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Contrary to popular belief, cuckoo clocks were never made in Switzerland - nearly all came from the Black Forest region of Germany.
Around 1730, Anton Ketterer of Schöwald invented the first 'cuckoo' clock, which originally resembled all the other types of Black Forest wall clock. It was only in about 1870 that the clocks assumed the form which is so familiar today.
The feature of the clock is that the hours and half hours are struck on a wire gong, and a door at the top of the case opens, a wooden (or more recently plastic) model of a cuckoo emerges, and a sound similar to the call of the bird is made by two organ pipes. It seems traditional that the cuckoo is never considered capable of counting the number of hours on his own, but has to be assisted by the number being struck on a gong.
The early clocks were made by local farmers who used their woodworking skills to augment their income during the hard winter months. Originally the movements were of wood, apart from the lantern pinions, and a considerable amount of wire. Later brass wheels were introduced, but even these were mounted on wooden arbors set in wooden plates - this style persisted until around 1900. A typical cuckoo clock is wall hanging, with a weight driven movement. The weights are often cast in the form of pine or fir cones hanging from thin chains, and the case is embellished with many ornate wooden carvings. Hands of these early clocks are usually carved from bone, although modern replacements are of white plastic mouldings.
Although most cuckoo clocks are of this style, there are many variations - some have a quail (sounding the quarters) as well as the cuckoo, and others have a trumpeter which sounds and appears instead of the cuckoo. A very few clocks are in bracket cases rather than wall hanging.
The cuckoo clocks produced after the change over to factory production were mostly weight driven, but a number of spring driven examples were made, some with brass movements. On some of the more expensive clocks, the carving could get completely out of hand, featuring nests with birds, stags with spreading antlers, and various types of birds and foliage. Clocks with wooden plates, fitted with brass bushes, were being produced as late as 1920.
Cuckoo clocks are still being produced in some quantity, and repair material for the earlier clocks is widely available.
Further reading: E. J. Tyler, European Clocks, Ward Lock 1968, ISBN 7063 1012 8
Note: Due to the dynamic nature of the addition of Trade Directories to our library, these results may show additional dates to the text above.
Pictures of 2 more unusual cuckoo clocks
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This web site, run by Rosemary Harrison-Smith with the help of Tony Harrison-Smith FBHI, was started in 1997 and it holds information that we have found about various clock and watchmakers, and so far has 35,758 records in its database. The information comes from listings published in books and trade directories that we have in our library, giving dates that makers are known to have been working. At the moment, the database includes 31,947 individual trade directory entries from 363 trade directories and more detailed biographies for 4275 makers and retailers.
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