only thing keeping the dials protected was a top hood. In simpler terms, look for loose, dangling bits beneath a clock face.
- Cuckoo clocks have been around for centuries, and they continued to be a popular choice for Victorian households. Their notable feature is the animated element that pops out of the clock when it strikes on the hour.
- Banjo clocks were invented in 1802 and have a unique upside-down banjo-like shape. The top face is round and extends into a neck and square piece that's usually painted with some kind of decorative scene.
Is My Victorian Clock Worth Anything?
Antique clocks aren't cheap collectibles, and when they're in working order, they can sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars. Longcase clocks, because of their size and mechanisms, usually sell for the most amount of money. As you work your way down in decoration and size, the price decreases.
Restored clocks are worth the most because they've been cleaned and had their mechanisms replaced or repaired. Because of the time that goes into fixing an antique clock, you'll end up paying a good amount to have yours restored. Though, if you're interested in selling, it can be a good investment.
For example, these are what some different Victorian clocks are selling for in the current market:
- This beautiful banjo clock from 1890 recently sold for $257; not only was it superbly preserved, but it's also covered in gilt, making it more expensive.
- One patented 1877 carriage clock that's seen better days only sold for $40 online. Fascinatingly, it came with a music box component that seems to still work, but the clock itself is in disrepair, and the face/case has gotten a lot of damage over the years. If an antique clock doesn't work and it's not in good condition, it's not going to top the price scales.
How Do I fix a Victorian Clock?
Clock mechanisms are very precise systems that can easily be messed up. Just because your antique clock isn't working doesn't mean that you necessarily need to rummage around the mechanisms just yet. Some old clocks just need a key or crank to be wound before they'll run.
Look onto the clock faces for 'winding points' where you can insert the key or crank. You'll usually find either one, two, or three of them. When you find them, you should be able to insert and turn the key clockwise without much force. The number of revolutions vary - some use 16, others 13 - but, once you've wound the clock, you can move the arms to set the time, and it should get itself going.
Anything beyond that repair, and you should see a horologist or antique clock specialist to inspect for greater damage.
The Most Luxurious Way to Tell Time
Victorian clocks are time capsules of the designs and styles people loved over a hundred years ago. They were well built, expertly crafted, and are worth a good bit of money. And as with so many other collectibles, what you do with them is up to you. Keep your Victorian clock in its grungy state for the aesthetic or get it restored to its former glory; either way, just have fun with it and enjoy the tactile way it helps you keep time.