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Thanks to its beautiful appearance and cheery sound, the antique German made cuckoo clock is an iconic timepiece that has been enjoyed by collectors for centuries. The design of this clever clock has gone through few stylistic or mechanical changes after it was first written about in 1629. The cuckoo clock remains a timeless classic.
The Black Forest cuckoo clock is widely accepted as the oldest, and therefore the original, of its kind. Although these clocks are occasionally made in other parts of the world, the Black Forest cuckoo clock is most prized for its authentic craftsmanship and beautiful detailing. This is the clock we think of when the nostalgic word cuckoo comes into our minds. The Black Forest is where a majority of the world’s cuckoo clocks are produced, and from where most originate.
The common cuckoo clock is a pendulum-regulated clock, meaning it keeps time using a swinging weight. The weight is designed to swing back and forth precisely, keeping very accurate time. The pendulum is used to measure time in many clocks, and up until the 1930’s was the best way to do so. The pendulum-regulated clock was invented in 1656 by the Dutch mathematician, Christiaan Huygens. The main difference between the cuckoo clock and other clocks is its application of a mechanized bird, or automaton. The bird pops out of a door, usually above the clock face, and calls out a whistle, or cuckoo sound, which measures the passing time. The decision for choosing the call of the cuckoo as opposed to other sounds to mark time is as nebulous as the German cuckoo clock’s history, though one theory seems to hold the most weight. The common cuckoo bird lived all over Europe at the time. After the long, dark European winters began to draw to a close, the cuckoo would return for the spring and summer months, greeting winter-weary folk with its cheerful song. The bird’s singing was a natural marker of time. Because they were without proper timepieces before the 17th century, people relied on the sun to determine the time of day, as well as the time of year. The cuckoo call was recognised as a cheerful, uplifting promise of warmer months to come. For this reason, thought early clockmakers, why not mark the time of day with its uplifting call?
There are two main types of cuckoo clocks, or clocks that have two methods of timekeeping: 8-day clocks, or 1-day clocks. 8-day clocks have only to be wound once a week, while 1-day clocks have to be wound each day. It takes but a moment to wind a clock, and it makes no difference at what time it is wound so long as the weights haven’t dropped too far to touch the floor, rendering them useless. A cuckoo clock only has to have two weights, but it must have a third weight if it is to play music. One wieght runs the clock, one operates the cuckoo, and the third, if it is so constructed, plays a song. On 8-day clocks, music usually sounds only once an hour, while on 1-day clocks it sounds on the half-hour mark, after the cuckoo. Whether a clock has two or three weights, these are highly decorative, often constructed to look like dangling pinecones.
The Black Forest is a region in southwestern Germany, and the Black Forest, known as Schwartzwald, has become known as the birthplace of the cuckoo clock. Until the 17th century, hourglasses and sundials were the only method people in this area had of keeping time. The German cuckoo clock’s history is uncertain, and there are many theories as to its first appearance. The clock’s first maker is unknown, though the oldest documentation describing this particular style was written in 1629. There were no drawings of the clock included in this text, but the author, a Bavarian nobleman named Philipp Hainhofer, wrote in detail about a clock that belonged to a German prince. This clock was said to exist in the Black Forest of Germany, though the region had not yet become a mecca for clockmaking, and wouldn’t until the end of the 17th century. In a text dated 1650, the famous handbook of music titled Musurgia Universalis, an engraving and corresponding text provides more detail. A meticulous etching depicts what can be identified today as an antique cuckoo clock. Everything is pictured here, from its outside clock case, and, something never seen before: an automated bird figurine that opens and closes its beak, with mechanized wings. The method of making the call, or the whistle of the bird in this clock, is the main difference between it and the original Black Forest cuckoo clock described by Hainhofer. The cuckoo whistle in Musugia Universalis is made using a pinned barrel organ, such as that used by organ grinders on the streets of Germany during this period. This barrel organ synchronized both song and movement of the bird. Hainhofer’s earlier Black Forest cuckoo used a striking train to hammer the time on a gong, a method of counting the hours that has been popular with clockmaking for centuries. We do know, however, that Huygens did not invent his well-known pendulum clock until 1654, so these earlier clocks certainly would have been made to keep time another way.
Another theory of the Black Forest cuckoo clock’s beginnings is the account of Father Franz Streyer, who, in 1796, described a meeting between two Black Forest clock peddlers with a travelling Bohemian. According to Streyer, the traveller was selling something the peddlers had never seen: cuckoo clocks. Both men were very excited by these new and fascinating clocks, and they each bought one to take home and replicate. This turn of events is thought by many to have begun the trend in cuckoo clocks in Germany. Adolf Kistner disputes this claim in his 1927 writing, however. Kistner points out that there is no evidence of a Bohemian clock, as Bohemia (known today as the Czech Republic) had no clockmaking industry at this time. More mystery regarding the cuckoo.
