When he was 12 years old, sometime around 1809, Chauncey Jerome overheard two old men ridiculing clockmaker Eli Terry. Terry had started to make 200 clocks. One old man said Terry would never live to finish them. The other said if he did live, he couldn’t possibly sell so many.
Chauncey Jerome went to work for Eli Terry, and later started his own clockmaking business that sold 200,000 clocks a year.
He was a better inventor than a businessman, and he went from rags to riches back to rags. But along the way, he provided jobs for thousands of people in New England making beautiful, inexpensive clocks.
In his 1860 autobiography, History of the American Clock Business for the Past Sixty Years, Jerome summarized his achievements. The clockmaking business, he wrote, “has grown from almost nothing to its present dimensions within the last thirty years, and is confined to one of the smallest States in the Union.”
The business, he wrote, “gives employment to thousands of men, occupying some of the largest factories of New England.”
The key to his success: he replaced wooden works with metal.
Chauncey Jerome was born in Canaan, Conn., on June 10, 1793, to Sarah Noble and Lyman Jerome, a blacksmith, farmer and nailmaker. His father died when he was 11. “The day of his death was a sad one for me, for I knew that I should lose my happy home, and be obliged to leave it to seek work for my support,” he wrote. He left home to work on a farm, and burst into tears when he was alone in the fields because he missed his father and family.
At 14, he was apprenticed to a house carpenter in Torringford, Conn., closer to his mother who lived near Plymouth, Conn. He decided to visit her, and left in the evening so he wouldn’t miss work. He soon regretted it: It was a 20-mile journey, partly through the woods. “I was not the boy to back out,” he wrote.
He served in the army during the War of 1812, married, had a child and went to work for Eli Terry in Plymouth, doing the job he’d dreamed of: making clocks. Terry was the first person to make clocks by machine. He used a water-powered circular saw in his shop, something never seen before in the town.
In 1822 Chauncey Jerome set up shop in Bristol. There he invented the Bronze Looking Glass clock, a tall shelf clock with bronze-looking pillars and stenciling that cost $1 less to make and sold for $2 more.
The Bronze Looking Glass Clock sold so well it brought Bristol a new church in 1831. Chauncey Jerome and his partners paid a third of the church’s cost, and he raised the rest of the money.
Eventually, he outsold every clockmaker in Connecticut. An eight-day clock with a brass movement rather than wood had put the company on the map. Jerome had figured out how to stamp out metal parts from sheet brass.
Across the Sea, In Every Dell
By 1842 he decided to sell his clocks in England. American clocks hadn’t sold well overseas because their wooden movements warped during shipping across the sea. Jerome sent a shipment of one-day clocks to England with two salesmen, who couldn’t persuade anyone to buy the clocks. Finally they prevailed on a storekeeper to take two. The next day, they were gone. The merchant grudgingly agreed to take four more. They too were gone in a day. He ordered 12, then 200, and Chauncey Jerome was in the export business.
Chauncey Jerome sold millions of clocks around the world. A sea captain told him he’d seen one in a house on lonely St. Helena. A missionary brought one to the Sandwich Islands. And travelers to Egypt and Jerusalem reported Chauncey Jerome clock sightings to him.
As late as the 1940s, an English traveler remarked, “In Kentucky, in Indiana, in Illinois, in Missouri, and here in every dell in Arkansas, and in cabins where there was not a chair to sit on, there was sure to be a Connecticut clock.”
In 1844 he opened a factory in New Haven, where he intended to make clock cases. On April 23, 1845, two boys playing with matches behind one of his Bristol factories set it on fire. The fire destroyed seven or eight of his buildings and all of his clockmaking machinery. The insurance only covered a small part of his loss. So he moved his operations to New Haven, and merged with Benedict & Burnham and became known as the New Haven Clock Co.
By 1850, the company was selling hundreds of thousands of clocks every year. Those were heady days for the clockmaker: He was elected mayor of New Haven in 1854. Things went downhill rapidly from there.
Mistakes Were Made
Mistakes were made that cost him his business in 1855. What actually happened and who is at fault is a tangled story, but a merger of his company with a troubled clock company controlled by P.T. Barnum ruined him financially. In his biography, Jerome says he didn’t know about the deal, indicating his son, the company’s secretary, made the mistake. .
Jerome’s nephew, Hiram Camp, took over the company.
Chauncey Jerome was 63 years old and hopelessly ruined. He didn’t have enough savings to support his family for a year. He moved from the beautiful mansion he loved to a rented house in Waterbury next to a new church with a tall steeple. During a snowstorm in January 1856, the steeple toppled over and crashed through his bedroom. He was lucky to survive.
Jerome went to work for wages, in Waterbury, then in Ansonia, Conn., and then near Chicago. He died penniless on April 20, 1868, at 74.
In his autobiography, he wrote,
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 satisfaction of knowing that I have lived the life of an honest man, and have been of some use to my fellow men.
This story updated in 2022.
Images: Clock By JVGJ – Photo taken by JVGJ, personal acquaintance of User:Bunchofgrapes, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=826325.