Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions to the Black Forest’s fame is the cuckoo clock. While it is easy to appreciate their charismatic beauty and charm, few realize how deeply rooted these clocks are in Black Forest history. It has been a long journey that has involved several hundred years and thousands of people in one small town. 

The story of these incredible clocks starts several hundred years ago in Germany’s royal family. The first description of a cuckoo clock was in 1629 and made by a German nobleman, Philipp Hainhofer. He described a curious little clock that belonged to Prince Elector August von Sachsen. It was said to contain a bird that resembled a cuckoo and it was therefore called a cuckoo clock. Though these clocks were very primitive and did not make any sound.

Enter Franz Anton Ketterer! Ketterer was a clock maker from the Black Forest and is often credited with the invention of the cuckoo clock. It was one day in the 1730s, after pondering the mechanism of a church organ’s bellows that he was inspired to recreate the sound mechanism inside a clock that contained a cuckoo bird. Thus, the first cuckoo sound mechanism was born.

Word spread of these fascinating little clocks and it wasn’t long before the cuckoo clock saw wide-spread popularity in the Black Forest. Most of the villagers in the Black Forest were farmers, but as the eldest sons of the family often inherited the farm, it left the others with a need for supplemental income. Cuckoo clock making was, therefore, a wonderful opportunity for villagers to support their families. During the deep snowy winters, the villagers would toil away at their clock making skills and when the snow melted in the spring they would take their clocks to display in the town. These people, the early cuckoo clock makers from the Black Forest were given the name “Häuslers”.

At the time, hourglasses were the most commonly used timekeepers and the clocks became not only a much more accurate replacement but were also much more entertaining. Germany, always a leader in the arts, once again did not disappoint. It wasn’t long before the villagers would have contests to see who could make the most unique and artistic cuckoo clock. People far and wide caught wind of these incredible timekeepers and it wasn’t long before there was an international demand for cuckoo clocks.

Therefore, in 1850, the Duke of Baden founded a school that offered classes in standard subjects such as math and writing, but also advanced clock making. 

As clock making flourished a contest was sponsored by Robert Gerwig, the director of a Clock School in Furtwangen. It was open to any clock makers who would compete for the best contemporary clock design. The winner would then be funded to complete their design. The winning designer was Friedrich Eisenlohr. Eisenlohr was an architect whose then-current project was building a new railway through the Black Forest. His clock design resembled the rail houses. The box and roof style of the rail house design was the precursor to the modern day chalet clock that we see all over the world today. Ironically though, there was only one difference between Eisenlohr’s design and the final product. Eisenlohr’s design included a cuckoo, but there was not sufficient funding to complete the cuckoo mechanism. Other Black Forest clock makers soon merged both the cuckoo mechanism and Eisenlohr’s rail house and shield design. That is how Eisenlohr is credited with the modern cuckoo clock style.

Today, the Black Forest cuckoo clock is a world renowned treasure that has made small beautiful Black Forest villages famous. It comes in a variety of sizes and styles including chalet and carved. While a true Black Forest cuckoo clock is mechanically operated, there are also battery operated quartz clocks. These can be made in the Black Forest and are often more affordable as they are not authentic like mechanical cuckoo clocks.

While visiting the Black Forest I strongly recommend stopping by some of the world-renowned clock makers, such as Hones, Rombach and Haas and Schneider. There are also a number of museums that contain some of the original shield and railroad clocks that are definitely worth checking out. Perhaps my favorite is the German Clock Museum in Furtenwagon as they contain some of the oldest cuckoo clock histories to date. 

Next time you see a cuckoo clock, you can appreciate not only the skilled craftsmanship but also the hundreds of years of history that stand behind it!

For more information on cuckoo clocks, visit Designed in Time. (author and pictures: Megan Mahoney, Designed in Time)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *