CHAPTER XVI. CHAUNCEY JEROME.
Any readers of these pages doubtless remember the huge old-fashioned clocks, tower-like in shape, that in the days of their childhood ornamented the remote corner of the hall, or stood solemnly near the chimney in the sitting-room of the old homestead,—such a clock as that which greeted little Paul Dombey, when he commenced to be a man, with its "How, is, my, lit, tle, friend?—how, is, my, lit, tle, friend?" Very different from the bright, pretty timepieces of to-day, which go ticking away, as if running a race with time, was the clock of the olden days, as it stood, solemn and dark, in its accustomed corner, from which the strength of two men was necessary to move it, sending the sound of its slow, steady strokes into all parts of the house. And in the night, when all within was still, how its deep beats throbbed in the dark hall louder and sterner even than in the day. There was something eminently respectable about an old clock of this kind, and it would have been audacity unheard of for any member of the family to doubt its reliability. Set once a year, it was expected to retain its steady-going habits for the rest of the twelvemonth. You dared not charge it with being slow; and as for being too fast, why, the very idea was absurd. There was sure to be some white-capped, silver-haired old lady, whose long years had been counted by the venerable pendulum with unerring precision, ready to defend the cause of the clock, to vouch for its accuracy, and to plead its cause so well and so skillfully, that you were ready to hide your face in shame at the thought of having even suspected the veracity of so venerable and so honored an institution.
Truth to say, however, these old clocks, to the masses of the people of this country, were objects of admiration, and nothing more; for their exceeding high price placed them beyond the reach of all save the wealthier classes. A good clock cost from seventy-five to one hundred and fifty dollars, and the most indifferent article in the market could not be obtained for less than twenty-five dollars. At the opening of the present century, the demand for them was so small that but three hundred and fifty clocks were made in the State of Connecticut, which was then, as at present, the one most largely engaged in this branch of American industry. To-day the annual manufacture of Connecticut is about six hundred thousand clocks of all kinds, which command a wholesale price of from fifty cents upward, the greater number bringing the maker less than five dollars. Thus the reader will see that, while the business of the clock-maker has prospered so extraordinarily, valuable timepieces have been brought within the reach of even the poorest.
The man to whom the country is indebted for this wonderful and beneficial increase is Chauncey Jerome, who was born at Canaan, Connecticut, in 1793. His father was a blacksmith and nail-maker, to which trade he added the cultivation of the little farm on which he lived; and being poor, it was necessary for him to labor hard in all his callings in order to provide his family with a plain subsistence. Young Chauncey had little or no time given him for acquiring an education.
He learned to read and write, but went no further; for, when he was but a little more than seven years old, and barely able to do the lightest kind of labor, he was put to work on the farm to help his father, who kept him at this until he was nine, when he took him into his shop. All the nails then in use were made by hand, for there were no huge iron works in the country to send them out by the ton; and such articles were scarce and high. The boy was set to work to make nails, and for two years pursued his vocation steadily. He was a manly little fellow, and worked at his hammer and anvil with a will, resolved that he would become thorough master of his trade; but when he had reached the age of eleven, the sudden death of his father made an entire change in his career, and threw him upon the world a helpless and penniless orphan.
In order to earn his bread, he hired himself to a farmer, receiving for his labor nothing but his "victuals and clothes," the latter being of the plainest and scantiest kind. He worked very hard; but his employer was cold and indifferent to him at all times, and occasionally used him very badly. The boy was naturally of a cheerful disposition, and it did him good service now in helping to sustain him in his hard lot. Four years were passed in this way, and when he was fifteen years old his guardian informed him that he had now reached an age when he must begin his apprenticeship to some regular trade.
The boy was very anxious to learn clock-making, and begged his guardian to apprentice him to that trade; but the wise individual who controlled his affairs replied, sagely, that clock-making was a business in which he would starve, as it was already overdone in Connecticut. There was one man, he said, engaged in that trade who had been silly enough to make two hundred clocks in one year, and he added that it would take the foolish man a life-time to sell them, or if they went off quickly, the market would be so glutted that no dealer would have need to increase his stock for years to come. Clock-making, he informed the boy, had already reached the limit of its expansion in Connecticut, and offered no opportunities at all. The carpenter's trade, on the other hand, was never crowded with good workmen, and always offered the prospect of success to any enterprising and competent man. It was the custom then to regard boys as little animals, possessed of a capacity for hard work, but without any reasoning powers of their own. To the adage that "children should be seen and not heard," the good people of that day added another clause, in effect, "and should never pretend to think for themselves." It was this profound conviction that induced parents and guardians, in so many instances, to disregard the wishes of the children committed to their care, and to condemn so many to lives for which they were utterly unfitted. So it was with the guardian of Chauncey Jerome. He listened to the boy's expression of a preference, it is true, but paid no attention to it, and ended by apprenticing his ward to a carpenter.
