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Mantel Clocks

Prior to the 16th century, all clocks which were in castles, homes, abbeys, or manors were floor clocks. It was the invention of the spring mechanism and the pendulum, which enabled clockmakers to reduce the size of clocks so they could be placed on a mantel or table. Since all homes of the time had fireplaces, the mantel in the main living room was a logical place for a smaller clocks than the traditional floor clock, hence the name. Most of the early mantel and table clocks were either square or rectangular with wooden cases in various designs and workmanship, the more ornate being more costly. Originally, mantel clocks (also called table clocks) had handles on the top so that they could be carried from room to room as needed. Since even the smaller clocks were an expense, having more than one in a home was usually not possible or practical. The use of a spring for power made the crafting of these smaller clocks possible, since no weights were needed to power the main cam. The use of a spiral spring, which was wound with a key to tighten it, enabled a clock to run for a set period of time before the spring had to be rewound. This process was no different than rising the weights in a floor clock to continue the time keeping, but was considerable smaller. While there were inherent problems with accuracy as the spring unwound, the size and portability of these clocks made for instant popularity. The potential energy stored in the spring continued the movement of the clock for whatever time was possible based on the size of the spring. Larger springs would run for a longer period of time.

While the discovery of the principles of the pendulum were originally applied to floor clocks, it was only a short time until clockmakers realized that the length of the pendulum could be adjusted to provide it's accuracy in a smaller clock, which could easily fit on a table or mantel. The introduction of pulleys to the weight mechanism further served to reduce the size requirements of a table or mantel pendulum driven clock by reducing through a series of pulleys the drop rate of the weights. These earlier pendulum clocks also had the handle on the top to carry them from room to room as need arose.

It is believed that what might be called a "true mantel" clock, without handles and highly decorated was introduced in France and quickly spread through Europe and England, with many of them imported into America along with the table clocks of the previous century. Shapes were changed in the process of decorative creation, doing away with the "boxy shape" changing that to a more curved case. Connected to a balance wheel, which used the same mechanical principle as a pendulum to maintain accuracy, chimes and striking were added to these clocks. Perhaps because of cost, or also the ease of transport, mantel and table clocks began to be manufactured in America by the same horological craftsmen who were making the floor clocks toward the beginning of the 19th century. These smaller clocks, mostly spring powered, were sold throughout the Eastern United States, and later were transported to the West as that area developed. The brass shelf clock, developed around 1840, became a very popular addition to many homes, perhaps in part due to the shiny appearance of the brass, but more likely because the case did not require so much woodworking as older versions of mantel clocks. Many of these clocks continue to survive as antiques as so many of them were manufactured over a period of nearly fifty years. Little changed with these clocks until electricity became widespread and clocks powered by that began to supplant those requiring winding to maintain the accuracy of time. While so-called "wind up clocks" continues to be used for travel and in places where electricity is not easily available, most homes now have clocks that are powered by electricity. Mantel clocks of the previous generations are used more for decoration than their actual time-keeping function.
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