Clepsammia: Thief of Sand

Hourglass, ca. 1700. Italy. Gift of Mrs. Willis R. Michael, 85.108.20. Photograph by David Bohl.

As the remaining hours of 2022 run down, let’s investigate this unusual hourglass in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library. Called clepsammia, meaning thief of sand, sand hourglasses are an early method of keeping time. Devices using a fixed amount of sand to measure time were likely first developed in the 1300s, but the need for contained, reliable, and stable timekeeping on ships to aid with navigation helped popularize clepsammia during the Age of Sail (roughly 1650-1850).

Before the invention of the modern clock, hourglasses were used in churches to time sermons, in government offices to time speeches, and in factories to time work shifts. These useful items came in many types, materials, and sizes. A common form of hourglass was intended to measure one hour and was constructed of two glass bulbs, often set in a frame, that were joined with wax and cord.

Another kind of hourglass, used to mark the quarter hour, featured four horizontally-oriented glass bulbs. Each bulb contained either 15-, 30-, 45-, or 60-minutes’ worth of sand. As each ran out, the user could track quarter hours. The vertically-oriented hourglass held by the museum is an unusual form. The sand flows through two glass bulbs - one shaped into four equal chambers and another larger bulb. There seem to be only a few existing examples of this type of hourglass. One is in the collection at the Louvre.

The museum’s clepsammia was crafted in Italy, around 1700. The “sand” is actually powdered stone contained within the glass bulbs, fixed within a wooden frame covered with decorated paper. Compared to beach sand, which has angular edges, powdered stone flows smoothly through the apertures between bulbs. In one direction, the material moves from the largest bulb down, filling first one bulb, then the next in fifteen-minute intervals. When flipped over, the sand empties from each bulb, again in fifteen-minute intervals. This hourglass stands ten inches tall and, at over three hundred years old, is in good condition for its age.

This clepsammia is part of a collection of clocks, watches, tools, and books donated by Ruth Michael of York, Pennsylvania. Her gift of more than 140 items from the collection that she and her husband, Willis R. Michael, assembled over many years forms the core of the museum’s horological holdings. If you’d like to learn more about timepieces in the museum’s collection, you can see more examples in this Flickr album. You can also see this hourglass in action in the video below.

A Santa Claus Production Designed by George McFadden

Reindeer Dancers with Santa Conducting, 1930-1960, George A. McFadden (1904-1991), Massachusetts. Gift of the Estate of George A. McFadden, 91.018.33. Photograph by Briggs Photography.

Imagination and a love of making things shaped George A. McFadden’s (1904-1991) life. Visitors to the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library know him for the colorful cuckoo clocks he made when he retired.  Three of his clocks are currently on view in Keeping Time:  Clockmakers and Collectors.  Design and automated figures interested McFadden for decades. As a teenager he created an automated display featuring a soda-drinking Eskimo to help sell Clicquot Club ginger ale at his family’s pharmacy in Bath, Maine. Soon after, he put his talent to the test as a student at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston. There he studied, among other things, stage and jewelry design.  For years, he and his wife Alyce Stewart Kent McFadden (1906-1978), a costume designer, worked together on productions for a number of Massachusetts theaters. He also designed mechanized displays for department stores and circus acts.

Among the clocks and art that McFadden gave to the Museum are two photographs and a watercolor depicting what appears to be the concept and

Model Theater Stage (with reindeer dancers), 1930-1960, George A. McFadden (1904-1991), Massachusetts. Gift of the Estate of George A. McFadden, 91.018.24

models of a Christmas-time display.  McFadden did not rate his skills as an artist highly, noting in 1981 that, “I never did amount to much of a draftsman.  Art is more a means to an end with me.” But his painting of a reindeer stage show conducted by Santa Claus (at left) is adeptly executed and charming.  In this work Santa, as band leader, directs a six-piece ensemble accompanying three dancing reindeer.  They perform for an audience that includes an older reindeer couple (one of whom is sleeping through the show) and an inattentive reindeer mother with a mischievous child.  The younger reindeer in the image is attempting to startle the drummer with what one hopes is a toy spider suspended from a string.

