Poor boys had a hard time of it in New England eighty years ago.
Observe, now, how it fared with Chauncey Jerome,--he who founded a
celebrated clock business in Connecticut, that turned out six hundred
clocks a day, and sent them to foreign countries by the ship-load.
But do not run away with the idea that it was the hardship and
loneliness of his boyhood that "made a man of him." On the contrary,
they injured, narrowed, and saddened him. He would have been twice the
man he was, and happier all his days, if he had passed an easier and a
more cheerful childhood. It is not good for boys to live as he lived,
and work as he worked, during the period of growth, and I am glad that
fewer boys are now compelled to bear such a lot as his.
His father was a blacksmith and nailmaker, of Plymouth, Connecticut,
with a houseful of hungry boys and girls; and, consequently, as soon as
Chauncey could handle a hoe or tie up a bundle of grain he was kept at
work on the farm; for, in those days, almost all mechanics in New
England cultivated land in the summer time. The boy went to school
during the three winter months, until he was ten years old; then his
school-days and play-days were over forever, and his father took him
into the shop to help make nails.
Even as a child he showed that power of keeping on, to which he owed his
after-success. There was a great lazy boy at the district school he
attended who had a load of wood to chop, which he hated to do, and this
small Chauncey, eight or nine years of age, chopped the whole of it for
him for _one cent_! Often he would chop wood for the neighbors in
moonlight evenings for a few cents a load. It is evident that the
quality which made him a successful man of business was not developed by
hardship, for he performed these labors voluntarily. He was naturally
industrious and persevering.
When he was eleven years of age his father suddenly died, and he found
himself obliged to leave his happy home and find farm work as a poor
hireling boy. There were few farmers then in Connecticut--nay, there
were few people anywhere in the world--who knew how to treat an orphan
obliged to work for his subsistence among strangers. On a Monday
morning, with his little bundle of clothes in his hand, and an almost
bursting heart, he bade his mother and his brothers and sisters good-by,
and walked to the place which he had found for himself, on a farm a few
miles from home.
He was most willing to work; but his affectionate heart was starved at
his new place; and scarcely a day passed during his first year when he
did not burst into tears as he worked alone in the fields, thinking of
the father he had lost, and of the happy family broken up never to live
together again. It was a lonely farm, and the people with whom he lived
took no interest in him as a human being, but regarded him with little
more consideration than one of their other working animals. They took
care, however, to keep him steadily at work, early and late, hot and
cold, rain and shine. Often he worked all day in the woods chopping down
trees with his shoes full of snow; he never had a pair of boots till he
was nearly twenty-one years of age.
Once in two weeks he had a great joy; for his master let him go to
church every other Sunday. After working two weeks without seeing more
than half a dozen people, it gave him a peculiar and intense delight
just to sit in the church gallery and look down upon so many human
beings. It was the only alleviation of his dismal lot.
Poor little lonely wretch! One day, when he was thirteen years of age,
there occurred a total eclipse of the sun, a phenomenon of which he had
scarcely heard, and he had not the least idea what it could be. He was
hoeing corn that day in a solitary place. When the darkness and the
chill of the eclipse fell upon the earth, feeling sure the day of
judgment had come, he was terrified beyond description. He watched the
sun disappearing with the deepest apprehension, and felt no relief until
it shone out bright and warm as before.
It seems strange that people in a Christian country could have had a
good steady boy like this in their house and yet do nothing to cheer or
comfort his life. Old men tell me it was a very common case in New
England seventy years ago.
This hard experience on the farm lasted until he was old enough to be
apprenticed. At fourteen he was bound to a carpenter for seven years,
during which he was to receive for his services his board and his
clothes. Already he had done almost the work of a man on the farm, being
a stout, handy fellow, and in the course of two or three years he did
the work of a full-grown carpenter; nevertheless, he received no wages
except the necessaries of life. Fortunately the carpenter's family were
human beings, and he had a pleasant, friendly home during his
Even under the gentlest masters apprentices, in old times, were kept
most strictly to their duty. They were lucky if they got the whole of
Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July for holidays.
Now, this apprentice, when he was sixteen, was so homesick on a certain
occasion that he felt he _must_ go and see his mother, who lived near
her old home, twenty miles from where he was working on a job. He walked
the distance in the night, in order not to rob his master of any of the
time due to him.
It was a terrible night's work. He was sorry he had undertaken it; but
having started he could not bear to give it up. Half the way was through
the woods, and every noise he heard he thought was a wild beast coming
to kill him, and even the piercing notes of the whippoorwill made his
hair stand on end. When he passed a house the dogs were after him in
full cry, and he spent the whole night in terror. Let us hope the
caresses of his mother compensated him for this suffering.
The next year when his master had a job thirty miles distant, he
frequently walked the distance on a hot summer's day, with his
carpenter's tools upon his back. At that time light vehicles, or any
kind of one-horse carriage, were very rarely kept in country places, and
mechanics generally had to trudge to their place of work, carrying their
tools with them. So passed the first years of his apprenticeship.
