MUNDANE MYSTERIES: What Makes A Clock A “Grandfather Clock”?

What exactly makes a majestically tall clock a “grandfather clock”? No, it has nothing to do with the only people who seem to have them these days (though it’s understandable why someone might think that).

Grandfather clocks are technically called “longcase clocks”, with their tall wooden cases, long swinging pendulums, ornate roman numerals, musically echoing chimes. They seem to belong in a world of courting parlors, model A Fords, and silent movies…basically, the world of our grandparents. But how they really got their geriatric nickname actually has nothing to do with grandparents.

When American songwriter named Henry Clay Work visited England back in 1875, he checked into the George Hotel in North Yorkshire. The hotel’s lobby had a large pendulum clock that no longer worked, and just sat in the lobby collecting dust. It piqued Work’s interest, so he asked the staff about the clock’s history. He was told that it had belonged to two, by then deceased, brothers who’d been the inn’s former owners. The clock had reportedly kept perfect time during the brothers’ lives, but when the first brother died, the clock stopped working. After having been repaired, however, the clock ultimately broke down & completely stopped working, allegedly, on the very day & at the very moment that the second brother died. And the clock stayed that way, even after multiple attempts to fix it.

Mr. Work loved that story, so he wrote a song about it entitled, “My Grandfather’s Clock.” And, while it may not have been Garth Brooks-caliber songwriting, the public went crazy over the song, ultimately selling over a million copies of the sheet music. From that point on, the public almost immediately stopped calling them “longcase clocks”, and instead began referring to the tall timepieces as “grandfather clocks”.

Fascinatingly, Henry Clay Work’s song lives on, having been recorded multiple times across the 20th century, including by Johnny Cash in 1959 & even as recently as 2004 by R&B/Soul group Boyz II Men. Yet, while the song lives on, clock-lovers worry that old pendulum-swinging grandfather clocks may not be long for our modern, digital timekeeping world. But…for now, at least…just like the song, the grandfather clock keeps on ticking.

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at [email protected].

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