A legacy of time
By Kerigan Butt
Isaac Jackson's name appears on the face of this clock at the Chester County Historical Society.
By John Chambless
With every muffled tick of their handmade gears, the clocks made by Isaac Jackson are keeping his name alive.
Jackson, who was born in 1734 near West Grove, created an unknown number of clocks, of which about 27 have survived the centuries and are still quietly marking time. Local historian Margaret Jones has two of Jackson's clocks in her extended family which remain right here, in the same county where they were carefully constructed during the years when the American Revolution was creating our nation.
Jones wrote about Jackson's clocks in a story that appears on the website of the New Garden Historical Commission. She was inspired to research Jackson because she lives on a farm that was part of his original 200-acre property near the intersection of Route 41 and New Garden Road. The large white home that sits on East New Garden Road is where Jackson lived for more than 40 years.
Jackson's father and grandfather were weavers as well as farmers. In those days, winter months were spent pursuing some indoor trade that would earn income when farming wasn't possible. As a teen, Jackson was apprenticed to clockmaker John Wood, Sr., of Philadelphia. He then worked with Quaker clockmaker Benjamin Chandlee, Jr., of Nottingham. He worked in Chandlee's shop for a few years and returned to his family's farm, where he made clocks until 1762. In that year, Jackson's father, William Jackson of London Grove, purchased a 200-acre farm in New Garden Township.
According to Jones, Jackson was probably more of a clockmaker than a farmer. His skills made him a renowned artisan. He built the walnut cases for his tall clocks as well. They are usually simple, reflecting both Jackson's training under a Quaker clockmaker and his own Quaker beliefs.
“Some clockmakers were cabinet makers, some not,” Jones said in an August interview. “In Jackson's case, he constructed both, and most likely worked in an upstairs room with a fireplace where he could heat metal for parts. There was a corner fireplace in each upstairs room in his house. The large number of clocks which Jackson produced is probably due to the fact that he had a club foot and could not farm as actively.”
In Jackson's day, a tall clock cost about $7.50, making them a luxury item that few families could afford. They were highly valued and carefully passed down through generations of a family, but the plainer style went out of fashion in the late 1800s and many clocks were eventually sold or discarded. House fires were common and claimed many wooden clocks as well.
Philadelphia was the home of about 100 of the best clockmakers in the young nation, and some authorities regard Jackson as Chester County's best clockmaker. Jones enjoys the fact that her extended family has kept two of his clocks so close to his home.
Three of Jackson's surviving clocks were designed with only one hand to show the hour, not the minutes, with 30-hour movements that needed to be wound every day. In families where the clock was often the most valuable possession, that kind of daily attention shows how important these clocks were.
Jackson was proud of his work, and signed the faces of his clocks in various ways, depending on how much space he had to work with. Some are marked “Isaac Jackson, New Garden,” but also “Isc Jackson” and “New Gar.”
The Chester County Historical Society in West Chester has a world-class collection of early clocks, and one by Jackson is on permanent display. Made in around 1775, it has a unique scrolled top that's fancier than his usual clocks. The face is inscribed with a quote from Proverbs: “In ye fear of ye Loard is Strong Confidence, & his Children shall have a place of Refuge.”
Jackson's clocks are much admired by collectors. One example of a tall clock made by him surfaced on an episode of “Antiques Roadshow” taped in 2009 in Denver, Colo. It was brought in by a man who said it had belonged to his grandfather, who paid $18 for it in 1909. Appraiser Gary Sullivan dated the clock to around 1760, noting that, “one of the things that indicates how early it is is the fact that it only has a single hand here, no minute hand, so you have to guess at what the time is, which makes telling time a little difficult.
“When this was made, very few people had a clock of any kind,” Sullivan continued. “They learned the time from the clock in the church steeple. Time was not as important a commodity in those days, so they didn't need to know the minute like we do today.” Sullivan valued the clock at around $7,500.
Aside from his clocks, Jones said, “the only other Jackson artifact of which I am aware is his snuff box. I do not think Jackson made furniture other than his clocks. If he had a ready market for his clocks, he would have had no reason to make other furniture.”
Jackson died in 1807 and left his home and 105 acres to his daughter and her husband. They enlarged the house to its present size and opened the New Garden Boarding School for Boys in the home.
Perhaps due to his Quaker beliefs in humbleness and simplicity, there is no known portrait of Jackson. Only his elegant clocks remain to mark his legacy.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail email@example.com.