All this time he was thinking of quite another business,--that of
clock-making,--which had been developed during his childhood near his
father's house, by Eli Terry, the founder of the Yankee wooden-clock
This ingenious Mr. Terry, with a small saw and a jack-knife, would cut
out the wheels and works for twenty-five clocks during the winter, and,
when the spring opened, he would sling three or four of them across the
back of a horse, and keep going till he sold them, for about twenty-five
dollars apiece. This was for the works only. When a farmer had bought
the machinery of a clock for twenty-five dollars, he employed the
village carpenter to make a case for it, which might cost ten or fifteen
It was in this simple way that the country was supplied with those tall,
old-fashioned clocks, of which almost every ancient farm-house still
contains a specimen. The clock-case was sometimes built into the house
like a pillar, and helped to support the upper story. Some of them were
made by very clumsy workmen, out of the commonest timber, just planed in
the roughest way, and contained wood enough for a pretty good-sized
The clock business had fascinated Chauncey Jerome from his childhood,
and he longed to work at it. His guardian dissuaded him. So many clocks
were then making, he said, that in two or three years the whole country
would be supplied, and then there would be no more business for a maker.
This was the general opinion. At a training, one day, the boy overheard
a group talking of Eli Terry's _folly_ in undertaking to make two
hundred clocks all at once.
"He'll never live long enough to finish them," said one.
"If he should," said another, "he could not possibly sell so many. The
very idea is ridiculous."
The boy was not convinced by these wise men of the East, and he lived to
make and to sell two hundred thousand clocks in one year!
When his apprenticeship was a little more than half over, he told his
master that if he would give him four months in the winter of each year,
when business was dull, he would buy his own clothes. His master
consenting, he went to Waterbury, Connecticut, and began to work making
clock dials, and very soon got an insight into the art and mystery of
The clock-makers of that day, who carried round their clock-movements
upon a horse's back, often found it difficult to sell them in remote
country places, because there was no carpenter near by competent to make
a case. Two smart Yankees hired our apprentice to go with them to the
distant State of New Jersey, for the express purpose of making cases for
the clocks they sold. On this journey he first saw the city of New York.
He was perfectly astonished at the bustle and confusion. He stood on the
corner of Chatham and Pearl Streets for more than an hour, wondering why
so many people were hurrying about so in every direction.
"What is going on?" said he, to a passer-by. "What's the excitement
The man hurried on without noticing him; which led him to conclude that
city people were not over polite.
The workmen were just finishing the interior of the City Hall, and he
was greatly puzzled to understand how those winding stone stairs could
be fixed without any visible means of support. In New Jersey he found
another wonder. The people there kept Christmas more strictly than
Sunday; a thing very strange to a child of the Puritans, who hardly knew
what Christmas was.
Every winter added something to his knowledge of clock-making, and, soon
after he was out of his apprenticeship, he bought some portions of
clocks, a little mahogany, and began to put clocks together on his own
account, with encouraging success from the beginning.
It was a great day with him when he received his first magnificent order
from a Southern merchant for twelve wooden clocks at twelve dollars
apiece! When they were done, he delivered them himself to his customer,
and found it impossible to believe that he should actually receive so
vast a sum as a hundred and forty-four dollars. He took the money with a
trembling hand, and buttoned it up in his pocket. Then he felt an awful
apprehension that some robbers might have heard of his expecting to
receive this enormous amount, and would waylay him on the road home.
He worked but too steadily. He used to say that he loved to work as well
as he did to eat, and that sometimes he would not go outside of his gate
from one Sunday to the next. He soon began to make inventions and
improvements. His business rapidly increased, though occasionally he had
heavy losses and misfortunes.
His most important contribution to the business of clock-making was his
substitution of brass for wood in the cheap clocks. He found that his
wooden clocks, when they were transported by sea, were often spoiled by
the swelling of the wooden wheels. One night, in a moment of extreme
depression during the panic of 1837, the thought darted into his mind,--
"A cheap clock can be made of brass as well as wood!"
It kept him awake nearly all night. He began at once to carry out the
idea. It gave an immense development to the business, because brass
clocks could be exported to all parts of the world, and the cost of
making them was greatly lessened by new machinery. It was Chauncey
Jerome who learned how to make a pretty good brass clock for forty
cents, and a good one for two dollars; and it was he who began their
exportation to foreign lands. Clocks of his making ticked during his
lifetime at Jerusalem, Saint Helena, Calcutta, Honolulu, and most of the
other ends of the earth.
After making millions of clocks, and acquiring a large fortune, he
retired from active business, leaving his splendid manufactory at New
Haven to the management of others. They thought they knew more than the
old man; they mismanaged the business terribly, and involved him in
their own ruin. He was obliged to leave his beautiful home at seventy
years of age, and seek employment at weekly wages--he who had given
employment to three hundred men at once.
He scorned to be dependent. I saw and talked long with this good old man
when he was working upon a salary, at the age of seventy-three, as
superintendent of a large clock factory in Chicago. He did not pretend
to be indifferent to the change in his position. He felt it acutely. He
was proud of the splendid business he had created, and he lamented its
destruction. He said it was one of his consolations to know that, in the
course of his long life, he had never brought upon others the pains he
was then enduring. He bore his misfortunes as a man should, and enjoyed
the confidence and esteem of his new associates.