January 29: Time Runs Out for Seth Thomas, American Clockmaker

 

 

While Connecticut has been home to many of the greatest names in American clock manufacturing, few have achieved more household recognition than Seth Thomas, whose name is emblazoned on countless clock faces throughout the world. Born in Wolcott, Connecticut in 1785, young Seth received little formal education, instead gaining hands-on experience, as a teenage apprentice, in the trades of carpentry and woodworking. At the age of 21, he was hired by the famous inventor Eli Terry, who had obtained the first U.S. clock patent in 1797 and was in the midst of revolutionizing the industry with his experiments in mass manufacturing precision clocks. Working alongside Terry in his Connecticut workshop, Seth Thomas helped him manufacture a massive order of 4,000 tall-case clocks in only three years — a jaw-dropping accomplishment at a time when most clockmakers could produce only a handful of hand-made timepieces annually.

An engraving of Seth Thomas, circa 1858.

In 1813, Seth Thomas went into business for himself, manufacturing clocks in the town of Plymouth Hollow, Connecticut and marketing them to a broad clientele, from working-class families to some of the state’s wealthiest citizens. Many of Thomas’ most popular pieces were modeled after Eli Terry’s “shelf clocks,” which were small enough to fit on a fireplace mantel and often affordable enough — thanks to Thomas’ continued innovations in mass manufacturing — for Americans of modest means to purchase. After decades of success as a clock maker, Thomas formally incorporated the Seth Thomas Clock Company in 1853, and proceeded to build a massive, sprawling factory town in Plymouth Hollow to support his burgeoning business. Only six years later, however, failing health forced him to transfer the ownership of the company to his son Aaron. On January 29, 1869, less than two weeks after he relinquished control of his company, Seth Thomas passed away in the town of Plymouth Hollow he had done so much to establish on a firm economic footing.

Aaron Thomas proved to be a worthy successor to the famous clock brand, expanding the Seth Thomas brand and keeping its designs and manufacturing processes constantly up to date. Under his leadership, the company became famous for its wall clocks, and also took on highly visible commercial projects as well, including the design and manufacture of the famous “Acorn clock” that sits in the middle of Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

In 1875, the town of Plymouth Hollow, Connecticut was renamed “Thomaston” in honor of the man who did more than anyone to make affordable, dependable, and accurate clocks standard items in middle class American homes. Time ran out for a legendary innovator today in Connecticut history, though his name still lives on in households across the country.

A brass Seth Thomas nameplate from the early 20th century.

Further Reading

Seth Thomas Works Around the Clock,” connecticuthistory.org

Michael Gainey, “The Seth Thomas Clock Company: A Brief History,” masterclockrepair.com