Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

The Emergence of “Clock Time”

May 27, 2021 Archive Insight
Black-and-white photograph of two-story brick building with decorative windows and cornice
Grimm Jewelry Store on its original site on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, Michigan, 1926, before being moved to Greenfield Village. / THF254049


In the 1880s, an entrepreneur named Engelbert Grimm sold modestly priced clocks, watches, and jewelry out of this store when it was located in Detroit, Michigan. One of Grimm’s customers was, in fact, Henry Ford, who often stopped by the store to purchase watch parts and chat with him.

Narrow, two-story red brick building with decorative windows and cornice
Grimm Jewelry Store in Greenfield Village. / THF1947

The Grimm Jewelry Store, now located in Greenfield Village, also provides a way for us to look at larger changes in Americans’ lives at the time, especially for people living in cities.

Man in suit and bowtie stands in store with arm on display case and clocks on shelves behind him
Shops selling clocks and watches became increasingly common, as seen in this photograph of a clerk posing in such a shop from Urbana, Ohio, taken some time between 1907 and 1915. / THF250161

In an increasingly urban and industrial nation, people were expected to know the time and be on time, all the time. Notice that, if you look hard enough, you can see that each of these photographs from our Detroit Publishing Company collection has a public clock in it. 

Black-and-white photo of city street with tall buildings and wide sidewalks crowded with people; carriages and streetcars visible on street
Looking down West 23rd Street, New York City, about 1908. Clock-finding clue: Look down the street, above the horse-drawn carriage, and you’ll see a large street clock on a stand. / THF204886

Black-and-white photo of people strolling through a park with a road and buildings visible to the right
Tremont Street Mall and Boston Common, Boston, Massachusetts, about 1905. Clock-finding clue: Look at the bottom of the church steeple in the center of the photograph. / THF203418

Aerial, black-and-white photo of elevated train tracks, roads, and buildings
Elevated railway at Cooper Union and 4th Avenue, New York City, about 1900. Clock-finding clue: Look at the top of the building to the left of the railroad tracks. / THF203350

Synchronizing one’s watch with public clocks became part of meeting one’s social responsibility. The clock and the watch came to be seen as models for disciplined, regulated personal behavior. One advertisement for pocket watches in the 1880s claimed, “The man is nothing but a botch, who tries to live without a watch.”

Silver pocket watch with attached chain
Man’s pocket watch from 1878. / THF152471

The downside to this, of course, was a greater level of anxiety—living with what was called “clock time,” an artificial construct very different from following the natural rhythms of the sun, the moon, and the seasons, as farmers had done for centuries. 

Man in field stands by small pile of hay, another hands hay up to a wagon piled high with hay, with another man on top and two oxen in front
Photograph of farmers haying, Northfield, Massachusetts, about 1900. / THF141862

Today, we seem to be controlled by clock alarms and alerts, schedules, calendars, and the pressure to be punctual.  “Clock time” has become an expected part of our lives.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

clocks, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Donna R. Braden

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