Why Do They Call It a Grandfather Clock?

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

 (Image credit: Flickr user Erika Smith)

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a grandfather clock in the house of anyone under the age of seventy? Not for some time, if ever.

Grandfather clocks -with their long cases, pendulums, echoing chimes, and roman numerals- seem to belong to the world of courting parlors, model T Fords, silent movies, and going out on a date for an ice cream soda. In short, the world of grandparents.

Yes, this may seem logical and obvious, but the real reason these timekeeping devices (technically called "longcase clocks") picked up the grandfatherly nickname has nothing to do with grandparents. Here's the scoop.

(Image credit: © Copyright Hugh Mortimer, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1875, an American songwriter named Henry Clay Work was visiting England. He checked in to the George Hotel in North Yorkshire. In the hotel's lobby was a large pendulum clock. The clock had stopped long ago and just sat in the lobby collecting dust, serving no apparent purpose.

This unmoving clock fascinated work and he asked about its history. He was told by the proprietors that the clock had belonged to the inn's previous two owners, the Jenkins brothers, both deceased. It seems the clock had kept perfect time during their lives. But when the first Jenkins brother died, the clock faltered. The clock was said to have stopped completely dead -to the minute- on the day the second Jenkins brother had died. It stayed stopped, despite the best efforts of a host of repairmen.

The bemused Work thought it was a great story. He went on to write a song about the incident. In the song, he called it “My Grandfather's Clock.” It went like this:

My grandfather's clock
Was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half
Than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.

It was bought on the morn
Of the day that he was born,
It was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped short
Never to go again,
When the old man died.

Okay, so maybe old man work wasn't exactly Bob Dylan. But lucky for Work, the public went crazy over the song. "My Grandfather's Clock" went on to sell over a million copies in sheet music.

The previous term, the rather un-catchy "longcase clock,” was dropped almost immediately by the public. And the term grandfather clock became attached to the kind of clock that inspired the song.



With the advent of digital technology and atomic clocks, some clock lovers worry that the old pendulum-swinging grandfathers may not be long for the current timekeeping world. However, despite it's inanity, H.C. Work's song lives on. It was recorded multiple times in the 20th century, and as recently as 2004 by the R&B act Boyz II Men. It's a song that, like the grandfather clock, keeps on ticking.

(YouTube link)


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Newest 5 Comments

Me, too! I loved that clock. One day it disappeared and I was so sad, but I assumed my brother broke it (a common occurrence) and never asked my parents. Years later, after our house burned and I thought my entire childhood was gone, I found out my folks had donated it to the church nursery, and it was still there -and working!
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When I was just a toddler back in the 60's, I had a toy grandfather clock that played that song. Never knew the lyrics before though. Very cool article Eddie!
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