A photograph (at right) shows McFadden’s model of the painted scene.  Another photograph (below) depicts a model of the band with a pair of reindeer performers doing tricks with balls, rings and a drum-shaped prop. Unfortunately, these images are not labeled and did not come to the Museum with any information about why and when they were made.  McFadden did, over the course of his career design, automated Christmas displays for Jordan March and Filene’s department stores. 

This painting and the related photographs suggest that the imaginative McFadden took a whimsical approach to celebrating the Christmas holiday.  If you have any ideas or information about McFadden’s models, please leave a comment below.  In the meantime, Happy Holidays to you from the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.   


Robin Wiest, “McFadden Creates a Fairy Tale,” The Winchester [Massachusetts] Star, April 30, 1981, pages 13 and 33.

Model Theater Stage (with reindeer acrobats), 1930-1960, George A. McFadden (1904-1991), Massachusetts. Gift of the Estate of George A. McFadden, 91.018.25.

Taking Care of Clocks in the Collection

MH with Willard clock
Collections Manager Maureen Harper winding a clock in "Keeping Time: Clockmakers and Collectors."

Of the over fifty clocks featured in “Keeping Time:  Clockmakers and Collectors” at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, several clocks in the exhibition are running. Care for the objects in the collection falls to Maureen Harper, the museum’s Collections Manager and a staff member for over twenty years. Among her many duties, Maureen winds, sets and looks after the operating clocks on display. Here she talks about the working clocks under her care.

What do you do to keep the clocks on display running?

Currently we have a handful of working clocks on view in the “Keeping Time” as well as a tall case clock by Nathaniel Mulliken, Jr., that is always in the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives. They are all eight-day movements. I try to wind them weekly so they won’t run down. I go up to the gallery on Tuesdays with a box of all the clock door keys (some have two) and winders, each tagged with the number of the clock it fits. The clocks that run consistently are pretty accurate but I check the time and reset them or adjust the pendulum if a particular clock is running a little off. 

What do you like about working with the operating clocks?

Most things in our collection don’t move. The running clocks are different. Even though they are antique, with winding they come to life. It is thrilling!

What do you do if one of the clocks stops working?

The older clocks don’t always work perfectly, although some are more reliable than others. The Mulliken in the library, as an example, needs very little done to it. If one of the other clocks stops, I wind it and start the pendulum. If it still isn’t working, I call the horologist to come in and take a look. 

Of the clocks on display, do you have a current favorite?

In “Keeping Time” the George Hoff tall case clock has a pretty bell that rings on the quarter hour. It is also wonderful to see the organ clock running. For years it needed conservation. We kept it in our vault.  Because various elements of the clock were large, the hood, works, face surround and the body of that clock were not assembled while they were being stored. It was hard to get a sense of how the parts would look together. It has been great to be able to have that clock’s backdrop, works and the pipes conserved in the past year. The bellows were also rebuilt; the restorer used kangaroo leather for them. Now when I go into the gallery, I take a lot of satisfaction in seeing the whole clock assembled and, from time to time, hearing it chime and play a tune at a few minutes past the hour.

The Organ Clock in "Keeping Time: Clockmakers and Collectors"

Organ Clock, 1820-1850. T. Hilzinger, retailer. Germany. Gift of Mrs. Willis R. Michael, 77.80.11a-t. Photograph by David Bohl.

At almost nine feet tall, this clock, now on view in “Keeping Time: Clockmakers and Collectors” at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, makes a real impression. But sheer size is just the beginning; this clock features an automated performance by a uniformed band of six musicians every hour. Wooden and metal pipes inside the bonnet provide the music.

Like many clocks exhibited in “Keeping Time,” this one was collected by Willis Michael (1894-1969). Michael started his collection with a single tall case Pennsylvania clock. By the time he died decades later, his collection had grown tremendously. This clock was just one of the nearly one thousand clocks, watches, tools, books and automata that Michael and his wife Ruth (1904-1992) purchased and enjoyed.  In the accompanying photograph, you can see how the Michaels displayed this clock and others at their home in Red Lion, Pennsylvania.   

Interested in different kinds of mechanisms, technology and time-keeping systems, Michael amassed timepieces made in America, Europe and Asia, dating from the 1600s into the 1900s. German makers crafted this organ clock, also called a flötenuhr (flute clock), sometime between the 1820s and the 1850s. The pipes, bellows, painted elements, figures and musical mechanism were made in the Black Forest area. This clock plays several melodies, all ingeniously stored on a pin barrel (visible along with some of the pipes in the image below).  Right now, when activated, the clock plays the tune of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” also known as “God Save the King.”

