Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Episode 146: Grandfather Clock

A lean, tall clock stops the moment its owner dies. Is it an episode of The Twilight Zone or the catalyst for the term "Grandfather Clock?" 

Bonus - The talent of Sam Lucas, plus Knickerbockers!

Outro Song: My Grandfathers Clock by H.C. Work, Arranged and performed by Michael Pugh, Shauna Harrison, Dan Pugh.

Episode 146: Grandfather Clock Show Notes

 Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 146: Grandfather Clock

Record Date: February 20, 2022

Air Date: February 23, 2022



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Imagine this… you see a tall, beautiful clock in a hotel lobby, but the time is wrong. You ask the proprietor about it and learn the clock stopped working at the very moment of its owner's death. 

Sound like a Twilight Zone episode? Well, it sorta is, but that comes 100 years later. This story is frequently cited as the catalyst for the term, grandfather clock. 

Special thanks to Patron Emily Adams who suggested this phrase. 


According to Britannica, a grandfather clock, or longcase clock, is a


tall pendulum clock enclosed in a wooden case that stands upon the floor and is typically 1.8 to 2.3 metres in height.

End Quote 

For my fellow Americans who don’t use meters, that’s between one Superbowl winner Drew Brees and one NBA champion Chuck Nevitt, or for Americans who don’t sports, 6 feet to 7 and a half feet.

So what is this longcase clock?

I’ll give you a short overview as told by Tick Tock Tony, a clock sales, repair, and history shop out of Trabuco Canyon, California who specializes in antique grandfather clocks. 


In 1656 a Dutchman named Christian Huygens was the first person to use a pendulum, as a driving device, in clocks. This was the birth of the Grandfather clock, or to use the correct terminology, Long Case clock. The first Long Case Clocks were produced in Britain, after the London clock maker Ahasuerus Fromenteel sent his son to Holland to learn about the use of a pendulum…

…The earliest cases were made from oak and were architectural in appearance. Higher quality clocks would be finished with ebony or pearwood. Later cases were made from high quality African mahogany. Today, beautiful examples of what is called "flame mahogany" can also be seen. Early dials were square and made of brass.

In 1772 Osborn & Wilson, from Birmingham, introduced the white dial. These early dials had simple decorations, such as birds or strawberries. By 1830 small painted scenes, in the corners and arch, were depicted on dials… 

…British Long Case clocks were popular until less expensive, American made movements flooded the market at the end of the 1870s. 

End Quote

This history is told in 6 parts, with what I read being excerpts from the first part. You can check out the other parts including Moon Dial Long Case Clocks, Tavern Clocks, and Early American Clocking Making at the link in the show notes or on Patreon. 

But how did we start calling them grandfather clocks?

As I mentioned at the top, there are a few variations on the origin story. I’ll share version from The Clock Depot


In Piercebridge, North Yorkshire, England, there was a quaint country lodge known as the George Hotel.

The George hotel was managed by two bachelor brothers named Jenkins also from England.The George Hotel is where the Grandfather Clock Song was composed.

In the lobby stood a floor clock, as they were called back in those days, that had been there for many years. One unusual characteristic on the old clock was that it kept very good time. This was uncommon, since in those days clocks were generally not noted for their accuracy.

One day, one of the brothers died and suddenly the old clock started losing time. At first it lost 15 minutes per day but when several clocksmiths gave up trying to repair the ailing timepiece, it was losing more than an hour each day.

The clocks incurable problem became as talked about as its precision had been. Some said it was no surprise that, though fully wound, the old clock stopped when the surviving brother died at the age of ninety.

The new manager of the hotel never attempted to have it repaired. He just left it standing in a sunlit corner of the lobby, its hands resting in the position they assumed the moment the last Jenkins brother died.

End Quote 

Nearly all of the stories are a variation on this one, but you may have noticed they don’t actually use the term “grandfather clock”. So how could this story, or something like it, be the origin?

As the story goes,  some version of this story was told to a man by the name of Henry Clay Work, a composer and songwriter from the United States. He was a guest at the George Hotel in 1875. Henry C. Work used that story as a writing prompt and wrote the song, “My Grandfather’s Clock” in 1876. In 1878, the C.M. Cady company - who published sheet music - declared it to be:


The most popular song in America. 

End Quote

The song gained its original popularity being performed by Sam Lucas. 

