Did you ever know that two historic clockmakers were born and worked in Wrentham back in the 1700-1800s? Read on to learn more!
Clocks have been a part of our lives for centuries, from the times when the sun was the only method we used to keep track of time to today’s era when atomic clocks and the widespread use of digital processing allow us to be always connected with clocks that never show the wrong time. But think back to the “old days” – back to when Wrentham was founded and no one had an Apple watch.
Devices operating on several physical processes have been used over the millennia, but the most commonly recognized form of “antique clock” is typically referred to as a grandfather clock. Known among collectors as "tall case clocks" or "tall clocks," these early American antique clocks range in size but are normally around eight feet tall. Considered a luxury item at their time of manufacture, antique grandfather clocks feature cases which are often constructed of vibrant, high-quality hardwoods and can feature elaborate inlays, carving and paint decorations.
The American antique grandfather clock was produced in all of the original states and appears with great regional variety. The form began to dwindle in popularity by the 1830s and was replaced by less-expensive manufactured examples. Despite their age, a properly maintained antique grandfather clock keeps surprisingly good time.
Wooden clocks were produced across New England and Ohio by an extensive and complex network of clockmakers and allied craftsmen working from 1712-1835. According to American Wooden Movement Tall Clocks: 1712-1835, “Clockmaking was well-established in 18th century Massachusetts, and a wide variety of clocks were produced there. Finely made brass tall, wall and shelf clocks were readily available in Boston… and in many of the smaller towns. Wooden tall clocks were also available from a surprisingly large number of clockmakers working in the state. These wooden clocks were a more affordable alternative to expensive brass clocks, and the large number of clockmakers engaged in their manufacture suggests there was a ready market for them. For the most part, these wooden clockmakers worked independently and do not appear to have shared shop practices.”
Which brings us to the Perrigo Family of Wrentham: two clockmakers from Wrentham! Given that the father and son both shared the first name, James, some confusion can be found with sourcing of their clocks. But for the benefit of our readers, we researched and talked with various sources to present reliable information on these innovative clock designers / makers who were descendant of French Huguenots.
James Perrigo Sr., was born in Norfolk County, Massachusetts in 1737 and died in Wrentham-Norfolk in 1808 at the age of 71. He may have been Massachusetts’ earliest clockmaker of wooden-geared clocks, and it is thought that he may have been at work as early as the late 1750s.
James Perrigo Jr., was born in Norfolk County in 1771 and died in Wrentham-Norfolk on June 6, 1834, at the age of 63. As a second-generation clockmaker, his clocks are sometimes confused with those made by his father, James Sr. James Jr's clocks seem to more resemble the style of the Boston or Roxbury Makers such as the Willard's.
James Perrigo Sr.
As mentioned earlier, James Perrigo Sr. was born here in 1737 and died in the early 1800s. Some believe he was Massachusetts’ earliest clockmaker of wooden-geared clocks, and it is thought that he may have been at work as early as the late 1750s.
According to Delaney Antique Clocks located in West Townsend, MA (www.delaneyantiqueclocks.com): “Wooden geared clocks are traditionally formatted as a 30-hour design. This example of a clock by James Perrigo Sr. shows that it is constructed in wood having large oak plates that are joined together with six turned and tapered wooden posts (see photos above and next page). The pendulum is actually supported by a post, centrally located at the top of the movement. The strike train is actuated by the large count wheel that is mounted on the backplate. The lifting arm is mounted on the front plate. This clock will strike each hour on a cast iron bell that is mounted above the movement on a stand. Note the size and shaping of the robust gearing. Enthusiasts like to compare the size and shape to the standard 30-hour wooden geared clock movements made some 60 years later in Connecticut…. This movement is powered by weights that hang from ropes. These are set up as a direct drive. lt is a two-train design. This clock is also fitted with a simple calendar. The arched dial is wonderfully constructed. A thin brass sheet is applied or tacked to a thick wooden pine board for support. The center area, the area within the time ring, is matted or textured. Here, one will also find a small square opening that displays the calendar day.”
The website continues, “The time ring, name boss, and decorative spandrels are applied to the brass sheet. The spandrels are cast from pewter, and remnants of the original gilding are present. The time ring features Roman-style hour numerals, Arabic-style five-minute markers and a closed minute ring. The time is displayed by the two country style hands.
"This cherry case exhibits classic Queen Anne style moldings and excellent narrow proportions. This case is supported on an applied molding that rests flat to the floor. The base section is somewhat compressed by today's standards. The moldings that transition the base to the waist and the waist to the hood are robust and nicely shaped. The waist section is fitted with a long tombstone shaped waist door. This door is trimmed with a simple molded edge. A lenticle is positioned in this door at the height of the pendulum bob. This allows one to view the motion of the pendulum bob when the clock is operating. The bonnet features a flat top cornice. The moldings are excellent. The bonnet door features an arched opening that is fitted with glass in order to protect the dial. Fully turned bonnet columns are applied to the door. This clock was made circa 1758. The overall height is 89 inches tall.”
