Jerome, Chauncey (1793-1868)
Chauncey Jerome (1793-1868)
Early Life. Chauncey Jerome grew up working on the family farm, atteding school only three months a year in the winter. At age eleven he was working in his father’s blacksmith shop. After his father died, at fourteen Chauncey went to live and apprentice with a local farmer. In the off-season Chauncey worked for Eli Terry, the nation’s pre-eminent manufacturer of inexpensive wooden clocks. Terry pioneered clock-making by designing machine tools that any unskilled woodworker could use in the mass production of wooden clock parts. With his little crew of twelve packed into a four-hundred-square-foot powered by a water wheel, Terry was able to produce a thousand clocks annually by 1806 at a price between twenty and thrity dollars apiece. By 1840 he had reduced the price of clock “movements” (the active part of the clock mechanism) from fifty dollars to five dollars, and Terry clocks became common on the mantles of homes across the country. Only one problem remained—it was impossible to export the clocks because the wood, even when seasoned, tended to warp in transit. Chauncey Jerome would solve this with his design for a cheap brass clock.
The “One-Day Clock.” When Jerome turned twenty-one and ended his apprenticeship, he managed to open his own clock shop, but he had no marketing system except his feet. He peddled his clocks from door to door, and even accompanied his first large order (twelve clocks at $12 a piece) all the way to the South. Meanwhile, he continued to work at perfecting his own clock designs and in 1824 finally came up with a breakthrough clock, a bronze looking-glass model that soon made his the busiest clock factory in the country. The Panic of 1837 almost sank this business, but it also drove Jerome to design a new clock to reinvigorate demand. In 1840 he came up with a design for a one-day brass clock (so called for the length of time it would run on one full winding) that cost less than fifty cents to produce. No longer would only the wealthy be able to afford brass timepieces; this was a clock for the masses. Combining all his production operations under one roof, and using precision machine tools to produce interchangeable parts, Jerome was able to increase annual production to two hundred thousand units and reduce the retail price of his brass clocks to two dollars, or even one dollar for the less fancy model. Jerome’s brass clocks were not only cheaper than wooden clocks, they also were more accurate and could be shipped anywhere in the world without warping.
British Reaction. For years Britain had been looking at its former colonial possession with a mixture of disdain tinged with envy. By the 1840s and 1850s English manufacturers were beginning to feel the pinch of American competition in the world marketplace. Britain was especially afraid that Americans might try to dump cheap products on its shores to capture market share from England itself. To avoid this possibility, English customs inspectors had orders to buy up incoming cargoes that seemed to be wildly undervalued. When Jerome’s first shipment of brass clocks arrived on British shores in 1842, the customs inspectors could not believe that anyone could sell clocks so cheaply and paid Jerome cash for the whole lot. Jerome then sent a larger shipment, which the authorities promptly purchased as well. Not until the third shipment arrived did the British finally allow Jerome’s clocks into the country.
Fall. Jerome’s brass clocks made him a rich man. In antebellum America, however, a fickle economy and bad luck could plunge even the rich back into the depths of poverty. Jerome did not fall overnight, but his untrustworthy partners managed to ruin the business by the late 1850s, leaving Jerome almost penniless. The man who left a poor farm life and worked his way to the top with ingenuity and determination found himself heading west like many other Americans looking for a new start. Jerome ended his days serving as the manager of a Chicago clock factory.