Visitors to the Willis Michael clock room 1949
Willis Michael’s “Clock and Watch Museum.” Red Lion, Pennsylvania, 1949. Photograph by Henry M. Blatner.

A name painted on the clock’s enamel face, “T. Hilzinger,” probably indicates the retailer who sold the clock to its first owner. That person likely commissioned a local cabinetmaker to put together the hood and case to suit the clock owner's needs and taste. On the inside of this case a partial chalked name, “Moses…,” may be that of the cabinetmaker.   

During the first half of the 1800s, some Black Forest craftsmen specialized in producing sophisticated organ clocks like this one. Decorated with scenes from drama, mythology and other sources, and playing a variety of tunes taken from operas, dances and hymns, these clocks kept the time, but primarily delighted and entertained their owners. Today, this clock charms visitors to “Keeping Time” and will through October, 2016.

Detail organ clock 77.80.11
Detail, Organ Clock, 1820-1850. T. Hilzinger, retailer. Germany. Gift of Mrs. Willis R. Michael, 77.80.11a-t.

Many thanks to Prof. Eduard C. Saluz, Deutsches Uhrenmuseum, Furtwangen, Germany.

Now On View: Riley Whiting Clock

77.1 Whiting clockThe next time you come to the Scottish Rite Massonic Museum and Library, be sure to take a look at some Masonic furniture from our collection, now on view in the hallway cases. 

One of the items you will see is this tall case clock made by Connecticut craftsman Riley Whiting (1785-1835).  We don’t know who originally owned this clock, but in purchasing a tall clock with wooden works, the owners proved they were smart consumers.  This clock was a less costly version of than the tall case clocks with metal works that had been sold in New England cities and towns for decades.  Always seeking ways to use less metal—an expensive material and sometimes hard to come by—New England artisans had produced clocks with wooden works in the past, one by one, in a shop setting.  In the early 1800s this manner of manufacturing gave way to a more efficient one.

As a young man, Whiting joined his older brothers-in-law, Samuel (1776-1858) and Luther Hoadley (1781-1813), in the clock making business.  They followed in the footsteps of the innovative Connecticut clockmaker Eli Terry (1772-1852) who first started making standard-sized, wooden clock parts in water-powered factories.  Because Whiting and others produced factory-made clocks efficiently and inexpensively, consumers paid less than they had before. These craftsmen reshaped and greatly expanded the market for tall case clocks in the early decades of the 1800s.  This clock, likely bought in the 1820s, was part of the trend.

Merchants and peddlers sold Whiting’s economical clocks throughout New England, New York and into the Midwest.  To keep the costs low and the transportation manageable, peddlers traded these wooden clock works without cases.  If the buyer wanted a case, they could hire a local cabinetmaker to put together a suitable one in a chosen style.  This case was likely painted and embellished along the way.  A penciled note inside the door Whiting face 77.1aplaces this clock in New York in the 1840s.  The case may have been built there as well.

Several of Whiting’s surviving clocks have decoratively painted wooden dials ornamented with Masonic symbols, like the ones you see here.  Whiting, a member of Federal Lodge No. 17 in Watertown, Connecticut, was familiar with Freemasonry’s emblems and offered this style of dial to appeal to Masonic buyers.  Like other clocks Whiting constructed, this clock’s dial also bears painted-on winding holes, aping the look of metal works clocks that users wound with a key.  To run this clock, the owner needed to pull down the weights inside the clock every 30 hours, or about once a day.  It gave many years of service before it entered the museum’s collection in 1977. 


Photo credits:

Tall Case Clock, 1815-1835, Riley Whiting (1785-1835), Winchester, Connecticut, Special Acquisitions Fund, 77.1a-e.  Photo by John M. Miller


Chris H. Bailey, Two Hundred Years of American Clocks and Watches, (Prentice-Hall, Inc.:  Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey,1975), 102-117.

Philip Zea and Robert C. Cheney, Clock Making in New England, 1725-1825(Sturbridge, Massachusetts, Old Sturbridge Village,1992), 121-127.

Carlene E. Stephens, On Time:  How America Has Learned to Live by the Clock (New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 2002), 85-87.