Photographs from Phillip E. Morris Jr.’s American Wooden Movement Tall Clocks: 1712-1835 feature several James Perrigo Sr. clocks, one of which is detailed earlier.
James Perrigo Jr.
A good example of James Perrigo Jr.’s clockmaking includes this antique Chippendale cherry tall case clock, which has a “mellow old surface”. This antique tall clock “exhibits both pleasing proportions and refined details and is clearly a successful interpretation of an early Roxbury case clock, by this provincial maker.”
Antique dealer Gary Sullivan’s online catalog continues, “This dial features a wonderfully painted lunette decorated with a detailed song bird on a foliate bough, within a gilt scrolled border. The four corner spandrels, which frame the dial face, feature polychrome floral sprays. The dial is boldly signed with the clock maker’s name and locale below the calendar: ‘James Perrigo. Junr. / Wrentham’.
“The hood transitions into the waist of the case with a flared throat molding. The waist is fitted with a tombstone-form pendulum door, that is flanked by champhered corners with lamb’s-tongue terminations. This hinged door is fitted with a lock and brass keyhole escutcheon and opens to the original brass capped pendulum and tin can weights. Similarly, the waist transitions to the rectangular base with a flared molding. The base panel has a richly grained cherry panel and rests on bracket feet.”
This clock was recently sold by antique clock dealer and early American furniture expert Gary R. Sullivan, who conducts an online antique sales operation via the website: www.garysullivanantiques.com.
Mr. Sullivan’s inventory page indicated another clock by Perrigo Jr. was recently sold. This one was a rare and early cherry Roxbury case antique tall clock. This cherry Roxbury case antique tall clock is a successful provincial interpretation of an early Roxbury form with handsome proportions and an early bracket foot. The dial, which was manufactured and painted in Boston, features a foliate and floral decorated lunette and floral blossoms in each spandrel. The dial is signed below the center arbor "J. Perrigo". According to the Mr. Sullivan’s website [www.garysullivanantiques.com], the clock is “in a wonderful state of originality with a pleasing old patina.”
According to American Wooden Movement Tall Clocks: 1712-1835, “James Perrigo Jr. Born 2 June 1771, died June 6, 1834. Son of clockmaker James Perrigo Sr. and Elisabeth (Pettee). During 1800, he advertised: ‘James Perrigo, Jun. – The Subscriber takes this method to inform his friends, and the public in general, that he has lately hired a Journeyman Watch-Maker, one who was regularly bred at the business, and he offers this service to the public, for watch repairing, and he will venter [sic] to assure those who shall favor him with their patronage, that their work shall be done in the neatest manner, and much cheaper than in Boston. ‘Clock-work carried on as usual’ (Columbian Minerva, January 16, 1800).”
The Morris book continues, “Although better known as a brass clockmaker, a wooden clock in a tiger maple case with a paper-on-wood dial signed, ‘James Perrigo, Junr. / wrentham’ has been identified. The thirty-hour rope pull-up movement is similar to those produced by the Cheneys [of Connecticut]. The dial indicates seconds and also has a calendar aperture below the center shaft.” See next photos; the tiger maple cased clock is on the left.
Photographs from Phillip E. Morris Jr.’s American Wooden Movement Tall Clocks: 1712-1835 feature several James Perrigo Jr. clocks.
Where to Find a Perrigo Clock in 2023
The Dedham Museum and Archive (formerly known as the Dedham Historical Society and Museum and the Dedham Historical Society), is an historical society dedicated to preserve and establish a greater sense of appreciation for the history of Dedham. The Society's collections include Dedham Pottery, Katharine Pratt silver, paintings, photographs, pre-Columbian stone tools, local and Civil War artifacts, and a historical and genealogical library. It also owns the smallest bell known to have been made by Paul Revere; the bell, which dates from 1796 and cost $888, once hung in the Norfolk County Courthouse and announced the start of court sessions. It was given to the Society in 1894 by the County Commissioners.
The Society’s museum also has antique furniture including the Metcalf Chair, the oldest piece of American furniture, and one of only two known “astronomical shelf clocks” by Simon Willard.
But of most interest to Wrenthamites is the Perrigo wooden clock they have in their museum. This Federal style clock descended in the Baker family until it was gifted to the Historical Society in 1943 by Frederic Ames Baker in memory of his father Wendell Baker.
Compiled by Paula Kowalewski Sullivan with the help of Wrentham resident John Tosy, along with numerous sources including Massachusetts-based Gary R. Sullivan Antiques, Inc., Delaney Antique Clocks out of West Townsend, MA; Boston-based Grogan & Company; Wikipedia and numerous websites. An invaluable source of additional info is the book, American Wooden Movement Tall Clocks: 1712-1835, authored and published in 2011 by Philip E. Morris Jr., a widely recognized authority on wooden tall clocks. Delaney’s photos are courtesy of Paul J. Foley.