Poor boys had a hard time of it in New England eighty years ago. Observe, now, how it fared with Chauncey Jerome, – he who founded a celebrated clock business in Connecticut, that turned out six hundred clocks a day, and sent them to foreign countries by the ship-load.
But do not run away with the idea that it was the hardship and loneliness of his boyhood that „made a man of him.” On the contrary, they injured, narrowed, and saddened him. He would have been twice the man he was, and happier all his days, if he had passed an easier and a more cheerful childhood. It is not good for boys to live as he lived, and work as he worked, during the period of growth, and I am glad that fewer boys are now compelled to bear such a lot as his.
His father was a blacksmith and nailmaker, of Plymouth, Connecticut, with a houseful of hungry boys and girls; and, consequently, as soon as Chauncey could handle a hoe or tie up a bundle of grain he was kept at work on the farm; for, in those days, almost all mechanics in New England cultivated land in the summer time. The boy went to school during the three winter months, until he was ten years old; then his school-days and play-days were over forever, and his father took him into the shop to help make nails.
Even as a child he showed that power of keeping on, to which he owed his after-success. There was a great lazy boy at the district school he attended who had a load of wood to chop, which he hated to do, and this small Chauncey, eight or nine years of age, chopped the whole of it for him for one cent! Often he would chop wood for the neighbors in moonlight evenings for a few cents a load. It is evident that the quality which made him a successful man of business was not developed by hardship, for he performed these labors voluntarily. He was naturally industrious and persevering.
When he was eleven years of age his father suddenly died, and he found himself obliged to leave his happy home and find farm work as a poor hireling boy. There were few farmers then in Connecticut – nay, there were few people anywhere in the world – who knew how to treat an orphan obliged to work for his subsistence among strangers. On a Monday morning, with his little bundle of clothes in his hand, and an almost bursting heart, he bade his mother and his brothers and sisters good-by, and walked to the place which he had found for himself, on a farm a few miles from home.
He was most willing to work; but his affectionate heart was starved at his new place; and scarcely a day passed during his first year when he did not burst into tears as he worked alone in the fields, thinking of the father he had lost, and of the happy family broken up never to live together again. It was a lonely farm, and the people with whom he lived took no interest in him as a human being, but regarded him with little more consideration than one of their other working animals. They took care, however, to keep him steadily at work, early and late, hot and cold, rain and shine. Often he worked all day in the woods chopping down trees with his shoes full of snow; he never had a pair of boots till he was nearly twenty-one years of age.
Once in two weeks he had a great joy; for his master let him go to church every other Sunday. After working two weeks without seeing more than half a dozen people, it gave him a peculiar and intense delight just to sit in the church gallery and look down upon so many human beings. It was the only alleviation of his dismal lot.
Poor little lonely wretch! One day, when he was thirteen years of age, there occurred a total eclipse of the sun, a phenomenon of which he had scarcely heard, and he had not the least idea what it could be. He was hoeing corn that day in a solitary place. When the darkness and the chill of the eclipse fell upon the earth, feeling sure the day of judgment had come, he was terrified beyond description. He watched the sun disappearing with the deepest apprehension, and felt no relief until it shone out bright and warm as before.
It seems strange that people in a Christian country could have had a good steady boy like this in their house and yet do nothing to cheer or comfort his life. Old men tell me it was a very common case in New England seventy years ago.
This hard experience on the farm lasted until he was old enough to be apprenticed. At fourteen he was bound to a carpenter for seven years, during which he was to receive for his services his board and his clothes. Already he had done almost the work of a man on the farm, being a stout, handy fellow, and in the course of two or three years he did the work of a full-grown carpenter; nevertheless, he received no wages except the necessaries of life. Fortunately the carpenter’s family were human beings, and he had a pleasant, friendly home during his apprenticeship.
Even under the gentlest masters apprentices, in old times, were kept most strictly to their duty. They were lucky if they got the whole of Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July for holidays.
Now, this apprentice, when he was sixteen, was so homesick on a certain occasion that he felt he must go and see his mother, who lived near her old home, twenty miles from where he was working on a job. He walked the distance in the night, in order not to rob his master of any of the time due to him.
It was a terrible night’s work. He was sorry he had undertaken it; but having started he could not bear to give it up. Half the way was through the woods, and every noise he heard he thought was a wild beast coming to kill him, and even the piercing notes of the whippoorwill made his hair stand on end. When he passed a house the dogs were after him in full cry, and he spent the whole night in terror. Let us hope the caresses of his mother compensated him for this suffering.
The next year when his master had a job thirty miles distant, he frequently walked the distance on a hot summer’s day, with his carpenter’s tools upon his back. At that time light vehicles, or any kind of one-horse carriage, were very rarely kept in country places, and mechanics generally had to trudge to their place of work, carrying their tools with them. So passed the first years of his apprenticeship.
All this time he was thinking of quite another business, – that of clock-making, – which had been developed during his childhood near his father’s house, by Eli Terry, the founder of the Yankee wooden-clock manufacture.