Last Chance to See "For All Time"

Open just through this Sunday, February 21st, the exhibition “For All Time:  Clocks and Watches from the National Heritage Museum” is filled with fascinating stories.

The career of Eugene Fitch (b. 1846) is one.  Originally a dry goods merchant, Eugene Fitch turned to invention in the 1880s.  After applying for patents for a display unit for thread and improvements to the typewriter, in the early 1900s, he sought patents for a clock. 

Plato Clock smaller What was new about his clock?  Rather than showing the time with hands on a numbered dial, Fitch’s “time indicator” used small die-cut celluloid plates to display the hour and minute.   He named it “The Plato Clock,” after the white “plates” that showed the time.

The American clock-manufacturing powerhouse, The Ansonia Clock Company, produced the Plato Clock from at least 1904 to 1906.  Their catalog described it as “the latest in Novelty Clocks.”  Ansonia went on to claim that the little gold clock kept perfect time and sold “on sight.”  In addition to the American-produced models, French and German companies sold copies of Fitch’s design on the continent through 1914.

What happened to Eugene Fitch?  Currently, we don’t know but hope that future research will tell us more about the inventor of the Plato clock and his next big idea.


The Plato Clock, 1904–1907. Eugene L. Fitch (b. 1846), designer. Ansonia Clock Co., manufacturer (1879–1930), Brooklyn, New York.  Gift of Mrs. Willis R. Michael, 85.108.18.  Photograph by David Bohl.


Charles O. Terwilliger, Jr., “Eugene L. Fitch and the Plato Clock,” Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Inc., October 1964, pp. 447-460

Tran Duy Ly, Ansonia Clocks and Watches, Arlington Books, 1998, p. 564

A clock fit for a king

As we have talked about in previous posts this September and October, gifts from Willis R. and Ruth Michael of York, Pennsylvania have greatly enriched the Museum’s clock collectio.  Much of this collection is  on view in, "For All Time:  Clocks and Watches from the National Heritage Museum."


Along with hundreds of historic clocks and watches made for everyday people, Willis Michael collected some extraordinary timepieces—including a clock fit for a king. 


Martinot cropped and lighter Engraved inscriptions on this clock’s face tell that the works were crafted by Henri de Martinot (1646–1725) and a Parisian mathematical instrument maker named Pouilly.  An inscription on the back of the clock notes that Martinot worked at the Louvre—no surprise, since Martinot came from a distinguished and well-connected family of clockmakers.  In fact, Henri succeeded his father as one of the king’s official clockmakers.  When King Louis XIV died, he owned ten or more Martinot clocks. 


There is no evidence to suggest that this clock was part of the royal collection.  However, early clock historian F. J. Britten wrote that elements of the clock’s ornamentation point toward a royal patron for the piece, possibly Louis XIV of France.  Click on the picture here for an expanded version of the image and look closely.  You can see the crown-topped double letter L’s at the base of the columns on the face and a fleur-de-lis motif just above the upper corners of the Boulle work case.  These feature caused Britten to suggest that “the clock was made for Louis XIV, possibly for presentation to some distinguished person.”


Ornamentation aside, this clock has an intriguing mechanism.  The clock not only tracked and displayed hours and minutes but it also called out feast days, eclipses, phases of the moon, months of the year and other information.


Willis Michael in front of the Martinot clock Willis Michael purchased this clock in New York at a sale of material from the Henry P. Strause collection in 1948. This black and white photograph shows Willis Michael discussing the Martinot clock with fellow members of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors at a party at his home in 1949. This picture was likely taken at a dinner for over seventy clock aficionados and their guests the Michaels hosted during Willis Michael’s tenure as national president of the NAWCC.


“For All Time” closes on February 21, so you have just a few weeks to enjoy this and the many other exciting clocks showcased in the exhibition.



Clock, works, 1690-1710, case 1665-1680. Henri de Martinot (1646–1725). Paris, France. Gift of Mrs. Willis R. Michael, 85.108.7a-e. Photograph by David Bohl 


Willis Michael at his home in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, 1949. National Heritage Museum.



I am grateful to Jonathan Snellenburg for his interesting description of this clock at the 2006 symposium organized by the New England Chapter of the NAWCC held at the National Heritage Museum.  This event is described in "National Heritage Museum, Lexington, Massachusetts Symposium Sponsred by Clock & Watch Collectors Honors Willis Michael,"  Jeanne Schinto, Maine Antique Digest, November 2006.


