The Sound of the Old World
by Bob Brooke
knows the familiar sound of the cuckoo clock on the hour and the half
hour. There’s something unique about that sound—not the harsh bim bam
of some clocks or the loud chime of others, but a soft cuckoo, cuckoo.
It is widely believed that Franz Anton Ketterer designed and built the
first cuckoo clock in his village of Schonwald in the Black Forest of
Germany. However, the history of this unique clock dates back even
further to around 1630 in the village of Triberg.
Glassmaking was a traditional craft of the Black Forest. According to
legend, a peddler who sold glass made in the region, returned from a
selling trip with a clock from Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. The
province of Baden-Wiirttemburg lies deep in the Black Forest. Winters
there are long, dark, cold. and with deep snowfalls. The weather limits
the forestry and farming during this season, so a cottage clock industry
The local citizens copied the Bohemian clock and made the tools to craft
it. Clockmakers assembled the clocks according to their own patterns and
styles. Each made his own parts which weren’t interchangeable with any
other maker’s. By the late 18th century, the clocks were a profitable
export for the region and the villagers sold them as far away as Russia.
The First Cuckoo Clock
What came first, the cuckoo or the clock? Up to the 1730s, the Black
Forest clockmakers produced simple clocks. In 1738 Franz Ketterer from
the village of Schönwald decided to build a cuckoo for his clocks. So
the bird with the original sound “cuckoo cuckoo” was born. German
clockmakers made the call of the cuckoo the same way it is today, with
two bellows sending air through pipes, much like a church pipe organ.
The first clocks were rather primitive. They had only 12-hour movements
made of wood, including the moving parts. Many of the clocks had square
faces painted with watercolor. But as time went on, cuckoo clock design
and decoration grew more sophisticated. The bird’s wings and beaks
became animated and some even sported applied feathers. The themes
decorated the clocks were only limited to the imaginations of the
painters who did their faces. Scenes included those showing hunting,
family, and military motifs. Some even had porcelain columns and
As the popularity of the cuckoo clock increased, clockmakers began
replacing some of the wooden movement pieces with metal and brass. This
increased their durability and ensured that they would last longer. This
advance in technology increased the number of clocks one woodcarver
could make six times over the next 100 years.
By the late 19th century, cuckoo clockmaking had become an industry.
Families would live and work together in large cottages, each individual
working on the parts of the clock they specialized in with some making
the frames, some making the clockworks, and others making and painting
dials, making chains and gongs, and finishing metal parts. Some carved
decorations while others assembled the movements, and still others
fitted the movements in the cases.
Types of Cuckoo Clocks
During the latter part of the 18th century, the woodcarvers of the Black
Forest produced over a half million cuckoo clocks per year—each made by
hand. Clockmakers were so busy, they couldn’t ensure that all their
orders would be filled on time.
The wood casing Is the primary feature that distinguishes the cuckoo
clock. Clockmakers used the wood of the linden tree, a hardwood that
grows in Europe, as well as walnut. They would purchase the woods well
in advance so that they could be aged for two years.
The now traditional Black Forest clock design, the "Schilduhr" or shield
clock, had a painted flat square wooden face behind which the clockmaker
mounted the clockworks. On top of the square was usually a semicircle of
highly decorated painted wood which contained the door for the cuckoo.
These usually depicted floral patterns, so-called “Rosenuhren” or rose
clocks, and often had a painted column on either side of the dial with
the numerals painted in German Gothic style, normally by women. Others
had illustrations of fruit as well. There was no cabinet surrounding the
clockwork in this model. This design was the most prevalent between the
end of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. These
timekeepers were typically sold from door to door by "Uhrenträger" or
clock peddlers who would carry the dials and movements on their backs in
huge backpacks. About half of all 18th-century cuckoo clocks were shield
From the 1850s to the 1870s, Black Forest clockmakers created another
type of clock known as "Rahmenuhr" or framed clock. As the name
suggests, these wall cuckoo clocks consisted of a picture frame, usually
with a typical Black Forest scene painted on a piece of wood or metal.