Sam Lucas was a black sensation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He became a celebrity performing in black minstrel groups. This popularity combined with his incredible skill allowed him to become one of the first black Americans to branch out of comedy and into more serious productions. In 1878, he became the first black man to portray Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with the role traditionally being played by white men in black face. Sam Lucas reprised his role in William Robert Daly’s 1914 black and white, silent film version of this same book.

Toll, Robert. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth Century America. 1974. Pg 217 

The popularity of My Grandfathers Clock grew and the sheet music sold over a million copies, which is in large part thanks to the talent of Sam Lucas.

Here’s an excerpt from the Ottawa Free Trader, Illinois, USA) May 5, 1877. 


No one who heard it will soon forget the chorus to “Grandfather’s Clock.” Sam Lucas himself can furnish a good evening’s entertainment. His mirth provoking powers are irresistible.

End Quote

Here’s another one talking about Lucas’ performance a year later, out of the Montgomery County Sentinel (Maryland, USA), November 29, 1878.


They brought it out in New England, Sam Lucas singing the solo, and an invisible quartette the chorus. I saw by the papers that it was successful, and went to New Haven one night to hear it. It was certainly a good thing. The audience gave them double and triple encores.

End Quote

There are numerous musicians who have covered this song over the years, including Bing Crosby, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Evelyn Knight, Sam Cooke, John Fahey, and Boyz II Men. 

But our Patron Emily said her dad used to sing it to her as a child. And the version that most closely matches the one he sang to her was by Johnny Cash. So that’s the example we will use. You can find a link to it in the show notes, or for free on our Patreon. 

Here is the opening verse…


My grandfather's clock was too large for the shelf

So it stood ninety years on the floor

It was taller by half than the old man himself

Though it weighed not a pennyweight more

It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born

And was always his treasure and pride

But it stopped, short, never to go again

When the old man died

End Quote 

My Grandfather’s Clock, sung by Johnny Cash off the 1959 album Songs of Our Soil 

I think it is safe to say Henry Clay Work and Sam Lucas are the reason we all call the long, tall clocks Grandfather Clocks. 


They were not the first to call them grandfather clocks. I tried to track down more of the story from the George Hotel and failed miserably. Who knows if it was true or just a story they told to customers. But I did find two interesting notes that may or may not be related to our term, or for that matter, each other. 

First, I saw a piece in the Wiltshire Independent out of Wiltshire, England dated 9 October 1851. It goes,


The excellent Swedish story, “The Entail,” draws near to its conclusion, and is in all respects admirable; and “Some Passages in the Life of the Marshal de Gassion, surnamed the Honest Man,” give a curious account of a remarkable man. There are many interesting tales, among which are “The Three Bouquets,” the story of the Blind Artist, and “My Grandfather’s Clock;”...

End Quote

Okay, so there is a story called “My Grandfather’s Clock” that is mentioned here, but I don’t know if I was able to find it. The only such story in the same timeframe I could find was printed in the Bristol Mercury in 1854. I don’t know if this is the same one the previous article was mentioning because this was printed in the paper a little over 2 years later. 

From the Bristol Mercury, Bristol, England, 21 January 1854.


I have a peculiar affection for old clocks; especially that sober race of puritanical clocks, with long, lank bodies, that stand so primly in the corners of rooms, slowly and discreetly ticking away the hours, as if it were a sober, solemn business, this disposing of time…

End Quote

This was attributed to “New York Knickerbocker”. My first thought was Washington Irving’s original pen name, Diedric Knickerbocker. Irving, who wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, was a Manhattan native, which is one of the boroughs in New York City, so the connection to New York was quick. Unfortunately, that came up dry. 

So next I moved to The Knickerbocker, a magazine published out of New York City. I started with the 1854 edition and worked my way backwards. And I FOUND IT in volume 36 dated 1850. Which would put it in the time frame to be the story out of the Wiltshire Independent which was published in Nov 1851 though I don’t know any way to verify the Wiltshire mention was the same story published in The Knickerbocker. 

In The Knickerbocker, this story is written by O.D. Timekeeper, Gentleman. This is clearly a pen name for someone who didn’t want to be identified. I couldn’t find anything on Gentleman Timekeeper, though they did write many stories over several more years. So this is where my research hits a roadblock, at least for now. Unless any of you valiant listeners have some ideas on how to track down pseudonyms used in the 1850s. If so, send me an email to 

But the point is, even though the writer, known as O.D. Timekeeper, used the phrase in 1850, more than 25 years before the 1876 song came out, it didn’t seem to make much headway. I didn’t find the phrase used to describe this style of clock again until after the song came out. And then it took off. 

