Telling Time

As we continue the celebration of our 50th anniversary, it is appropriate to think about our founders, some of the artifacts we have had the longest and about time itself. An item that brings to mind all three is the wall clock hanging in our gift shop that has been in our collection since 1969, brought in by one of our most devoted and tireless founders, C. Malcolm Nichols.

This clock was one of five (or maybe eight) given by doctor and judge Elial Todd Foote, one of Jamestown’s first settlers and Chautauqua County’s first serious local historian, to the churches of Jamestown, in this case the First Baptist Church. The clocks were given in 1858.

Foote was active across a broad range in developing Jamestown and encouraging its growth in the right direction. He was involved in real estate, railroad promotion, temperance, abolition, freemasonry, banking, industrialization, politics and religion. He had moved to Connecticut by 1858, but he remained involved with Jamestown until his death in 1877. He is buried here. He was a member of the Congregational Church, but he supported several Jamestown churches far beyond the gift of the clocks.

The clock is a spring driven pendulum style known as octagon drop, made by the New Haven Clock Company. It has a 12-inch dial and oak case.

We made inquiries including letters and calls concerning the other Foote clocks early in 2008 and again starting in December of last year. The only other example we located was the one given to and still retained by the First Congregational Church which I examined and photographed in January of 2011 and again this week.

The New Haven Clock Company had not been in business long in 1858. It sold inexpensive but sturdy good quality machine-made clocks with all brass works. This model remained popular, especially in schools, churches and offices, up into the 20th century. In our 1897 Sears reprint catalog, it sold for $3.70 which would have been roughly equivalent to $3.84 in 1858 and a little over $100 today. Coincidentally, $100 is also approximately the value of the clock today. The clocks probably cost more than $3.84 in 1858 for several reasons.

Both surviving clocks have been repaired numerous times. Our clock has badly worn gear teeth and can’t be made workable.

Fifty years earlier, just after Foote had arrived in Jamestown, there would have been very few if any clocks at all in the little hamlet, and no watches. People computed time in terms of daybreak, noon, sunset, and “early candlelight.” Hours began to figure in people’s minds when the stage lines were established in the mid-1820s but importance for minutes probably came with the railroad in 1860 and with the big town clock in the tower of the Institute Building in 1868. That most “grandfather” and beloved of all Jamestown clocks mysteriously disappeared when the building was replaced in 1934 and 1935.

The railroads all used different times until 1883 when they, not the government, instituted standard time. Daylight saving time first made its controversial appearance in Jamestown in June 1931.

The sundial in our Victorian herb garden is not an ancient Jamestown or Fenton artifact. It was put in place in 1984, a gift of Ida Bauer. The concept of the sundial, however, must have occurred to primitive people, even children, deep in the Stone Age. The 12-hour concept, originally a division of daylight that varied with the season and didn’t apply at night, came from the Romans. The sexagesimal system of dividing time by units of 60 originated with the Sumerians over 3,000 years ago with the dawn of civilization.