Clock from the old Dickins house keeps chiming

Published 9:43 am Wednesday, March 17, 2021

By John Howell

Publisher Emeritus

My wife and I just had another of our convoluted time change conversations — something like: “If it’s eight o’clock, that means it’s seven o’clock, old time, right?”

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And we will go on like that for several days during this coming week — comparing “old” and “new” times. These conversations are perhaps fueled by a clock high up on our kitchen wall. Unlike the smart clocks in our phones and devices, the kitchen wall clock requires a manual reset every six months when whoever decides we are either entering or leaving Daylight Savings Time.

A manual reset requires a tall step ladder and some maneuvering to bring the analog device into step with the rest of us.

But that battery-operated wall clock requires minimum maintenance compared to the old mantle clock that came to me as a heirloom because nobody else in the family wanted. It’s known as the Dickins clock and once graced a mantle in the old Dickins house that stood where the Medical Arts Building on Eureka Street is now located near the Square.

It’s an eight day clock that was common in homes during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. I’ve been given to understand that the idea behind it was that it only had to be wound once a week. The eighth day was a grace day in case you forgot. It has two, spring-driven mechanisms, one for the time and one for the chimes.

Except that it doesn’t really chime. Each hour a small, round anvil strikes a wire coil, creating a vibrating, struck-metal sound. At least it does when everything is working right, which it wasn’t when I brought it back with me to New Orleans a couple of years ago. I spent more to have it put into working order than I admitted to my wife.

During one of those service visits, the clock mechanic told me that a piece was missing that prevented overwinding, hence the problem. Since then, I’ve learned to wind it carefully and often.

The Dickins clock has responded by working reasonably well since as long as I remember to wind every third day or so. I guess the main springs have tired with age. (It has two — one for the striking mechanism and one for timekeeping.)

Remembering to wind the clock has become easier since I’ve grew accustomed to the pace of striking. When it’s freshly wound, that little anvil strikes the coil faster, like it’s in a hurry to get past the hour. As it winds down the pace of striking slows, reminding me to rewind. Again.

And it runs fast. In spite of my adjustments to the pendulum, it will gain time with each rewinding, triggering the striking mechanism about five or more minutes before the hour. We’ve just come to accept that. As in, “It’s ‘fixin’ to be five o’clock.”

Now, for the next week or so, our time conversations will also include those “old-time, new time” comments.

But at least the mantel clock doesn’t require a ladder.