REVIEW: Fennimore & Hohmann: Stretch - America's First Clockmaking Family

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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

NAWCC Star Fellow
NAWCC Fellow
NAWCC Life Member
Sep 23, 2001
Book review

Peter Stretch and Clock Making in Colonial Philadelphia

Stretch – America’s First Family of Clockmakers, by Donald L. Fennimore and Frank L. Hohmann III, with a foreword by Wendy Cooper. Published in 2013, by Winterthur Museum, Wilmington DE. ISBN 978-0-912724-70-6. Hardcover (burgundy cloth, dust jacket), 343 pages, 32 x 25 cm, 490 color illustrations. 8 Appendices, Bibliography (5 pages) and Index (7 pages). Available at for ca US$53. NAWCC members may borrow a lending copy from the Library in Columbia Pa.

When most American clock collectors think of “early American made” clocks they immediately think of Simon Willard and his contemporaries in the first decades of American independence, i.e. the last quarter of the 18[SUP]th[/SUP] century, and the remarkable New England wooden works tall case clocks of the same era. They completely forget that already during colonial times clocks were produced in North America. The volume admittedly was small, but the years 1700 to 1750 are also part of our horological heritage. This lack of awareness may be partly caused by the lack of books about colonial horology. I can think of only one other major book that has been published on that subject[1], and certainly the book under review is the first and only book that describes the life, the oeuvre and the socio-economic environment of a colonial era American clockmaker in depth and in detail.

The protagonist is Peter Stretch (1670-1746) a Quaker clockmaker from Leek (Staffordshire, UK) who immigrated to Philadelphia with his young family in 1703, only 20 years after the settlement was founded. With 4000 people it was the third largest settlement of North America (New York had 5000 and Boston about 6000). His timing was good; during his lifetime, Philadelphia became the largest and wealthiest settlement of the continent.

The book is the result of a close cooperation between two experts of the subject: Donald Fennimore is a historian and the retired Curator of Metal Objects of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, and Frank Hohmann is a collector and expert on colonial era, brass dial American clocks. Together, they have created a book that will be equally cherished by horologists, by antiques collectors, and by Philadelphia local history buffs.

The book was triggered by the October 4, 2004 sale of a clock by Peter Stretch at Sotheby’s in New York. At 2:08 p.m. that Thursday afternoon a ”Queen Anne Carved and Figured Mahogany Tall Case Clock, Peter Stretch, Philadelphia, Circa 1740” set a world record (still unbroken) for an American made clock when it sold for $ 1’688’000. The Winterthur Museum was the winning bidder. The clock has since been gently restored, and is worth a detour - if not a trip - if you find yourself in the mid-atlantic states.

To fully understand and appreciate that ‘record breaking clock’ it is necessary to not only study the object, but to examine the context of its creation, i.e. the whole oeuvre of Peter Stretch, his whole biography, and the whole sociological, economic and historic environment of Quaker dominated Philadelphia in the first half of the 18[SUP]th[/SUP] century. The first two chapters of the book (57 pages) describe the early history of Philadelphia, the roots of the Stretch family as Quakers in England prior to Peter’s 1703 emigration to America, and his life as an engaged and prominent member of the religious, civic and business community of rapidly growing Philadelphia from 1703 to 1746. The third chapter (45 pages) is a narrative of the technical and stylistic evolution of Stretch made clocks during the first half of the 18[SUP]th[/SUP] century. It also discusses tools, equipment and shop practices, as well as the general development of horological trade in the city during those years. To an amazing extent the story is told by quoting numerous original contemporary sources such as newspapers, advertisements, letters, inventories, wills, minutes of Quaker assemblies, etc. (there are 244 footnotes in the first three chapters, most of them referring the reader to the original source documents).

To create the book the authors launched a major effort to identify as many surviving clocks as possible made by Peter Stretch (and his three clock-making sons, who all made their early clocks in their father’s shop). Eventually, their database grew to 133 Stretch clocks (most of them tall case clocks), and for 84 of them (including 62 signed by Peter Stretch) the owners, both major museums and institutions, as well as individuals, agreed to have their pieces photographed, described in detail, and published in the book.

The descriptions of these 84 clocks make up the 180 page ‘Catalog section’, which is the core of the book. For 79 of these clocks the catalog entry is a standardized double page spread including four high resolution color photographs [ a- enlarged dial view, b- ¾ left view of the full clock in its case, c- ¾ proper left back view of movement with dial attached, d- ¾ proper right front view of movement with dial removed ]. For each clock, there is a short narrative on case and movement, plus a comment section (often including provenance). Dimensions are provided. For each of five particularly elaborate or important clocks an additional two pages of text and photos have been added.

The last section of the book is made up of seven appendices: 1. Peter Stretch Will and Inventory; 2. Thomas Stretch Will and Inventory; 3. Samuel Stretch Will and Inventory; 4. Clock Owners in Philadelphia 1682-1750 [a search of 2 572 known wills identified 251 that included timekeeping devices, 206 clock owners and 77 watch owners]; 5. Stretch Signature Plates Comparison; 6. Stretch Clocks: A Comparison; 7. Identified Stretch Clocks; 8. Stretch Family Genealogy.

This book is a remarkable achievement of horological scholarship. It is incredible how much information can be uncovered on a seemingly obscure, small corner of horological history when a huge amount of intellectual (and also financial) resources are devoted to a subject, and it is most gratifying that there are people who are willing to spend their time and their money to make it happen.

At an on-line price of 53 Dollars this book is a real bargain for anybody who has an interest in early American tall case clocks. The illustrations are superb. As it deals in-depth with the socio-economic environment faced by Peter Stretch it should also be of interest to those who care about Pennsylvania clocks or fine furniture, as well as to all with a fascination with the early history of Philadelphia - even non-horologists.

Book review by Fortunat F. Mueller-Maerki
October 12, 2013

[1]That book, not coincidently, is also by one of the authors of the book under review: Hohmann: Timeless – Masterpiece American Brass Dial Clocks (New York: 2009, ISBN 978-0-9789689-1-5). It documents 96 high quality tall case clocks from 1720 to 1785 produced throughout the colonies, and provides a broader context for the book under review.


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