The clocks of the Ansonia Clock company, one of the foremost 19th century American clock manufacturers, are known all over the world for their style and craftsmanship. Millions of Ansonia clocks in hundreds of styles were made over the life of the company. Despite its tremendous success and global reach, the firm was plagued by misfortune and unfortunate strategic decision making. Ultimately unable to prosper in an increasingly competitive marketplace, Ansonia went bankrupt in 1929.
The history of Ansonia clocks begins with Anson. G. Phelps founding the Ansonia Brass Company in 1844. Phelps was a great American capitalist who came from humble beginnings. Before Ansonia Brass, Phelps was in partnership with Elisha Peck, a Connecticut trader. They formed Phelps & Peck, an exporter of Southern cotton and importer of metals. At its peak Phelps & Peck was New York’s largest importer of metals. After the dissolution of Phelps & Peck, Anson Phelps formed Phelps, Dodge & Co. together with his two sons-in-law and continued to be the principal New York metal importer. Ansonia was once part of the city of Derby, Connecticut. Upon becoming a city in its own right in 1889 it was named Ansonia, in celebration of Anson Phelps’ life achievements.
To expand the market for his metal products, Phelps decided to go into clock making. In 1850 he established a partnership with Franklin C. Andrews and Theodore Terry the two biggest clock makers in Bristol. At that time, clocks made of rolled brass had largely replaced cast brass and wooden clocks in America. Moving into clocks proved to be a very astute business decision on Phelps’ part that allowed him to gain both from his import business and from the clock manufacturing business. This move was also advantageous for Andrews and Terry who sold 50% of their interest in the clock making business to Phelps. It gave the business ready access to raw materials allowing them to reduce the costs in producing clocks. The factory was transferred to Ansonia to keep it closer to the Phelps mills.
In 1852, Franklin C. Andrews withdrew from the partnership and then Phelps retired from the business by selling all his shares in 1853 to James Stokes, his son-in-law. In 1854 a big fire razed the factory of Ansonia Clock Company and it was not until 1869 that full-clock manufacture started again under a new company: the reorganized Ansonia Brass & Battery Company. Between 1869 and 1854, Ansonia Brass & Battery Company, a sub-division of Phelps & Dodge Co., continued the manufacture and supply of brass clock movements to the clock making industry. The company also produced finished clocks and marketed them under the trade name “Ansonia Brass Company” and at times “Ansonia Brass and Battery Company.” For the year 1860, the company recorded the manufacture and sale of 2,000 finished clocks and 22,000 clock movements.
Full-scale manufacture of clocks resumed in 1869 under the name of Ansonia Brass & Copper Co., a reorganized Ansonia Brass & Battery Company. The initial identified price list of Ansonia Brass & Copper Company was dated January 1, 1873 with 14 models of timepieces and clocks and 14 distinctive movements.
1877 saw the rebirth of Ansonia Clock Company when the clock manufacturing operation was separated from the brass milling venture and registered as a corporation in New York. Majority stocks for the new company were held by executives of Phelps, Dodge & company but its president was Henry J. Davies, an inventor, clock and case maker. Some of the most collectible Ansonia clocks such as swing clocks, figurine clocks and some attractive and unique novelty clocks are credited to Davies.
In 1879, another Ansonia clock factory opened in Brooklyn, New York. This factory burned down in 1880 and was rebuilt in 1881. By 1883 the Connecticut factory closed and all manufacturing and administrative operations were transferred to New York. Around these years Ansonia already had sales headquarters in London, Chicago and New York. By 1886 Ansonia was producing 225 varying clock models and in 1904 the company added non-jeweled and reasonably priced watches called “Dollar Watches” to its product line, producing approximately 10 million pieces of this product by 1929.
By 1914, Ansonia was riding the crest of success. It was then manufacturing a total of 440 clock models. Domestic sales volume was at a record high and the company was exporting in large volumes to New Zealand, Australia, China, Japan, India and 18 more countries. Their most in demand models were novelty clocks. But competition for these novelty items became very stiff and in Ansonia’s desire to maintain its market share, the company tried to best the competition by lowering prices. This decision proved disastrous for Ansonia. The lower profit margins led to increasing debt, while not successfully keeping its share of the market it once dominated.
The end of World War I marked the true beginning of the end for Ansonia. By 1920, production had slowed considerably. From a peak of 440 models, production plunged to 136 and popular models such as china cased clocks, mantel clocks made of black iron, and statue clocks were withdrawn. By 1927 only 47 models were being manufactured and the Brooklyn warehouse had been sold. In 1929 Ansonia went into receivership just months before the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression.
With huge numbers of clocks produced and exported by the company, antique Ansonia clocks can be found today in large numbers around the world. Ansonia focused on stylish clocks, expressly for collectors. Some of these collector items are statue clocks, swinging clocks, mantel clocks and other novelty clocks. The American clock maker is also known for its ornate and imitation gold clocks. Angels, petulant cupids, athletes, deep thinkers, elegant women and babies embellish these ornate clocks.
Ansonia clocks are very popular with collectors, but they are not exceptionally rare and many clocks are quite accessible. There are, of course, sought-after items that will fetch five figures. A black marble mantel clock dated between 1890 to 1920 can be had for as low as $75 while a Jeweled Regulator clock from the late 1870s commanded $18,000 at a Tome Harris US sale in May 2007.
The quantity of Ansonia clocks produced in the 80 years of its operation is simply overwhelming, but the single letter found within a square inside a diamond logo is one of the most familiar trademarks on an Ansonia clock. Before they started naming their porcelain clocks, Ansonia branded each series with a single letter. Ansonia produced crystal regulator clocks, statue shelf clocks, bedside alarm clocks, clocks under glass domes, mantel clocks with cases made from iron and other metals, calendar shelf clocks, mahogany cased cabinet clocks, steeple clocks, shelf clocks with oak or walnut cases and a wide range of novelty shelf and wall clocks.
Ansonia was also known to produce porcelain clocks. They used to import ceramic cases from Royal Bonn and other German ceramic manufacturers. Royal Bonn is actually the Franz Anton Mehlem Earthenware Factory found in Bonn from 1826 to 1920. Royal Bonn usually put a backstamp on their product with words that include Royal Bonn. Some collectors are willing to pay more for products with this marking.
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