Common themes included hunting, love, family, death, birth, mythology,
military and Christian religious scenes. Clockmakers often used works by
painters such as Johann Baptist Laule and Carl Heine to decorate the
fronts of this and other types of clocks. The painting was almost always
protected by a sheet of glass and some models displayed a person or an
animal with blinking or flirty eyes as well, being operated by a simple
mechanism worked by means of the swinging pendulum. The cuckoo normally
popped out of the painted scene to announce the hour.
The "chalet" style cuckoo clock originated at the end of the 19th
century in Switzerland. Made in the shape of a typical Swiss chalet,
some also had a cuckoo bird and other types of animated figurines, such
as woodcutters, moving beer drinkers, and turning water wheels. Some
"traditional" style cuckoo clocks also feature a music box and dancing
figurines. There are three basic styles, named after the type of
traditional house depicted—the Black Forest chalet, Swiss chalet, with
two types, the "Brienz" and the "Emmental," and finally the Bavarian
But the popular house-shaped Bahnhäusleuhr, or railroad house clock,
virtually forced the discontinuation of other designs within a few
decades. When building the railroad through the rocky Black Forest area
around 1860, it was necessary to build many tunnels. For this, the
German Railroad hired skilled tunnel-builders from Italy. Alongside the
railroad, they built guard residences, the so-called "Bahnwärterhäusles,"
in the Italian style. Adorned with wild grape vines, they were the
inspiration for this special type of cuckoo clock.
In September 1850, the first director of the Grand Duchy of Baden
Clockmakers School in Furtwangen, Robert Gerwig, launched a public
competition to submit designs for modern clockcases.
Friedrich Eisenlohr, an architect responsible for creating the buildings
along the then new Badenian Rhine Valley Railroad, submitted a design.
He enhanced the facade of a standard railroad guard’s residence, as he
had built many of them, with a clock dial. His "Wallclock with shield
decorated by grape vines," became the prototype of today’s popular
souvenir cuckoo clocks.
By 1860, the Bahnhäusle style had started to develop away from its
original design towards a case with three-dimensional woodcarvings, like
the Jagdstück or "Hunt piece", design created in Furtwangen in 1861, a
cuckoo clock with carved oak foliage and hunting motifs, such as trophy
animals, guns, and powder pouches.
By 1862 clockmaker Johann Baptist Beha started to enhance his richly
decorated Bahnhäusle clocks with hands carved from bone and weights cast
in the shape of fir cones. Even today this combination of elements is
characteristic of cuckoo clocks, although the hands are usually made of
wood or plastic.
Cuckoo Clock Movements
There are two kinds of movements----30-hour and 8-day. Some have musical
devices, and play a tune on a Swiss music box after striking the hour
and half-hour. Usually the melody sounds only at full hours in 8-day
clocks and both at full and half hours in the 30-hour timepieces.
Two tiny pipes in the clock, with bellows attached to their tops, create
the sound of the "cuckoo." The clock's movement activates the bellows to
send a puff of air into each pipe alternately when the timekeeper
Antique Cuckoo Clocks
Cuckoo clocks are also highly prized antiques. Collectors seek
handcrafted ones with a provenance, but they also hunt for the best
factory-made cuckoo clocks. They especially seek those dating from the
1850s, based on the name of the maker. Names like Gustav Becker, the
United Freiburg Clock Factory, Winterhalder & Hofmeier, Kienzie,
Junghans. and the Hamburg .American Clock Company are among the most
Travelers on the Grand Tour purchased many of these as souvenirs of the
Black Forest of Germany, as well as western Austria, and Switzerland.
The cuckoo clock known today is the most popular form of ornamental
clock—one that’s decorative as well as functional.More photos of the Boal Museum
and Columbus Chapel.
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