Another very popular theory of origin came from Markus Fidelis Jäck. In his 1810 writing, Jäck wrote that the cuckoo clock was invented in the year 1730 by the German clockmaker Franz Anton Ketterer who also hailed from the Black Forest. He said that Ketterer had gotten the idea for making the cuckoo call from listening to the bellows of a church organ. It is true that this clock employs bellows in a similar manner, though the theory that Ketterer is responsible is much disputed. The years in which Ketterer was known to be alive are murky at best. Many sources claim that he wasn’t born until 1734, which would mean he wasn’t yet living at the time of the cuckoo clock’s introduction. There is also no evidence that Ketterer was involved in the first production of these clocks, though his name is frequently linked to their beginnings. It has also become commonly accepted that the first cuckoo clock appeared well before 1730, keeping in mind mentions by Hainhofer in 1629. This is also true of the clock described in Musurgia Universalis, which was dated nearly a century before. It has been considered that his son, Anton, may have been more of a player in the first cuckoo clock than Ketterer, that their names might have become confused. This is a possibility, for both Ketterer and his son were very much involved in the craftsmanship of clockmaking.
By the mid 18th century, there remain numerous examples of German made cuckoo clocks, particularly those that came out of the Black Forest region. This area of Germany had become known for its clockmaking. Much of this is due to the plentiful supply of deciduous trees and firs in the area. In the 17th century, the Black Forest was so thick with wood that it was nearly impenetrable, and sparsely populated. Thanks in part to the Netherlands for ship building materials, much of the forest was cleared and trees were sent downriver. The land became more habitable, opening possibilities for new industries such as glassmaking, and later, clockmaking. The most common wood used in Black Forest clock making at this time was that of the Lime tree, also known as the Linden Tree. Because there are few remaining cuckoo clocks dating back to this era, it is likely that the overall production of cuckoo clocks at this time was far less than the production of other mechanical clocks.
There are some fine examples remaining of late 18th century antique German made cuckoo clocks, which indicates an upswing in production during this time. New tools and crafts were being developed at the turn of the century, allowing makers to produce even more beautiful works. The art of crafting by hand has always remained a special element to the Black Forest cuckoo clock. Around this time, the Shield clock design, or Schildur, made its first appearance. More than 600,000 Shield clocks came out of the Black Forest over the years, and their design remained basically unchanged. Shield clocks have a carved and painted wooden face behind the clockwork, and each clock is beautifully hand painted, ensuring that no two are alike. The door for the cuckoo is often painted with roses or other floral patterns. These rose clocks are known as Rosenuhren. Painted fruit is also a popular motif in Shield clocks. In the late 18th and well into the 19th centuries, this style of clock was often sold door to door by clock peddlers, or Uhrenträger. The clocks were mounted to their backs so each beautiful work would be displayed as the Uhrenträger moved from place to place.
In the mid to late 19th century, framed-clocks, or Rahmenuhr, came into production. On these clocks is often pictured a typical Black Forest scene; trees, mountains, or valley below, surrounded by a picture frame. Oil painting, and often printmaking techniques like lithography, were common adornment on these clocks. Popular themes such as love, death, family, mythology, and religious scenes are immortalized here. The images are often protected by glass, and some even include a person or an animal with blinking eyes, which were connected to a mechanism that would operate the pendulum. The cuckoo, too, would often fit within the painted scene.
In 1850, the classic Bahnhäusle style clock appeared. It was created during a competition by architect Friedrich Eisenlohr, and gained instant popularity. Eisenlohr was famous for the buildings he’d designed along the Badenian Rhine railroad. His Bahnhäusle (literally, “railway house”) clock was the first clock that resembled a home, particularly, the residence of a railway guard. He took the facade of a house and adorned it with a clock face, adding intricate, leaf-like details. This “house” theme would remain popular in clockmaking for centuries to come. For the time, the symmetrical design and the light, delicate grape vines carved into the wood were very modern. While this clock was considered a cuckoo clock, there was one very major difference in Eisenlohr’s Bahnhäusle when compared to prior Black Forest designs: the artist had left out the cuckoo mechanism. At this time, the bird hadn’t yet become synonymous with the Black Forest cuckoo clock. He did, however, include it in his original plans. This Bahnhäusle design was replicated for many years to come, and by 1860, there was a growing desire for the cuckoo mechanism to be included. It would be the centerpiece in clocks made hereafter. Robert Gerwig, the Grand Duchy of Baden Clockmaker’s School, judged the competition. Though Eisenlohr won, Gerwig preferred a metal front with enamel detailing and oil paintings to Eisenlohr’s wooden facade style. Enamel and oil paintings, however, were far more costly and labor intensive. Very few were produced between 1850 and 1870, and so remain very highly coveted clocks for the collector. Two Bahnhöfle Uhren, or, Railroad Station Clocks, were made by Johann Baptist Beha in 1854. Beha included the cuckoo mechanism in his clocks, and was the first to include one in a clock of the Bahnhäusle style. His skill made him the best known clock maker of his time. Beha can also be credited with fitting the first cuckoo clocks with musical movements. After he changed the cuckoo clock game, many clockmakers had to adapt the ways in which they were designing clocks to accommodate these new trends, that were never to go out of style.
