My husband tells a joke about a farmer and a pig. I don’t really get the joke, but I like the punch line – “What’s time to a pig?”
What’s time to any of us? I thought about this recently when the new Apple watch was introduced. It looks very complex and expensive, but I had a similar reaction when the iphone came out, and now I can hardly live without my little magic device.
A digital watch or digital clock lacks the rhythm of big and little hands going around and around and pointing to the hours and minutes. I wear a $40 Timex watch that suits me. I only need to glance at it – not even read the numbers – to tell where in the day I am. My first watch was gold (probably not real gold), and I wound it every night before I went to bed. One of my mother’s friends told me never to wear it when I slept because if I did, lint would get into the workings and it would stop running. Now, I wear my Timex day and night and it only stops when the battery dies. My grandson Henry was looking for something to draw as a gift for his mother a year or so ago and I offered my watch. I’m not sure why he put the double watchbands on it, but I think it looks very cool.
I’m more aware of the dimensions of time and clocks when I visit my brother, because he’s a horologist. He collects and sells and repairs old clocks. His house and his workshop are alive with the ticking and tocking and chiming of hundreds of early American timepieces. He is doctor to many, many clocks. Some are as small as a box of Cream of Wheat, some as large as the Tower Clock at Yale University. He’s on intimate terms with their insides. I admire his expertise and his dedication to keeping the art of time alive. You can read more about him here.
Before electricity and batteries, many houses had some kind of clock. Tall clocks, Grandfather clocks, Mantel clocks, regulator clocks – all were made like works of art. My grandparents’ clock sat on the mantelpiece in the dining room. Keeping it running involved winding it regularly. I can’t remember whether or not it chimed. I think it did. But I know it ticked, and I know it was old. It gave an organic feeling to the house, and even when I got so used to it that I didn’t hear it anymore, it felt odd when it stopped – as though the heart of the house had stopped beating.
The old clocks were not very accurate and would have to be periodically reset using the readings from a sundial. Most time was local time – dependent upon the position of the sun. When the family clock was the only timepiece in the house, its location and its appearance became as important as the time it kept. If you had to come downstairs to look at the clock in the parlor, you got clues to the time of day by glancing out windows, hearing other activity in the house, and feeling the temperature in the air. And many clocks also provided information about the phases of the moon, the days of the week, and the whimsy of the clock face’s painter.
And there were tall case clocks with music boxes inside that could play as many as six different songs. Some of the more popular songs that marked the 12:00, 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00 hours were:
- The Raptur
- Maid of the Mill
- The Cuckoo’s Nest
- Banks of the Dee
- Handel’s Minuet
- Air by Handel
But my favorite is “Over the Water to Charlie.” Set to the lyrics of a Robert Burns poem about Bonny Prince Charles, this song has a lovely melody. When I hear it – maybe because my father was a Charlie – I picture my mother standing on the banks of Muddy River waiting for my father to come around the corner and cross the water to Whirlwind Hill.
On Wednesday: Outbuildings #2 – The Pig Pen