If your grandfather clock has a brass dial, it was probably made in the period between 1680 and 1770. The early brass dial clocks only had one hand, because the average person had no need of knowing the time to the nearest minute, and with a bit of practise you can tell the time to the nearest five minutes on one of these early (and rare) clocks.
By 1730 the vast majority of grandfather clocks had two hands, for the hours and minutes. One-handed clocks continued to be made in country areas for a while after 1730. Village life was very conservative, and the people living in villages at this time still had no real need of “to the minute” time.
From around 1730 (all these figures are approximate all the way through this article) the brass dial clock was made all over England in ever-increasing numbers, and the dials became more ornate as time went on, especially on the eight-day clocks. More features appeared, such as seconds hands in a small subsidiary dial, date hands or wheels, and moon phases, usually in an arch on top of the dial, but sometimes in small aperture in the dial itself
The easier clocks to date, and the ones most popular in America, are the painted dial clocks, often called “white dial clocks” in Britain.
Painted dial clocks appeared about 1765 to 1780, and after this the brass dial clock ceased to be made, again with just a few exceptions in rural areas, especially the far southern counties of England. The majority of English grandfather clocks were made in The Midlands and the North of England. The new painted dial was cheaper and easier to produce and easier to read by the poor light available at night, so the brass dial was dropped from production over a very brief period, for our purposes it is fair to say that no brass dial clock was made in the big clock making centres after 1780.
It may be worth a mention here that the clocks we are talking about were no different apart from the dial itself; everything else remained the same in both cases, only the dial changed.
Fortunately the painted dials then followed a certain progression as the fashions slowly changed over time, this means that we can usually date a clock to the nearest five to ten years. – – – And it also means we can see at a glance the important features without having to dismantle the clock.
The first white dials from 1770 to 1800 were lovely, simply and sparingly decorated, and with much of the white background showing. Decoration consisted of spandrels painted on in gold paint in the four corners, (probably to resemble the cast brass spandrels fitted to brass dials.) Sometimes a swag of flowers or similar was painted on the dial face, but again very sparingly and restrained. The hands were made of steel, very fine, often blued or blacked and not exactly matching.
Another year indication of an early dial is the use of dots for the minutes with small Arabic numerals round the dial at 5, 10, 15 minutes etc. The hours are marked by Roman Numerals.
From 1800 to around 1830 the style of the dial changed slightly, matching steel hands were used from now on. The minutes were still dots and not the lines inside two narrow concentric circles that we are used to, but the minute numbers changed to the quarters only, instead of every five minutes. The missing numbers were often replaced with little symbols, often looking like stars.
At this time also it became fashionable to use Arabic numerals for the hours instead of Roman numerals. The painted background decoration is starting to spread out too; arched dials have a scene painted in the arch, often with a spray of flowers on each side. The corner painting is spreading a little too, and the imitation spandrels are now often geometric designs, or a fan shape, or a floral design, which fills the corner.
Now we come to the later clocks, of around 1830 to 1880. In the North of England after 1830 grandfather clocks gradually got bigger and bigger, until by the end of the period some of them were huge – – – the dials were often fifteen inches wide and the clocks were eight feet tall, sometimes nine feet or more.
Given the larger area of dial to be decorated the dial painters went to town, the corner paintings became little masterpieces in their own right, and the decoration spread from the corner right up the side of the dial circle, to meet the next corner painting, and so on. Most of these clocks have an arched dial, and the artist painted in a large scene, often a biblical illustration, or a country scene, a nautical scene, a ruined abbey, or something ordered specially by the customer.
The hours have gone back to Roman numerals and stay that way; the hands are now highly decorated brass and matching. These brass hands were used after 1830 for the rest of the period when grandfather clocks were made, in other words up to 1880, possibly in a few rare cases to 1890.
The minutes are shown by a minute band, two concentric circles close together, with lines inside to represent each minute and no minute numbers at all. Date and seconds subsidiary dials are usual now, and the small ornate hands fitted to these are also brass and matching.
To finish off, here is a quick guide to the various features and their dates:
(Of course, all dates are approximate, to the nearest ten years.)
Dotted Minutes – 1770 to 1800
Minutes numbered every five minutes – 1770 to 1800
Minutes numbered every quarter hour – 1800 to 1820
No minute numbers – 1820 to 1880
Roman hour numerals – 1770 to1800 then 1825 to1880
Arabic hour numerals – 1800 to 1825
Full minute band – 1815 to 1880
Flowers or fruit – 1770 to 1800
Fans, shells or abstract – 1790 to 1830
No painting – left blank – 1780 to 1820
Gold imitation spandrels – 1775 to 1785
Name of maker – 1770 to 1780
Flowers or birds – 1770 to 1795
Small painting on white background – 1795 to 1815
Full painted scene – 1820 to 1880
Moon dial – 1770 to 1830
10″ to 13″ – 1770 to 1810
13″ to 15″ – 1810 to 1880
Square dial – 1770 to 1825
Arch dial – 1770 to 1880
Steel – 1770 to 1815
Brass – 1815 to 1880