In the 1860s, the Bahnhöfle style had developed into the Jagdstück (Hunt piece) design. New shapes and images were being added to this popular and timeless cuckoo clock. Elements of the Jagdstück design include three-dimensional wood carvings, foliage, and animal and hunting motifs. Beha enhanced his clocks with hands carved from bone and weights cast in the shape of fir cones, which, as previously mentioned, are stylistic choices that remained popular. Some of Beha’s works are the most beautiful and intricate of the antique Black Forest cuckoo clocks, and they have only become more coveted over the years. The carved leaves and animals have come to represent the iconic, vintage Black Forest cuckoo clock that we think of today. Bahnhöfle and Jagdstück style clocks proved also more versatile in the home, as they could either rest on mantelpieces or be hung on walls. Other well known Black Forest clockmakers such as Hubert Herr and Helmut Kammerer were excellent craftsmen, and helped to carry on the legacy of those who came before them. They developed a standard of clockmaking that ensured the quality of each piece. Thanks to these artisans, the Bahnhöfle and Jagdstück styles have always been hand-cut and engraved, down to each leaf and each delicate shingle decorating a roof.
Shortly after the Bahnhöfle explosion in Germany, Switzerland began producing its own Chalet style. These were replicas of the Black Forest style (some even referred to as Black Forest Chalets in an effort to depict a typical Black Forest style house). They often used dancing automatons to keep time, rather than cuckoos. As time passed into the early 20th century, so did the decorations of the clocks with the trends of the times, though the classic styles have remained more popular than more modern designs. Many of these are nearly unrecognizable as cuckoo clocks.
With so many exquisite details and delicate, working parts, it’s a wonder there still remain beautiful, antique cuckoo clocks for us to enjoy today. Caring for a clock is a necessary and satisfying job for a collector. As with any antique, cleaning and maintaining an antique cuckoo clock should be done with much care. It is helpful to find a professional clock repair expert, especially if the clock is in need of special attention. This can be particularly important if it hasn’t been cleaned in some time and the gears are worn.
The clock itself is basically made of two pieces. The first is the hardwood clock case, which includes the delicately carved filigree, the frame or paintings, and the doors for the automaton. It is important to keep the outside parts clean, not only to keep the piece looking beautiful, but to keep grimy dirt buildup to a minimum. A failure to maintain outside cleanliness can certainly result in the necessity of taking it to a professional. Using a proper cleaner is helpful, too, if the buildup doesn’t come off with a simple brushing. Using an oil-based cleaner that is meant for hardwood is imperative here. Lemon oil or orange oil can help keep the wood beautiful, ensuring that it won’t crack or warp over time. The moving mechanisms must be kept clean of dust and debris, and this can be done with a small, dry paintbrush, so as not to unknowingly upset the delicate parts. Canned air can also be useful to clear certain areas, especially automatons. The second part of the clock is its inner workings. Here is where a paintbrush, or sometimes a Q-tip can come in handy. The clock’s moving mechanisms are meant to stay dry, though it can be tempting to add a lubricant to them. Adding a lubricant can create more debris, and this can cause the mechanisms to become sticky, which will prevent them from working properly. If they need to be cleaned, a simple solution of soapy water can work well, as long as the solution is applied with delicacy and is thoroughly dried after cleaning. It is important to remember that, though it might be tempting, scrubbing the inner workings is not necessary to keep a clock running smoothly. The gears, however, can be helped with a little lubrication. If needed, lubricant should be placed with a syringe on the fronts and backs of the gears. There are oil wells there, and they are placed so that the gears don’t collect the lubricant which could make them stick. Any excess oil can do more damage than good for the intricate workings of a clock.
Some parts of the antique clock are more likely to be damaged than others. It is important to check the bellows of the clock, which are located inside the back of the clock case. Usually, there is one on each side of the clock. There will always be two, as each is necessary to produce the two sounds of the cuckoo: one set of bellows makes cuck, and the other makes the coo. These can be checked by moving them carefully up and down to look for rips or tears in the material. These bellows tops can be replaced with new ones, should they be damaged. The entire bellows shouldn’t have to be changed.
A common issue with antique cuckoo clocks is that the automaton is out of beat. This means it is not keeping time correctly, that the “tick” and “tock” are off. To fix this is usually a minor adjustment and is as simple as tilting the clock off the wall and gently putting it back.
All of these steps should be taken to keep an antique cuckoo clock running beautifully. This special clock, though delicate and detailed, can be understood and appreciated by any collector, even those with little knowledge of clocks or mechanics. With great care and appreciation for the artistry behind the clock, it is a treat to behold these unique pieces, and the cuckoo clock’s rich, fable-filled history will ensure that it stays an heirloom for the home and a conversation piece for generations to come.