Old Clocks and Watches and Their Makers, F. J. Britten (E. & F. Spon, Limited:  London), 1922, pp. 413, 418-422.


Huygens’ Legacy:  The Golden Age of the Pendulum Clocks,  Hans van den Ende, (Fromanteel Ldt.:  Castle Town, Isle of Man), 2004.

Tempus Fugit

Willard Tall Case Clock cropped Lexington’s own Nathaniel Mulliken (1722–1767) likely trained Benjamin Willard (1743–1803), the maker of this clock--but not for long.  Mulliken died in 1767, only a year or so after Willard is thought to have arrived in Lexington.  Willard lived in Lexington, perhaps off and on, to make clocks with Mulliken’s teenaged son, Nathaniel, until December 1771. 

Analysis of the numbers and locations marked on Benjamin Willard’s surviving clocks—this one is number 80—suggest that he made over 20 clocks per year before colonial tensions with Britain, a weakening market and scarce supplies, particularly metal, disrupted his work.  If you are interested in learning more, see the publication Clock Making in New England cited below.

This clock provided Willard's client with a device that measured hours, minutes, and seconds. But this clock did more than tell the time, it also conveyed a moral lesson. Willard decorated its dial with silver colored disk bearing the engraved image of an fierce bird, possibly an eagle, and the Latin motto "Tempus Fugit," loosely translated as “Time Flies.” Perhaps he and the clock’s owner wanted to remind everyone of the importance of using time well.Willard clock tempus fugit 

Willard’s clock is one of almost 100 exhibited in “For All Time:  Clocks and Watches from the National Heritage Museum,” on view until February 21, 2010. 

Tall Case Clock, 1766–1771. Benjamin Willard (1743–1803), Lexington, Massachusetts. Gift of Robert T. Dann in memory of Dr. James R. and Constance D. Gallagher, 98.028a-g.


Philip Zea and Robert C. Cheney, Clock Making in New England, 1725-1825:  An Intrepretation of the Old Sturbridge Village Collection, Sturbridge, Massachusetts:  Old Sturbridge Village, 1992.

Willis Michael’s Clock Collection

Nailor Michael workshop doc size Many of the clocks on view in the exhibition “For All Time:  Clocks and Watches from the National Heritage Museum” came to the Museum from the collection of  Willis R. and Ruth Michael of York, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Michael’s gift of more than 140 pieces from the collection her husband assembled forms the core of the Museum’s timepiece holdings.

In the face of fast-paced change in the early 1900s, many Americans sought to celebrate past ingenuity and seemingly simpler times by collecting antiques. A similar impulse may have prompted Willis R. Michael (1894-1969), a tool and die maker and entrepreneur, to start his collection of antique American, European and other clocks. Mr. Michael purchased his first one in the late 1930s, a tall case clock crafted in the late 1700s by George Hoff of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  As Michael later described, he soon “got the bug.”  His collection grew to include hundreds of items including clocks, watches, automata, clockmaking tools and both antique and modern books about horology.   Drawing on his skills as a machinist, Michael learned how to repair, clean, and ultimately, make clocks.

The Michaels displayed clocks in every room of their home.  They also built an extensive display area to help share these treasures with others.  The photo of the Michael’s clock display area was likely taken at a dinner they hosted during Willis Michael’s tenure (1949-1951) as president of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.Visitors to the Willis Michael clock room 1949

A few years after Mr. Michael died in 1969, Mrs. Michael began making a series of gifts from her husband’s collection to the Museum, then newly founded by the Scottish Rite Masons of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. Many years before, in 1924, Michael had joined his local Masonic lodge.  From then until his death, he was an active member in both the York and Scottish Rites.  He received the 33° in Boston in 1942.  Mrs. Michael likely gave many clocks from Willis Michael’s collection to the Museum in honor of her husband’s lifelong involvement in Masonry.

The Museum’s collection is much richer for the Michaels’ enthusiasm and generosity.

Willis Michael in his Workshop, 1940s or 1950s. Red Lion, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Michael Nailor.

Willis Michael’s “Clock and Watch Museum.” Red Lion, Pennsylvania, 1949. Photograph by Henry M. Blatner. National Heritage Museum.