Difference Between a Grandfather & Grandmother Clock

Long clocks share a common history but are known by various familial names. The most well known is, of course, the grandfather clock, but you may also hear about grandmother and even granddaughter clocks. While there are no hard-and-fast rules separating one type from another, there are some generally perceived contrasts that can help you tell the difference between each of these styles.

Hands of time
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Difference Between a Grandfather & Grandmother Clock

History of the Longcase Clock

Tall, freestanding and with a swinging pendulum driven by weights, the longcase clock can be anywhere from three to eight feet tall. The pendulum is generally held within the body of the case. The clock is often decoratively carved to add to the clock's value and aesthetic appeal.

After Galileo's 1582 discovery of the utility of pendulums to keep time, Christiaan Huygens incorporated that discovery into the first clock. But it's the English horologist (or clockmaker) William Clement who first lengthened the pendulum to three feet, thus inventing the first longcase clock.

Up until the early 1900s, pendulum clockworks offered the most accurate timekeeping in the world. Longcase clocks were prized for their superior precision and thus were the highly valued standard for both home and business use.

The grandfather clock is rumored to have been named by American songwriter Henry Clay Work. While traveling in England in 1875, Work noticed a longcase clock in his hotel had stopped. Inquiring about the clock, Work learned that when the last of the two hotel managers had passed away, the clock stopped. Work then composed the tune "My Grandfather's Clock," giving the longcase clock its new name.

Today, longcase clocks are generally valued more for their historical and aesthetic worth, since we have more accurate timekeeping technology on mobile devices.

Parts of a Longcase Clock

A longcase clock generally carries a long, slender, rectangular profile. The clock rests on "feet" or a carved base called a plinth, which sits on the floor. The long case is supported by the plinth and holds the pendulum, chain and weights.

Above the case is the housing for clock works and the face or dial. This includes the visible part of the dial, together with minute and hour hands and optionally a moon dial above the clock face. The moon dial rotates every 29.5 days to mark the lunar cycle.

Finally, topping off the entire body of the clock is a pediment, which is generally intricately carved in a decorative way. There may also be a swans neck and finial as part of the pediment.

How the Longcase Clock Works

The defining characteristic of longcase clocks, especially grandfather clocks, is the swinging pendulum movement, which is what determines the accuracy of the clock's ability to keep time.

Together with the hanging weights, the pendulum is critical to the clock's movement. Your longcase clock typically includes three weights, each of which carries a separate function – for example, the timekeeping mechanism, the hour strike and the chime. Each of the weights must, therefore, be hung properly from the escapement, or clock works, by a cable or chain. Every seven days, the weights must be cranked to a higher position in order to continue the clock's accuracy.

A series of hammers hit rods of different lengths inside the clock to produce the longcase clock's trademark quarter-hour and hour strike chimes.

Grandfather Versus Grandmother Clocks

Grandfather clocks are the tallest of the three styles of longcase clock. Generally agreed to measure at least 6 feet 3 inches in height, the grandfather clock's long case features a pendulum movement.

A grandmother clock is shorter than a grandfather clock, so it generally measures less than 6 feet 3 inches in height. With a slimmer case and shorter stature, the grandmother clock takes up less space in a room, making it an excellent choice for small rooms, halls, foyers and staircase landings.

Granddaughter Clocks

Yet a third type of longcase clock is available. Called the granddaughter clock, this style generally measures between three and five feet. This style is a relatively recent development, with most examples originating after 1930.

Generally, the granddaughter clock isn't carved of one solid piece of wood. Rather, they tend to be plywood based, with a veneer of oak, walnut or mahogany.

Many feature silver electroplated dials and painted numbers instead of an engraved face. They may also be distinguished by more delicate decorative features.