They might not be the most precise timekeepers, but there’s no denying that novelty clocks can add a bit of fun, writes Jack Tempest, who’s been collecting unusual clocks for more than a decade.
First of all – a warning! I describe my type of unusual clocks as ‘inexpensive’ in the light that they are not all antiques, or of such quality horological interest that you’ll see them selling for breathtaking prices – in the lower hundreds, maybe! Some of them still turn up at car boot sales and collectors’ fairs, although granted, as interest in general novelty bygones increases, so do prices.
My cheapest buy was a real curiosity that was probably manufactured by the Japanese in the years following the Second World War. Basically, the clock is designed in the form of a goldfish bowl in which two plastic fishes swim. They don’t swim until the mechanism in the lid is wound up, and then, dangling from wires, they both continue their endless circular journey through imaginary water until the clockwork needs re-winding. Of course the mechanism also measures the time, and indicates this numerically on top of the lid. It was probably made in the 1960s, but I’ve never seen another since I first bought it in the 1970s. I don’t remember how much it cost me – not a lot – and I have no idea what I would be able to sell it for. I like it, and that’s the main thing!
Two other cheapish clocks I have are shaped like seated Scotty dogs, one carved from wood, the other moulded from some type of plastic material. I think that these example were made in Germany. The wooden example perhaps dates from the 1930s, with the plastic dog dating from the post-Second World War era. They have clockwork mechanisms and, ingeniously, they tell the time by their separately rotating eyes. One eye shows the hour, the other the minutes. Not over scarce, I suppose, but economically priced, and a little unusual as novelty clocks.
Other German clocks include the mechanical ‘cuckoo’ type that hailed in abundance from the Black Forest area. They are traditionally very noisy clocks, with at least the automatic cuckoo constantly announcing the hours away. I bought one that not only marked the passing hours by ‘cuckooing’, but also by a trumpeter popping out regularly and ‘toot-tooting’ loudly. It eventually got on my nerves and I had to turn it off through the night.
Many people seriously believe that cuckoo clocks were Swiss products. Musical boxes, yes, but cuckoo clocks - never! This belief came about as a result of German goods becoming unpopular after the 1914-18 War. Because anti-German feelings were quite strong, the cuckoo clocks were exported via Switzerland.
Some modern clocks are obtainable which offer the convenience of projecting the clock dial on to the bedroom ceiling at the press of a button - useful for the light sleeper in the dark! There’s nothing new in this, however, as one of my clocks offers this very service – and it dates from at least the 1920s. Made from polished brass, it works from a dry battery and the projection barrel is hinged so that the time can be aimed and focussed upon the ceiling or the opposite wall of the bedroom.
Another of my clocks, dating from Edwardian times, is a Davidson’s Patent Automatic Memorandum Clock that appeared around the turn of the century, and was produced by British clock-maker John Davidson at the turn of the twentieth century (and also the only genuine antique in my novelty clock collection, having been made 100 years or more ago). As the name suggests, this wooden-cased clock was designed as an aide memoire. The clock case contained a normal clock mechanism behind a clearly designed standard vertical white enamelled face. There is also a battery compartment that holds the dry battery necessary to operate a bell-alarm accommodated in the base of the cabinet. On top of the cabinet, above the clock face, is an ornate casket with a lift-up lid. No mistaking this clock – its name is usually prominently displayed on its case. Open the lid and inside, facing upwards, is seen another numbered white enamel clock-face. This is fixed in the centre of a horizontal turntable working from the clock’s mechanism. All around it, radiating outwards from the dial, are 60 slots - one for every minute of the hour. These slots accept specially made bone tablets upon which a message could be pencilled. A tablet placed in the slot corresponding to the desired time would fall, tipping a switch as it fell, setting the battery-operated bell ringing. This clock was advertised in a variety of designs, but the mechanisms were all basically the same. Depending on its condition and its mechanics, a good model will tend to be more expensive than the previously mentioned examples.
Another curious timepiece from Germany is the Gravity Clock of the 1920s, so called because the clock face, containing all of the mechanism, makes a steadily controlled descent between two upright pillars until it halts at its base, at which point it is truly ‘run down’. Its spring mechanism is then automatically rewound simply by
sliding the clock back to the top of the supporting pillars, when it once again begins its slow descent, recording the passing time as gravity takes over again – and so on – and so on. Not too expensive to buy in working condition, and reasonably collectable for its sheer novelty!
Not too old – and not too expensive, therefore – are the relatively cheaply manufactured wind-up alarm clocks that usually traditionally feature their bells on top. Their collectability depends upon the illustrations printed on their clock faces; indeed, many offer extra novelty by an animated feature. The earlier examples featuring well-liked bygone cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse realise higher values; later products are obviously less expensive, but appear to be steadily increasing in value as they become harder to find. The arms of Mickey play the part of the normal clock hands, indicating the time. Later versions that appeared around the 1950s are also collectable and offer likely investment potential, being less expensive to buy. Their dial illustrations include such collectable characters as ‘Popeye’, ‘Noddy’ and others.
Did you know… the bird call on the cuckoo clock was created around 1730 by German Franz Anton Ketterer, using bellows to produce two different sounds. Early cuckoo clocks were hand crafted in the long winter months by Black Forest farmers, who sold them during the warmer seasons.