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The ‘coo coo’ call will induce a feeling of nostalgia for anyone with German heritage and the cuckoo bird that peeps out of small doors on the hour to ‘coo coo’ is still a crowd pleaser to this day.
The Cukoo Clock is a unique time piece that represents so much more than just German engineering and craftsmanship. For many, the Cuckoo Clock and its ‘coo coo’ call is a symbol of their ancestry and heritage. Many people will experience a flood of memories after hearing the iconic ‘coo coo’ call. It is often a trigger for many fond memories including trips to see Oma and Opa, getting caught as a child pulling on the pine cone weights or hearing the coo coo call during the middle of the night when you couldn’t sleep. So much memory and history is embedded into each Cuckoo Clock and the home it occupied.
What is the history of this famous and treasured German icon?
Mechanical cuckoo clocks and clock making have been documented in the Black Forest as early as 1650.
The first written descriptions of Cuckoo Clocks have been found in the following texts:
There is a written description of a cuckoo clock by a Augsburg nobleman Philipp Hainhofter (1578 – 1647) which describes a cuckoo clock belonging to prince Elector August Von Sachsen.
Another mention is in a handbook on music written by scholar Athanasius Kircher in 1650 describing a mechanical organ with moving figures. A picture in this book shows many of the elements of a mechanical cuckoo clock we know of today (bird calling on the hour, the sound made by two organ pipes). However, this clock movement was not the same mechanism used in cuckoo clocks today.
These are the very first written or documented mentioning of the elements that make up the cuckoo clock today.
But who built the first cuckoo clock?
It is widely accepted and known that in the middle of the 18th century (1740-1750) cuckoo clocks with wooden gears were being produced in the Black Forest.
But who was the first to put together all the elements; the moving cuckoo bird, its call, the coo coo call indicating the time after the clock strikes on the hour, a weight driven movement and gravity-based pendulum?
It’s hard to know for sure, and there are a different few tales. The most well-known and accepted is a story was found in a passage written by a priest Markus Fidelis Jack. His reports about industry and traffic in the Black Forest states that in 1730 the first Cuckoo Clock was made by Franz Anton Ketterer from Schonwald (“Beautiful forest” – likely referring to the Black Forest). He states that the clock master got the idea of how to make the cuckoo call from the bellows of the church organ.
We could give credit to Franz Anton Ketterer for being the first to combine all elements to make the iconic cuckoo clock as we know it today. Clearly though, as it goes for most engineering feats, there is a combination of engineering factors brought together by different innovators.
A fine example is the Comitti Navigator clock which you can read more about in a special blog post by clicking the button below:
The Black Forest unarguably created the cuckoo clock industry and continued to develop the movement and clock case designs which have made the cuckoo clock a valued work of art all over the world.
Cuckoo Clocks were exported to the rest of the world from the mid 1850’s and became an iconic symbol of southern Germany culture and heritage.
These timepieces were typically sold door to door in the Black Forest by “Uhrentrager” or Clock peddlers which translates to ‘clock carriers’. They could carry dials and movements on their backs displaying their range of time pieces. You can see these clock peddlers being featured in cuckoo clock designs today.
Cuckoo birds are a shy family of bird, are more often heard then seen and will often call at night-time. These features make the Cuckoo Bird a perfect choice for the renowned Cuckoo Clock, as the bird hides behind closed doors for most of the hour and calls throughout the night indicating the hour. Common cuckoo birds are the variety that we can thank for the memorable ‘coo coo’ call exhibited in the Cuckoo Clock. A serious bird watcher would appreciate me mentioning that it’s the male song usually given from an open perch that provides us with the goo-ko sound.
Many different species of cuckoo bird exist around the world with similar calls. This might also be why the cuckoo clocks have been adopted into and become treasured items in many different family homes.
Schiduhr (Shield clock) design is characterized by having a painted flat square face behind which all the clock mechanisms are attached. Above the square clock face is usually a semicircle of highly decorated painted artwork which contained the door of the cuckoo. The hand painting usually depicted floral rose patterns (“Rosenuhren” or rose clocks). This was the most popular design in the end of the 18th and first half of the 19th century.
“Rahmenuhr” (framed clock) was popular in the middle of the 19th century until about 1870. This clock is quite rare to find these days and consists of a picture frame typically with a painted scene from the Black forest above the clock face. The cuckoo bird would pop out from behind its doors in the middle of the painted scene.
Many variety of styles were tired with keeping to the original cuckoo mechanism and moving parts. Popularity of some of the designs eliminated others with the Bahnhausle becoming a crowd favourite in the 1800’s.
The Bahnhausle (“Railroad house”) style cuckoo clock comes with an interesting story. The first director of the Clockmakers school in Furtwangen launched a public competition to submit designs for modern clock cases in 1850. Friedrich Eisenlohr (1805-1854) was an architect and was responsible for creating buildings along the Rhine valley railway. Eisenlohr used inspiration from his railroad guard’s residence designs. He adorned the clock face with wild grape vines which were the material and detailing he used on the railroad houses. His design won the competition and became an instant hit.
The basic railway house theme (Bahnhausle) is still available today, see our traditional Bahnhausle clock that we have for sale:
The Jagdstuck (“hunt piece”) style cuckoo clock was developed in Furtwangen in 1860. Wood carvers began making cuckoo clock designs with oak foliage, hunting motives, trophy animals, guns and powder pouches. A tribute to the hunting industry in The Black Forest. Other designs which featured carved maple leaves and birds were shortly created afterwards.
Alpine Chalet style cuckoo clock is originally invented in 1920 in Switzerland, which shares a close proximity and culture to Southern Germany. Alpine chalets are symbolic of the country, weather conditions and lifestyle of the people who live there. This cuckoo clock carving style is very popular and does give a chance to display many aspects of living in an alpine region in the 1700 and 1800’s. Wood sawyer men cutting longs of wood, axe men cutting timber, clock makers in the work shops, clock peddler's visiting door to doo, Shepard's guarding their sheep and men and women drinking beer are all featured on Chalet.
We have Black Forest Chalet designs featuring the clock peddler, wood sawyer men, wood chopper and beer drinker. All busy at work (well, maybe not the German man drinking beer) within the traditional Black Forest industries.
While the pendulum clock was invented by Christiaan Huygens a Dutch polymath and horologist in 1656 and this movement greatly improved time keeping accuracy. the cuckoo clock movement is made out of a combination of metals. However in the first half of the 18th century, wooden cogs and wheels were used in Black Forest clock manufacturing. Brass wheels didn’t come about until the end of the 18th century.
The hear of Black Forest clock making was the province of Barden Wuttemberg from Triberg to Furtwangen. In 1850 the first school of clock makers was opened in Furtwangen to improve the standard, quality and quantity of clock production. If you visit Germany you can take The German Clock Route (Deutsche Uhrenstrabe) which is a themed route that connects places with relevant museums and former clock manufactures in the Black Forest.
Black Forest Clocks allowed to carry the VDS certificate actually have to meet a high standard set by they “Association of the Black Forest Clock” (Verein – die Schwarzwalduhr ‘VdS’). One condition for example is that the clock has been made exclusively in the Black Forest. But the proof of origin alone does not suffice to be accepted for the certificate. The clock must also be working purely mechanically and all its essential parts have to be produced in the Black Forest, too.
All of our Cuckoo Clocks come with this certificate of authenticity.