This ingenious Mr. Terry, with a small saw and a jack-knife, would cut out the wheels and works for twenty-five clocks during the winter, and, when the spring opened, he would sling three or four of them across the back of a horse, and keep going till he sold them, for about twenty-five dollars apiece. This was for the works only. When a farmer had bought the machinery of a clock for twenty-five dollars, he employed the village carpenter to make a case for it, which might cost ten or fifteen dollars more.
It was in this simple way that the country was supplied with those tall, old-fashioned clocks, of which almost every ancient farm-house still contains a specimen. The clock-case was sometimes built into the house like a pillar, and helped to support the upper story. Some of them were made by very clumsy workmen, out of the commonest timber, just planed in the roughest way, and contained wood enough for a pretty good-sized organ.
The clock business had fascinated Chauncey Jerome from his childhood, and he longed to work at it. His guardian dissuaded him. So many clocks were then making, he said, that in two or three years the whole country would be supplied, and then there would be no more business for a maker. This was the general opinion. At a training, one day, the boy overheard a group talking of Eli Terry’s folly in undertaking to make two hundred clocks all at once.
„He’ll never live long enough to finish them,” said one.
„If he should,” said another, „he could not possibly sell so many. The very idea is ridiculous.”
The boy was not convinced by these wise men of the East, and he lived to make and to sell two hundred thousand clocks in one year!
When his apprenticeship was a little more than half over, he told his master that if he would give him four months in the winter of each year, when business was dull, he would buy his own clothes. His master consenting, he went to Waterbury, Connecticut, and began to work making clock dials, and very soon got an insight into the art and mystery of clock-making.
The clock-makers of that day, who carried round their clock-movements upon a horse’s back, often found it difficult to sell them in remote country places, because there was no carpenter near by competent to make a case. Two smart Yankees hired our apprentice to go with them to the distant State of New Jersey, for the express purpose of making cases for the clocks they sold. On this journey he first saw the city of New York. He was perfectly astonished at the bustle and confusion. He stood on the corner of Chatham and Pearl Streets for more than an hour, wondering why so many people were hurrying about so in every direction.
„What is going on?” said he, to a passer-by. „What’s the excitement about?”
The man hurried on without noticing him; which led him to conclude that city people were not over polite.
The workmen were just finishing the interior of the City Hall, and he was greatly puzzled to understand how those winding stone stairs could be fixed without any visible means of support. In New Jersey he found another wonder. The people there kept Christmas more strictly than Sunday; a thing very strange to a child of the Puritans, who hardly knew what Christmas was.
Every winter added something to his knowledge of clock-making, and, soon after he was out of his apprenticeship, he bought some portions of clocks, a little mahogany, and began to put clocks together on his own account, with encouraging success from the beginning.
It was a great day with him when he received his first magnificent order from a Southern merchant for twelve wooden clocks at twelve dollars apiece! When they were done, he delivered them himself to his customer, and found it impossible to believe that he should actually receive so vast a sum as a hundred and forty-four dollars. He took the money with a trembling hand, and buttoned it up in his pocket. Then he felt an awful apprehension that some robbers might have heard of his expecting to receive this enormous amount, and would waylay him on the road home.
He worked but too steadily. He used to say that he loved to work as well as he did to eat, and that sometimes he would not go outside of his gate from one Sunday to the next. He soon began to make inventions and improvements. His business rapidly increased, though occasionally he had heavy losses and misfortunes.
His most important contribution to the business of clock-making was his substitution of brass for wood in the cheap clocks. He found that his wooden clocks, when they were transported by sea, were often spoiled by the swelling of the wooden wheels. One night, in a moment of extreme depression during the panic of 1837, the thought darted into his mind, –
„A cheap clock can be made of brass as well as wood!”
It kept him awake nearly all night. He began at once to carry out the idea. It gave an immense development to the business, because brass clocks could be exported to all parts of the world, and the cost of making them was greatly lessened by new machinery. It was Chauncey Jerome who learned how to make a pretty good brass clock for forty cents, and a good one for two dollars; and it was he who began their exportation to foreign lands. Clocks of his making ticked during his lifetime at Jerusalem, Saint Helena, Calcutta, Honolulu, and most of the other ends of the earth.
After making millions of clocks, and acquiring a large fortune, he retired from active business, leaving his splendid manufactory at New Haven to the management of others. They thought they knew more than the old man; they mismanaged the business terribly, and involved him in their own ruin. He was obliged to leave his beautiful home at seventy years of age, and seek employment at weekly wages – he who had given employment to three hundred men at once.
He scorned to be dependent. I saw and talked long with this good old man when he was working upon a salary, at the age of seventy-three, as superintendent of a large clock factory in Chicago. He did not pretend to be indifferent to the change in his position. He felt it acutely. He was proud of the splendid business he had created, and he lamented its destruction. He said it was one of his consolations to know that, in the course of his long life, he had never brought upon others the pains he was then enduring. He bore his misfortunes as a man should, and enjoyed the confidence and esteem of his new associates.