The life of an apprentice is always hard, and in those days it was especially so. No negro slave ever worked harder, and but few fared worse, so far as their bodily comfort was concerned, than the New England apprentices of the olden time. Masters seemed almost to regard the lads indentured to them as their property, and in return for the support they gave them exacted from them the maximum amount of work they were capable of performing. They granted them no privileges, allowed them no holidays, except those required by the law, and never permitted the slightest approach to laziness. Chauncey Jerome's master proved no exception to the rule, and when the boy exhibited an unusual proficiency and quickness in his trade, the only notice his employer took of it was to require more work of him. When only a little over sixteen years old, this boy was able to do the work of a full-grown man, and a man's work was rigorously exacted of him. When sent to work at a distance from his employer's home, he invariably had to make the entire journey on foot, with his tools on his back, sometimes being required to go as far as thirty miles in one day in this way. His mother was living at some distance from the place where his master resided, and whenever he visited her, he had to walk all night in order to avoid using his master's time, not one hour of which was allowed him.
In 1811, he informed his master that he was willing to undertake to clothe himself if he could have the five months of the cold season to himself. As this part of the year was always a dull period, and apprentices were little more than an expense to their masters, young Jerome's employer promptly consented to the proposed arrangement. Jerome, now eighteen years old, had never relinquished his old desire to become a clock-maker. He had watched the market closely, and questioned the persons engaged in the business, and he found that, so far from the market being over-stocked, there was a ready sale for every clock made. Greatly encouraged by this, he resolved to devote the five months of his freedom to learning the business, and to apply himself entirely to it at the expiration of his apprenticeship. As soon as he had concluded his bargain with his master, he set out for Waterbury on foot, and upon arriving there, sought and obtained work from a man who made clock-dials for the manufacturers of clocks.
He worked with his new employer awhile, and then formed an arrangement with two journeymen clock-makers. Having perfected their plans, the three set out for New Jersey in a lumber wagon, carrying their provisions with them. The two clock-makers were to make and set up the works, and Jerome was to make the cases whenever they should succeed in selling a clock on their journey. Clock-making was then considered almost perfect. It had been reduced to a regular system, and the cost of construction had been very greatly lessened. A good clock, with a case seven feet high, could now be made for forty dollars, at which price it yielded a fair profit to the maker. The three young men were tolerably successful in their venture. Jerome worked fifteen hours a day at case-making, and by living economically, managed to carry some money with him when he went back to his master's shop in the spring. For the remaining three years of his apprenticeship he employed his winters in learning the various branches of clock-making, and not only earned enough money to clothe himself, but laid by a modest sum besides.
In 1814, being twenty-one years of age and his own master, he set up a carpenter shop of his own, being not yet sufficiently master of clock-making to undertake that on his own account. In 1815, he married. Times were hard. The war with England had just ended, and labor was poorly compensated. He is said at this time to have "finished the whole interior of a three-story house, including twenty-seven doors and an oak floor, nothing being found for him but the timber," for the beggarly sum of eighty-seven dollars—a task which no builder would undertake to-day for less than a thousand dollars. Still, he declared that, in spite of this poor rate of compensation, he was enabled to save enough to make a partial payment on a small dwelling for himself. It required a constant struggle, however, to live at this rate, and in the winter of 1816, being out of work, and having a payment on his house to meet in the spring, he determined to go to Baltimore to seek work during the winter. He was on the eve of starting, when he learned that Mr. Eli Terry, the inventor of the wooden clocks which were so popular fifty years ago, was about to open a large factory for them in an adjoining town. He walked to the town, and made his application to Mr. Terry, who at once engaged him at liberal wages. Mr. Terry's factory was then the largest in the country, and, as he used wooden instead of metal works, he was able to manufacture his best clocks at fifteen dollars, and other grades in proportion. This reduction in price largely increased the sale of his clocks, and in a comparatively short time after opening his factory, Mr. Terry made and sold about six thousand clocks a year.
Jerome was determined that he would spare no pains to make himself master of every detail of clock-making, and applied himself to the business with so much intelligence and energy, that by the spring of 1817 he felt himself competent to undertake their manufacture on his own account. He began his operations very cautiously, at first buying the works already made, putting them together, and making the cases himself. When he had finished two or three, he would carry them about for sale, and as his work was well done, he rarely had any difficulty in disposing of them. Gradually he increased his business, and in a year or two was able to sell every clock he could make, which kept him constantly busy. A Southern dealer having seen one of his clocks, was so well pleased with it that he gave the maker an order for twelve exactly like it, which the latter agreed to furnish at twelve dollars each. It was an enormous order to Jerome, and seemed to him almost too good to be real. He completed the clocks at the stipulated time, and conveyed them in a farmer's wagon to the place where the purchaser had agreed to receive them. The money was paid to him in silver, and as the broad pieces were counted into his hand, he was almost ready to weep for joy. One hundred and forty-four dollars was the largest sum he had ever possessed at one time, and it seemed almost a fortune to him. His clocks were taken to Charleston, South Carolina, and sold. They gave entire satisfaction; and when, some years later, he commenced to ship regular consignments to the Southern cities, he found no difficulty in disposing of his wares.
