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Chauncey Jerome Biography & Clocks

Most of the clockmakers who flourished between 1800 and 1850 made more or less of a success at the business and retired at ease. Chauncey Jerome was an exception, for though he made more than one fortune at clockmaking, he lost them all by too great confidence in the integrity of business associates. When he was sixty-seven he wrote a little book which he called "American Clock Making" but which is in reality a history of his own life and trying experiences.

He was born June 10, 1793, in Caanan, Connecticut. His father was a blacksmith and nail-maker, and Chauncey was one of six children. In the year 1797 the family moved to Plymouth, Conn., and Chauncey when nine years old was taken to work in his father's shop, and his education, such as it was, was received prior to that time.

On the death of his father in 1804 the family was broken up, and Chauncey was put to work on a farm. At fifteen he was bound over to a house-carpenter till he was twenty-one, and was to have board and clothes for his services. When he was eighteen years of age he made a bargain with the man to whom he was bound, that if he would give him four of the winter months each year he would clothe himself.

Chauncey Jerome
Chauncey Jerome

His first job was at Waterbury, where under the guidance of Lewis Stebbins, a singing master (they combined several "trades" in those days), he began to make dials for long case clocks. He learned what he could about clocks and particularly about clock cases at Waterbury, and then hired himself to go to New Jersey to make seven-foot cases for clocks. The works sold at that time for about $20, and he calculated the case would cost about as much more, bringing the clock and case to the neighbourhood of $40.

Jerome and his employers made the trip in December, 1812, in an old lumber wagon, and carried their own provisions. That journey, which took many days, was so wonderful to the country boy that he remembered nearly every detail more than fifty years after.

At twenty-one, when his apprenticeship was over and he was a joiner, he married on his wages of $20 a month. That he had a struggle was a matter of course. He and his little family went through many vicissitudes, till in 1816 he went to work for Eli Terry in making his new "Patent Shelf Clocks". Up to this time most of the work on the cases had been done by hand. Terry, being a clever mechanic, set about reducing the cost of these clocks. In his works the first circular saw was installed, and Jerome learned to make the cases largely by machinery.

In the spring of this year, 1816, Jerome bought some clock movements, dials, and glasses, and set to work making clocks by himself. He succeeded very well, selling the clocks when completed for $12 each. When he received an order for twelve clocks from one man he thought his future was assured, and the $144 he received in payment was the largest sum of money he had ever had at one time.

Little by little he increased his business, till in 1821 he sold his house in Plymouth and moved to Bristol, Conn. Terry bought the house, paying Jerome one hundred wood clock movements, with dials, tablets, glass, and weights. The house he bought in Bristol was paid for in clocks, two hundred and fourteen. In 1822 Jerome built a small shop for making the cases, installed the first circular saw ever seen in Bristol, and continued the making of cases only, for a few years. But he found that there was little money in it, and he finally got Chauncey Boardman, who formerly made "hang-up" clocks, to make two hundred movements. These were enclosed In pine cases, four feet high, "richly stained and varnished".

In 1824 the firm of Jeromes et Darrow was formed, consisting of Chauncey and Nobles Jerome and Elijah Darrow, and the making of clocks was begun.

A little later Jerome got up what he called the "Bronze-looking glass clock" which was six inches taller than Terry's patent clock, but which could be made for one dollar less, and sell for two dollars more. The added six inches give it a very stately air, and the pillars and scroll are handsomely carved. The little fruit piece at the bottom of the door is painted in bronze on the glass.

About 1837, when the great panic swept over the country, there was a breakdown in the clock business, and it was thought that Connecticut had done with clockmaking.

Jerome says:

Wood clocks were good for time, but it was a slow job to properly make them, and difficult to procure wood just right for wheels and plates, and it took a whole year to season it. No factory had ever made over ten thousand in a year; they were always classed with wooden nutmegs and wooden cucumber seeds and could not be introduced into other countries to any advantage. But this was not the only trouble; being on the water as long as they would have to be, would swell the wood of the wheels and ruin the clock. Then we had the eight day brass clock costing about $20, the idea had been that a brass clock must be an eight day clock, and all one day clocks should be of wood. The plan of a one day brass clock had never been thought of.

But Jerome was alive to the advantage of making such a clock, of brass, and finally succeeded, entirely revolutionising the clockmaking business. By 1840 his business was very large, and in 1842 he sent his first consignment of brass clocks to England, and when they were once on sale they went quickly. One shipload of his clocks was seized by the English Government, which had the right to seize goods at the owner's valuation, adding ten per cent, to the invoiced price. In fact Jerome disposed of two invoices in this way, but the third was passed, the English government coming to the conclusion that perhaps he knew his business best.

In 1844 Jerome moved his business to New Haven, where he carried it on successfully for years. The process of making the cases was much simplified by Jerome, and the machinery for cutting the brass wheels was improved so that it was possible for one man to make the wheels for many hundred clocks in a day.

We find that in 1850 he became a member of a joint-stock company in New Haven, under the name of the Jerome Manufacturing Co. In 1855 the company failed disastrously, and Mr. Jerome was ruined. P. T. Barnum was connected with this company during the last six months of its existence. Although Barnum made much of the notes he was forced to pay, it seems as if the real difficulty was the previous indebtedness of the Terry et Barnum Co., which was assumed by the Jerome Manufacturing Co. Mr. Jerome's last years were clouded by misfortunes, and it was only his ingrained New England faith which sustained him. He closes his little book as follows: "The ticking of a clock is music to me, and although many of my experiences as a business man have been trying and bitter, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have lived the life of an honest man, and have been of some use to my fellow men".

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