Hidden Nearby: Seth Thomas Clock Factory

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Seth Thomas was born in Wolcott, Connecticut, in 1785.  His education reportedly consisted of only a few weeks in grammar school before he began work on the family farm.  When Seth was 12, his father died and his mother sent him off to be an apprentice to Daniel Tuttle, a neighboring carpenter.  Tuttle taught Thomas arithmetic, the use of tools, and the principles of running a business.  At the age of 21, Seth Thomas struck out on his own to be a carpenter.

This Connecticut tercentenary sign on Main Street in Thomaston commemorates the region's clockmaking history.

This Connecticut tercentenary sign on Main Street in Thomaston commemorates the region’s clockmaking history.

Around 1806, Thomas went to work for Eli Terry, the nation’s leading clockmaker.  Using his carpenter skills, Thomas outfitted Terry’s Plymouth factory with stools and benches, then made the various gears in the internal mechanism of Terry’s clocks.  In 1810, Terry sold his business to Thomas and Silas Hoadley, who formed the Thomas and Hoadley Mechanics and Company and continued making the grandfather clocks that Terry had popularized. The partnership was short-lived however, and by 1813, Thomas had struck out on his own.

A Seth Thomas shelf clock, c. 1820.  Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Seth Thomas shelf clock, c. 1820. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In looking for a location for his own factory, Thomas found a site on the Naugatuck River in what was then known as Plymouth Hollow, which would be renamed Thomaston.  (This is the site where the Seth Thomas Clock Factory still stands.) Plymouth Hollow was a community of only 20 houses at the time, but Thomas’s factory would soon bring excitement to the town.  Operations began early in the morning, and workers put in twelve hour days for a daily wage of between 75 cents and $1.25. Thomas ran a company store for his employees and occasionally sponsored dances. Initially his factory produced the same type of grandfather clock he made with Hoadley. However, when Thomas’s mentor Eli Terry developed a cheaper shelf clock, the market for the “tall clock” nearly dried up.  Fortunately for Seth Thomas, Terry was overwhelmed with orders and sold the rights to the patent to Thomas for $1000.  Clocks were sent by ox cart to New Haven for shipment to New York.  Business was so brisk that by 1825, both Terry and Thomas had made $100,000 in profit, and Thomas spawned cottage industries across the town in making cases and transporting supplies and products.

Seth Thomas

Seth Thomas

In later years, Thomas diversified his business holdings, opening a cotton mill in town, sponsoring railroads, and dabbling in real estate development.  In 1853, he incorporated his business as the Seth Thomas Clock Company, so that operations could continue after his death, which came in 1859, when Thomas was 74.  His clocks lived on, incorporating new brass parts, expanding into watch, alarm clock, and marine clock production, and made the famous tower clock in Grand Central Station.  The Seth Thomas Clock Factory building that stands on Main Street in Thomaston was built around 1915, and was severely damaged in the Flood of 1955. Eventually the company was bought by the General Time Corporation, which itself was bought by a series of other corporations. Operations ceased around 1980, but the name Seth Thomas lives on in the quality of his clocks, and in the name of the community, which separated from Plymouth in 1875.

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Some thoughts on Litchfield’s clocks

While driving along West Street in Litchfield one may catch a glimpse of the time from the clock of the Congregational Church, or in the tower of the Litchfield County Court House.  Subconsciously, the driver is forced to think back to his or her student days to convert the Roman numerals on the face of the clock to Arabic numerals.  This is all done very quickly, and without much thought.

Out on foot to explore his surroundings, however, one may recognize that the faces of these two clocks do not properly correspond to traditional Roman numerals.  Instead of using “IV” for four o’clock, both of these clocks use “IIII.”

London’s Big Ben

They are not alone.  It is customary for clockmakers to substitute “IIII” for “IV” on their works.  There are notable exceptions – Big Ben, the famed London clock whose tower was renamed for Elizabeth II this year in honor of her diamond jubilee, sports the numeral “IV.”  As with so many traditions, there are conjectures as to their origin, but no definitive explanations.

Some speculate that the use of “IIII” provides symmetry to the clock face.  One through four o’clock, only make use of the numeral “I” while the next four hours utilize “V” and “I” and the final four use “X” and “I”.

Does this clock face demonstrate a lack of balance or symmetry?

Others say that the explanation is that the numeral “IIII” provides a better balance to its counterpart “VIII” than “IV” would.  Don’t tell Big Ben.

Jupiter (IVPITER), also known as Jove (IOVI)

Still others hold that the tradition dates back to the Romans, who never used “IV” on their clocks because the letters “IV” were the first two letters of their spelling of the god Jupiter (IVPITER), and they didn’t wish to tempt fate.  This explanation would make for a good story if the Romans actually used clocks.  Does the numeral “IV” appear on sundials?

Those pessimistic about the nature of mankind argue that it is easier to count by adding I’s than it is to subtract I from V, an argument that does not take into account that 9 is “IX” and not VIIII.

The Wells Cathedral Clock

As this blog celebrates history, let’s accept that the tradition follows the lead of the oldest extant public clock, the Wells Cathedral Clock.  This clock, found in the west of England, proudly displays four o’clock as “IIII”, and has since its installation, which was – at the latest – in 1392.

The present Litchfield Congregational Church was built in 1829; however, when a new church was built in 1873, the structure was used for a variety of purposes, including as a movie theater and roller skating rink.  It was restored to its original use in 1930, as part of the town’s Colonial Revival makeover.  The clock would have served important purposes, not only calling residents to worship, but also pealing to announce important news or of fire.

The Litchfield County Court House boasts a Seth Thomas clock tower.  This was installed in 1890 as part of the rebuilding of the court house following an 1886 fire.  When the court house was remodeled in 1913-14 – again, to make the structure fit with its Colonial Revival surroundings – the clock tower was retained.

These two clocks don’t display the exact same time, and as such are vestiges of a bygone era, when passersby didn’t need a digital device connected to satellites to provide them with the precise time.  Most still relied upon sundials and hour glasses to tell time; perhaps in a rapidly changing world, the numeral “IIII” grounded them in ancient traditions.