Time to Start Livin’: Kitsch Clocks of the Mid-20th Century

Time to Start Livin': Kitsch Clocks of the Mid-20th Century

By Donald-Brian Johnson

Clocks. We rely on them to bring just a bit of order into our hectic modern lives. They keep things running like . . . well . . . like clockwork!

For centuries, clocks had been reserved solely for the wealthy. Intricately designed and fashioned of the rarest and finest materials, clocks were, in essence, exquisite jewelry for the home. The well-to-do owned them. The not-so-well-to-do relied on their sundials.

By the 1930s however, clocks for the budget-conscious finally found their day in the sun. While less extravagantly outfitted than their high-end predecessors, these wall and mantel novelty clocks provided good value for the money. Most retailed at $10 or less, and their themes had a uniquely whimsical appeal.

Prominent among them were molded-wood clocks by Syroco (Syracuse Ornamental Company). The complete Syroco inventory encompassed everything from brush holders to bookends, offering the look of hand-carved wood at a fraction of the cost. When it came to clocks, it didn’t matter if your tastes veered to the figural (monks, waiters, clowns), the animal (cats, parrots, camels), or the cheerily nostalgic (windmills, rustic scenic views). Whatever the preference, Syroco had a clock for you. The mechanism was by Lux, the body by Syroco, the finished clock both affordable and endearing.

Also popular: inexpensive novelty clocks ideally suited for a specific room in the home. Seth Thomas, for example, turned out an entire orchard of kitchen-ready “Red Apple” clocks. Some companies specialized in clocks with added “oomph.” Haddon’s “Ship Ahoy” clock lamp  had a sailboat rocking on its painted waves, while MasterCrafters ceramic clocks replicated the pendulum effect with moving figures, such as children on swings, or old folks in rocking chairs.

A best-seller among mid-century novelties (and still in production today): the “Kit-Cat Clock,” with his pendulum tail, hypnotic moving eyes, and eerily close resemblance to “Felix the Cat.” Premiering in basic black, the “Kit-Cat” has, over the years, updated his wardrobe to include fire-engine red, restful aqua, and even a multi-color splash of sequins.

Also possessing an irresistible kitschy charm: “souvenir” clocks, from locales as diverse as New York and Las Vegas. What better way to travel back in time than with a “Statue of Liberty Clock,” (complete with glowing torch), or a sparkly Vegas version, with casino dice marking the hours?

During the 1950s and ’60s, fresh shapes, materials, and means of expression combined to create what we now refer to as “mid-century modern.” Firmly tugging at the “modern” timeline were clock lamps by Moss Manufacturing of San Francisco. Moss was a line born of necessity. With metal usage curtailed by World War II, the lamp-making firm sought out another basic material, not subject to rationing. The answer: Plexiglas, which was not only readily available, but could be easily cut and glued into any shape imaginable. Moss matriarch Thelma Moss, never at a loss for imagination, inspired her designers to let their creativity run rampant. The result: a line of space-age Plexi eye-poppers, equally at home in a 1950s living room, or aboard a flying saucer.

Focusing first on lamps, Moss soon roved through the mid-century home like a Plexiglas Godzilla, seeking other items ripe for re-invention. Moss clocks exhibit a mastery of multi-purposing. They tell time. They light up. They hold flowers. Many even include that Moss specialty, the rotating platform. Flick the switch, and a ceramic figurine, (often by a prominent design name, such as deLee, Hedi Schoop, or Lefton), begins its stately twirl.

Equally modern, yet less over-the-top, were fused glass clocks by Higgins Glass Studio of Chicago. Although artisans such as Georges Briard also designed glass clocks, those by Michael and Frances Higgins are among the mid-century’s most innovative. Clocks were a natural outgrowth for these pioneers of practical design, whose decorative housewares ran the gamut from cigarette boxes to candleholders, platters to “Posey Pockets.” Noted Michael, “We try to make things which may be thought beautiful. But we are not ashamed if our pieces are useful. Indeed, we often prefer it, because it makes them easier to sell.”

A 1954 Higgins clock for General Electric, featuring ball-tipped rays radiating outward on the glass face, is as unexpectedly glorious as an alien sun. A later line of glass-on-glass clocks was created for Haddon during the Higgins’ stay at Dearborn Glass Company. The hours are indicated by colorful glass chunks fused to a vibrantly patterned glass slab. While from the mid-century, a Higgins clock is not of the mid-century. Simplicity and clarity of line, coupled with a bold use of color, make Higgins clocks right at home in any age. In other words, they’re timeless.

Moss marvels. Captivating “Kit-Cats,” Higgins must-haves, and rococo Syroco. There’s no time like the present to explore the limitless treasure trove of mid-twentieth century clocks. Which one will be your favorite? Only time will tell.

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop”, a collection of his columns, and an upcoming second volume. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com

Time to Start Livin’: Kitsch Clocks of the Mid-20th Century