Digest>Archives> April 2002

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Chelsea Clocks

By Jim Claflin


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Like most other items of the services, clocks used by the Lighthouse Service were not well documented and what we know is the result of piecing together bits of information. We believe that the Light-House Establishment (pre-1910) and the later Lighthouse Service (1910-1938) purchased the majority of their clocks from four manufacturers: E. Howard & Company of Boston, Howard & Davis Company, Chelsea Clock Company and Seth Thomas Clock Company. In this issue, we will take a look at the Chelsea Clock Company. Much of this information comes from Chelsea clock historian Jim Dyson’s wonderful Chelsea Clock Museum website at www.chelseaclockmuseum.com and is reprinted with permission. For a much more detailed history you will want to visit his site.

Mr. Dyson notes that: “...Joseph H. Eastman constructed the Eastman Clock Company factory building in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1894-1896. The company produced limited numbers of marine, regulator, and banjo clocks but by mid 1896 the company was sold at forclosure. After the failure, Harry Bates formed the Boston Clock Company of Maine using Eastman’s factory and clock designs. Use of this famous name has led to much confusion. The Boston Clock Company of Maine, 1896-1897, was a completely different company from the original Boston Clock Company, 1884-1894. The Boston Clock Company of Maine produced a limited number of marine and regulator clocks in 1897 but these ultimately would be sold as products of the infant “Chelsea” Clock Company. Charles H. Pearson was the founder of the “Chelsea” clock company in mid 1897, taking over the Boston Clock Company of Maine factory and material. The “Chelsea” Clock Company would ultimately produce over 800,000 fine clocks in Joseph H. Eastman’s original factory.

In contrast, the Boston Clock Company (1884-1894), began producing striking clocks in 1886 after the invention and patent of the famous Boston tandem wind movement. This company experienced a moderate level of success by 1890 and boasted a fairly wide line of clocks. One of the most notable, the “Locomotive,” seems to have been an inspiration for the Chelsea Clock Company when they began offering their “Marine” line of clocks in 1897. These marine clocks, followed by their patented Ship’s Bell clock in 1900, eventually became Chelsea’s largest product line and established their reputation as “Timekeepers of the Sea.”

Review of the Chelsea’s first Movement Record Book shows that the first marine clock production was started with clock #200. In the beginning, officials were toying with the idea of numbering each type of clock with its own serial number series but this method was quickly discarded and hereafter clocks were numbered in numerical order regardless of the movement type.

Prior to 1900, if one wanted a ship’s bell striking clock, the choices were few. Seth Thomas Clock Company made a reliable ship’s bell clock, but it was basically a kitchen clock in a tin can or wooden case. Tiffany Makers of New York made a few outstanding and high grade ship’s bell clocks but they were expensive. During the period 1898 to 1900, Joseph H. Eastman of the Vermont Clock Company and Walter K. Menns of Chelsea Clock Company were in a race to produce the first mass produced, high quality ship’s bell striking clock. In 1898, George W. Adams designed a clock with a house strike movement which was produced by Chelsea Clock Company. This was the beginning and basic design of the world famous Chelsea ship’s bell movement. Adams’ patent was modified by Walter Menus to strike ship’s bell code in June of 1900. Although Menns ship’s bell patent also covered a clock case for the ship’s bell movement, in 1901 Menns was granted a another patent specifically for the ship’s bell clock case. These patents were assigned to Charles H. Pearson and the Chelsea Clock Company....”

Though we have no records of the Light-House Establishment purchasing ship’s bell movements, they probably did for use on their vessels. However, Chelsea’s brass marine clock became the staple of the Lighthouse Service’s inventory. These clocks were in a heavy brass case with screw on bezel and were almost indestructible. Styles and finishes available were vast but we find that most were 5 1/2” to 7 1/4” in diameter and either brass or nickel finish.

All Chelsea faces seem to have been similarly lettered— stamped or engraved paint-filled letters: “U.S.L.H. Estab.” or later “U.S.L.H. Service.” We have yet to see “USLHE,” “USLHS” or any other variation. Both the movements and cases bear stamped serial numbers and when originally delivered both numbers would match. However, simple repairs and lubrication were performed at the District Depot and movements and cases were commonly switched. Although it is desirable to own a clock with matching numbers, the lack of mates does not rule out authenticity. Typical values range from $1000-$1900 depending on condition.

Fortunately, Chelsea Clock Company survives today and is the last American company to still make its own movements. The company still maintains its records of original manufacture dates and purchaser. By providing the serial numbers and a nominal fee, company officials will identify the original purchaser (Light-House Establishment, etc.) and date of delivery and issue a certificate of authenticity. For more information, write Chelsea Clock Company, 284 Everett Avenue, Chelsea, MA. 02150.

Next time, we will take a look at a few interesting finds. Please continue to send in your questions on the subject or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this specialty since the early 1990’s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 30 Hudson Street, Northborough, MA 01532, or by calling 508-393-9814. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the April 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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