I had a discussion with David, a horologist acquaintance who is currently working on my 138 year old Ingraham Huron mantel clock (pictured above) about clock repairs in days gone by. He said he had happened to have a conversation a few days ago with an 82 year friend who had been in the clock repair business most of his life who said that times were very different in the “olden days”.
Imagine a Canadian home in the 1920s or the 1930s. In those days a clock was like a refrigerator or a washing machine; it was an appliance. The clock was generally inexpensive and purchased for one reason, to tell the time. Quite often it was the only timekeeping device in the home for common folk. Despite the fact that they were relatively poor timekeepers, people in those days did not demand accuracy in a clock, not like today. If it was correct within a minute or two a week that was just fine. Not only was the clock cheap, it was sturdy, functional and withstood a certain amount of abuse. My Arthur Pequegnat kitchen clock, for instance, sold for $5 when it was new in 1912. Five dollars was a lot of money when the average person such as a a railway employee might have made $662 a year or about $12.75 per week, but the home had to have a clock.
There was always someone in the community that tinkered with clocks and for very little money, or a trade for services, the “appliance” was repaired and promptly returned to it’s owner. The tinkerer was usually someone who fixed things in their spare time rather than fix clocks as a profession. In larger urban centres clock repair persons (trained horologists) set up professional shops but in rural Nova Scotia those services were expensive and few and far between.
When the day came and the clock stopped running, it had to be fixed, and quickly. Often the request was, “just make it work”. The repair did not have to be pretty so long as the clock functioned and the cost of the repair was reasonable. Specialized clock tools were expensive and difficult to acquire so the tinkerer relied on tools they had lying around in the garage or the basement; a hammer, a pair of pliers, a punch, a file, a screwdriver and so on. The self-trained tinkerer did the best he could to make his neighbours’ clocks run often using questionable methods. Since brass bushings were not available the tinkerer would use a punch to close a pivot hole. In the 1940s when the soldering gun was commercially available and inexpensive, it too was added to the toolkit and often a piece of brass was soldered (or riveted) to the plate to accommodate a new pivot hole. They might also soak the movement in a bucket of gasoline overnight and then oil it with something like 3-in-1 oil. Sometimes this would be enough to clean out the gunk and allow the clock to run again, the costumer would be happy because their clock came back working and the tinkerer would charge very little for their “services”. The clock was not worth a great deal and the customer would not have had the money to pay a professional anyway. Common short-term solutions such as these often led to more frequent repairs and eventually replacement of the clock.
In the 1930s the synchronous electric clock began to replace the mechanical clock. Yet, homeowners in the rural areas who had no electricity hung on to them and kept them running, but eventually the electric clock gradually replaced the mechanical clock. Although, many of those old clocks were trashed, sent to the garage, the basement, or the attic, some were passed down to family members and are cherished keepsakes to this day. Not long after, the tinkerers in many communities began to disappear.
Today we covet our prized antique and vintage clocks that adorn our homes. When they are ticking away we marvel at the inventors and innovators of the past and when we want that certain clock, cost is no object. To repair them we employ all manner of modern technology; bushing machines, broaches, special files, clamps, spring winders and lathes to ensure that the “job is done right”, the clocks end up lasting years and are “better than ever”. But it was not always like that.
We look down upon those tinkerers of the past and the repairs they made without really understanding what it was like during those times. “What butcher worked on this?” I hear some people saying. Well, I have said it myself, but after talking to David I now have a better understanding of the clock tinkerers of past and the important work they did for their communities.