The AHS Blog

Journal Volume 35 Issue 1

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Of mice and clocks

This post was written by Peter de Clercq

In his most recent blog, Oliver Cooke discussed watches and clocks without hands as indicators.

Another example is the Mouse Clock, in which a mouse making its way up against a wooden board serves as time indicator. Its designer was inspired by the well-known nursery rhyme:

Hickere, Dickere Dock

A Mouse ran up the Clock,

The Clock Struck One,

The Mouse fell down,

And Hickere Dickere Dock.

The rhyme comes in various versions; this is the oldest, published in 1744 in Tommy Thumb’s_Pretty_Song_Book.

Could it be based on a real event: a mouse hiding inside a longcase clock, panicking when it struck?

In the literature I find only other explanations. One authority suggests it may be an onomatoplasm – an attempt to capture, in words, a sound; in this case, the sound of a ticking clock. Another relates it to the shepherds of Westmorland who once used ‘Hevera’ for ‘eight’, ‘Devera’ for ‘nine’ and ‘Dick’ for ‘ten’ when counting their flock.

The mouse ran up the clock (Woodcut from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, 1744)
The mouse ran up the clock (Woodcut from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, 1744)
The mouse ran up the clock (woodcut from unidentified publication, probably 18th-century)
The clock struck one, the mouse fell down (woodcut from unidentified publication, probably 18th-century)

Be that as it may, just over a century ago it inspired an American businessman, who was also an avid clock collector, named Elmer Ellsworth Dungan, to develop the Mouse Clock.

He initially just created one for his daughter, who loved the nursery rhyme, but then decided to take them into production. He took out patents and various models were manufactured.

They are nowadays prized by novelty clock collectors, so much so that we are warned to beware of reproductions, especially for what one dealer calls ‘Chinese knockoffs’.

First model of the Mouse clock, 1909 (Photo courtesy Antique Clock Guy)
First model of the Mouse clock, 1909 (Photo courtesy Antique Clock Guy)
A later model of the Mouse clock. Photo Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand
A later model of the Mouse clock. Photo Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand
A modern Chinese reproduction version of the Mouse clock (photo courtesy Antique Clock Guy)
A modern Chinese reproduction version of the Mouse clock (photo courtesy Antique Clock Guy)

Details, including several images of the mechanism, and a link to an animated photo of the clock in operation, can be found on these American websites: Antique Clock Guy and Fontaine’s Auction Gallery.

In 1966 the NAWCC published a booklet by Charles Terwilliger, Elmer Ellsworth Dungan and the Dickory, Dickory Dock Clock; there is a copy in the AHS Library at the Guildhall.

And speaking of mice and clocks, how about having some fun with the (grand)children with this on-line clock reading game. Read the time correctly and the mouse runs up safely to the cheese in the clock. Read it wrong and the cat gets the mouse.

Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand started with the private collection of  Archibald Clapham (1882–1963), whose sense of humour and his love for the unexpected or quirky is reflected in the type of clocks he collected. Not surprisingly, these included a Mouse clock (Photo courtesey Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand)
Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand started with the private collection of Archibald Clapham (1882–1963), whose sense of humour and his love for the unexpected or quirky is reflected in the type of clocks he collected. Not surprisingly, these included a Mouse clock (Photo courtesey Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand)

Stopping the clock after death

This post was written by Peter de Clercq

In a previous post I included an opera scene, in which a woman mentions (sings!) that at times she stops all the clocks in her house. She dreads getting old and wants time to stand still.

One reader told me this reminded him of a poem by W.A. Auden which begins:

'Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.

'Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

'Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

'Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.'

But here the motive for stopping the clocks is different. Someone has died, and stopping the clocks in the house of the deceased, silencing them, is an old tradition, similar to closing the blinds or curtains and covering the mirrors. The clock would be set going again after the funeral.

Some people believe stopping the clock was to mark the exact time the loved one had died. The subject was discussed here by members of the NAWCC, the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors in America.

The French film Jean de Florette, set in the Provence between the wars, contains such a clock-stopping scene. The film is made after a novel by Marcel Pagnol, from which the following quotes are taken.

Clock in background
Clock in background

Jean, an outsider, inherits a house with surrounding land and hopes to make a living there. But two locals, who covet his land, secretly block a source, cutting off his vital water supply.

In despair, Jean uses dynamite to create a well, but he dies as a result of the explosion (chapter 37). The doctor, taking his pulse, 'listened for a long time in a profound silence emphasized by the ticking of the grandfather clock', but the man had died.

Then one of the two devious locals, who was in the room, 'crossed himself, walked around the funeral table on tiptoe, and stopped the pendulum of the grandfather clock with the tip of his finger'.

He then tells his comrade in arms 'Papet, I have just stopped the grandfather clock in Monsieur Jean’s house' – a way of saying: he is dead.

Stopping the clock
Stopping the clock

The three stills reproduced here are from that scene, which you can see in this short clip.

The clock is a typical Comtoise grandfather clock with a big flower pendulum.

"I just stopped the clock"
“I just stopped the clock”
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