Why Do They Call Them Grandfather Clocks?

Who decided to call them grandfather clocks and what is the story behind this? We’ll look at the fascinating history of grandfather clocks and how they got this name, and we’ll learn more about other types of related clocks (such as grandmother clocks).

Grandfather clocks got their name from a song written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work, called “Grandfather’s Clock”. The grandfather clock is also called a longcase clock. The longcase clock was invented to support the heavy lead weights of pendulum clocks.

The story behind the song is a fascinating one which we will explore in this article. Also, did you know that a grandfather is a particular style and size? We will also discuss the common features of a grandfather clock as well as common features of grandmother and granddaughter clocks so that you can identify them in your quest for antique clocks to add to your collection.

Antique Mahogany Grandfather Tall Case Clock by J.E. Caldwell #21365
Antique Mahogany Grandfather Tall Case Clock by J.E. Caldwell #21365 – $1,850 from MaineAntiqueFurnitur on Etsy

The Story of the Song, “Grandfather’s Clock”:

Henry Clay Work was a famous American songwriter and wrote other classic songs such as “Marching Through Georgia” and “Wreck of the Old 97” (Source).

In 1876, Work wrote the song “Grandfather’s Clock”. Let’s begin with a brief history of the story behind the song, which is a retelling of a story that Work was told while visiting The George Hotel in Columbia, California.

A longcase clock stood in the lobby of the hotel and was its centerpiece (this clock is still in the hotel today). The story involved the two brothers’ Jenkins, managers of the George Hotel, who liked to brag that this clock never lost time. When one of the brothers died, the clock began to lose fifteen minutes each day. No one could seem to be able to repair the clock and restore its perfect timing.

When the second Jenkins brother died at 90, it was said that the clock stopped completely the day he died. There was never an attempt to repair the clock after this and as of this day, the hands are still placed in the position of the time of death of the second Jenkins brother (Source).

Work decided to imagine the story being told from the perspective of his own grandfather, and thus the song “Grandfather’s Clock” was born. Below are lyrics to the first verse:  

(Verse 1)

My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf,

So it stood ninety years on the floor;

It was taller by half than the old man himself,

Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.

It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,

And was always his treasure and pride;

But it stopp’d short — never to go again —

When the old man died.


Ninety years without slumbering

(tick, tick, tick, tick),

His life seconds numbering,

(tick, tick, tick, tick),

It stopp’d short — never to go again —

When the old man died.


Work published a sequel to the song in which the grandfather clock was sold to a junk dealer who parted out the components. The clock in the grandfather’s house was replaced with a wall clock that the grandson disliked. Sadly, the sequel wasn’t nearly as popular as the original song (Source).

Where Did Grandfather Clocks Originate?

Dutchman Christian Huygens was the first person to use a pendulum in clocks in 1656, creating the grandfather clock (Source). Other names for a grandfather clock that were in use before the popular song were longcase, tall-case, or floor clock (Source).

These early clocks were not great at keeping time accurately. Finally, in 1670, the anchor escapement mechanism was developed by Robert Hooke around 1658 which allowed for more accurate timekeeping when used with the pendulum.

Over the years, these types of clocks featured different movement mechanisms, such as eight-day and one-day (or 30-hour) movements. Eight-day clocks only needed to be wound once per week while the 30-hour clocks needed to be wound once per day. During the early part of the 20th century, some grandfather clocks were created with elaborate chime sequences (Source).

Grandfather clocks are typically 6 feet 3 inches tall (or 190.5 cm) Most grandfather clocks are made of oak or mahogany and can feature elaborate dials or dials with more simple designs. The most common types of wood found in longcase clocks are oak, black walnut, maple, cherry, ash, beech, mahogany, and sycamore (Source). Common dial designs are fruits such as strawberries and depictions of the sun, moon, or sea and ocean scenes. Another common theme was a biblical scene.

How Big is a Grandfather Clock?

Lesser known are the grandmother clock and granddaughter clock, both “relatives” of the grandfather clock. The grandfather, grandmother, and granddaughter clock are the three types of longcase clocks (Source). 

The most accurate way to tell the difference between the three is to notice the difference in height: grandfather clocks are the tallest, grandmother clocks are slightly shorter, and granddaughter clocks are the shortest floor clock. All of these clocks also have differences in width.

Grandfather clocks must be a minimum of 6 feet tall and “have a hood, pendulum, and dial”, though they are typically found to be 6 foot 3 inches tall (Source). 

Grandmother clocks can be 5 feet to 6 feet tall and they are typically not as wide in appearance. They also feature a hood and pendulum. Most were produced in the early 1920’s to 1930’s to fit into smaller homes. Grandmother clocks have 8-day mechanical movements. For more on Grandmother Clocks, click here.

Granddaughter clocks range from 2 feet to 5 feet and are smaller than the grandmother clock in width. Most are created from cheaper materials such as plywood and veneer, making them a more affordable option. These are considered modern floor clocks. They were developed during the 1930’s for those who desired an even smaller floor clock to fit in their home.

Granddaughter clocks also feature the same components as the grandfather and grandmother clock: a hood, pendulum, and dial. Chances are that if you spot a newer floor clock in your search, it will be either a grandmother or granddaughter clock.


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