Mr. Jerome's success was now more decided. He was enabled to pay for his house in a short time, and having, soon afterward, an opportunity to dispose of it at a fair profit, he did so, and took clock-works in payment. He bought land and timber, and paid for them in clocks, and his affairs prospered so well that, before long, he began to employ workmen to assist him, and to dispose of his clocks to peddlers and merchants, instead of carrying them around for sale himself. As his business increased, he invented and patented labor-saving machinery for the manufacture of the various parts of the clock, and thus greatly decreased the cost of construction. He designed new and ornamental cases, and exerted himself to render the exterior of his clocks as tasteful and attractive as possible. His business now increased rapidly, and he was soon compelled to take in a partner. He began to ship his clocks to the Southern States, sending them by sea. They met with a ready sale, but all his ventures of this kind were subject to serious risks. The works, being of wood, would frequently become damp and swollen on the voyage, thus rendering them unfit for use. Mr. Jerome endeavored in various ways to remedy this defect, but was finally compelled to admit that, until he could change the nature of the wood, he could not prevent it from being influenced by moisture.
He passed many sleepless nights while engaged in seeking this remedy, for he plainly foresaw that unless the defect could be removed, the days of the wooden clock business were numbered.
In the midst of his depression, the idea occurred to him, one night while lying awake, that the works of a clock could be manufactured as cheaply of brass as of wood. The thought came to him with the force of a revelation. He sprang out of bed, lit his candle, and passed the rest of the night in making calculations which proved to him that he could not only make brass works as cheaply as wooden ones, but, by the employment of certain labor-saving machinery, at a cost decidedly less. There was one important obstacle in his way, however. The machinery requisite for cutting brass works cheaply was not in existence. Before making known his plans, Mr. Jerome set to work to invent the clock-making machinery which has made him famous among American inventors. When he had completed it, he commenced to make brass clocks, which he sold at such a low price that wooden clocks were speedily driven out of the market. Little by little, he brought his machinery to perfection, applying it to the manufacture of all parts of the clock; and to-day, thanks to his patience and genius, clock-making in the United States has become a very simple affair. By the aid of Jerome's machinery, one man and one boy can saw veneers enough for three hundred clock cases in a single day. By the aid of this same machinery, six men can manufacture the works of one thousand clocks in a day; and a factory employing twenty-five workmen can turn out two thousand clocks per week. By the aid of this same machinery, the total cost of producing a good clock of small size has been brought down to forty cents.
As the reader will suppose, Jerome made a large fortune—a princely fortune—for himself, and entirely revolutionized the clock-making trade of the Union. Thanks to him, scores of fortunes have been made by other manufacturers also, and American clocks have become famous all over the world for their excellence and cheapness. "Go where you will, in Europe, Asia, Africa, or America, you will be sure to come upon Yankee clocks. To England they go by the shipload. Germany, France, Russia, Spain, Italy, all take large quantities. Many have been sent to China and to the East Indies. At Jerusalem, Connecticut clocks tick on many a shelf, and travelers have found them far up the Nile, in Guinea, at the Cape of Good Hope, and in all the accessible places of South America."
After conducting his business for some years, Mr. Jerome organized the Jerome Clock-Making Company, of New Haven. It began its operations with a large capital, and conducted them upon an extensive scale. In a few years Mr. Jerome retired from the active management of its affairs, but continued nominally at its head as its president. He built for himself an elegant mansion in New Haven, where he gathered about him his family and the friends which his sterling qualities and upright character had drawn to him, and here he hoped to pass the remainder of his days.
He was doomed to a bitter disappointment. Although nominally at the head of the Clock Company, he left its control entirely to his partners, who, by injudicious management, brought it at length to the verge of bankruptcy. They made energetic efforts to ward off the final catastrophe, but without success, and in 1860, almost before Mr. Jerome was aware of the full extent of the trouble, the Company was ruined. Its liabilities were heavy, and every dollar's worth of Jerome's property was taken to meet them. Honest to the core, he gave up every thing. His elegant mansion was sold, and he was forced to remove to an humble cottage, a poorer man than when he had first set up for himself as a carpenter.
He was not the man to repine, however, and he at once began to look about him for employment. He was sixty-seven years old, and it was hard to go out into the world to earn his bread again, but he bore his misfortunes bravely, and soon succeeded in obtaining the employment he desired. The great Clock Company of Chicago engaged him at a liberal salary to superintend their manufactory in that city, which position he still holds. The Company manufacture his own clocks, and are fortunate in having the benefit of his genius and experience. Were he a younger man, there can be no doubt that he would win a second fortune equal to that which was swept from him so cruelly, through no fault of his own. As it is, we can only venture to hope that his sturdy independence and indomitable energy will provide him with the means of passing the closing years of his life in comfort. Few men have done the world better service, or been more worthy of its rewards.