Next I want to give some examples of how we are using Grandfather’s Clock in modern times, but first we want to say thank you to our sponsors, and once again to Emily for suggesting this week’s topic.

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

You can help support this educational artform and get awesome perks along the way! Tiers start at $3 a month, which get you our polls and community-only discussions, early access to the podcast, and the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. 

At $10 you’ll also get original digital artwork from Shauna once a month featuring exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. At $15, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe does every episode. And of course huge thanks goes to the top spot among our Patrons, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig-Lopez. Thank you so much to Mary and all of our patrons. 

If you want to help create Bunny Trails week after week, whatever your budget, we are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. 


Modern Uses

For modern uses, let’s start in the 1960s. And we’ve already talked about song covers, so I’ll skip those during this segment.

1963 TV Episode

Do you remember at the top of the episode when I suggested the story might have sounded like an episode of The Twilight Zone? Well, in 1963, the story of My Grandfathers’s Clock was adapted by George Clayton Johnson for the show. If you aren’t familiar, The Twilight Zone was an American TV show from 1959 to 1964. It was created and hosted by Rod Sterling. In the show, everyday people would find themselves in extraordinary situations. Most episodes were a mix of drama, fantasy, horror, and/or science fiction. This episode is called Ninety Years Without Slumbering, which is the opening line of the chorus of My Grandfather’s Clock. Here’s the opening narration from Rod Sterling.


Each man measures his time; some with hope, some with joy, some with fear. But Sam Forstmann measures his allotted time with a grandfather's clock, a unique mechanism whose pendulum swings between life and death, a very special clock that keeps a special kind of time—in the Twilight Zone.

End Quote

I should note George Clayton Johnson did not approve of the heavy rework done by the producers, most notably with the changes in whether or not Sam Forstmann lived or died. I won’t spoil it in case any of you plan to watch this 60ish year old episode. I feel like the statute of limitations has run out on spoilers for this, but I still don’t want to be *that* guy. 

1977 Book

Next up, In 1977 Roger Hargreaves wrote a children’s book called, “Grandfather Clock”. It was re-released in 2017.

Here’s the synopsis from Google Books


Grandfather Clock doesn't need a watch, because he turns into the time! Throughout the day, Grandfather Clock helps people around town tell time by moving the arms on his face to show the time. Follow along through all the times of the day--all the way until bedtime

End Quote 

You may know Roger Hargreaves from his Mr. Men series of books like, Mr. Cool or Mr. Rude, or his Little Miss series such as Liss Miss Inventor or Little Miss Bad. These are simple, funny stories with bold characters and brightly colored illustrations. After Rogers death in 1988, his son Adam Hargreaves continued writing the Mr Men and Little Miss series of books. 

Computer Game 1994

Question, dear listener… 

Were you born in the late 1980s? Do you have a sibling who was? Did you play computer games? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be entitled to a settlement. 

No, I’m kidding about the settlement part. But if you are of the age, you may remember a computer game called JumpStart 1st Grade. In the UK it was released as Jump Ahead Year 1. It is a computer game created by Knowledge Adventure in 1994 intended to teach a 1st grade curriculum. You can still play it on Classic Reload, links in the show notes on, or on our Patreon. 

One section of the game allowed you, the player, to select books and them have them read by character. One of the books is The Grandfather Clock by Mark Beckwith. You can follow along with that one in the game, or check it out on Youtube. Again, links in the show notes. 

The Grandfather Clock starts at 8:20. 

Card Game

There is a type of solitaire called “Grandfather’s Clock Solitaire”. According to Play Solitaire Online dot com, it is an easy-to-play, easy-to-win solitaire, though it looks different than the Classic or Golf styles of solitaire. If that sounds like your thing, then go check it out. 

From the Twitterverse

Okay, last example. When I checked Twitter, I found most of the comments were from or about the song, My Grandfather’s Clock. But close to 20% were people talking about their own grandfather clocks, though usually they previously belonged to a family member. Here’s an example:

On February 10, 2022, Carole Swan responded to a prompt of “What is your most prized possession?” with the response


My grandfather’s clock. It was given to him in 1923 when he married my grandmother.

End Quote 

Very sweet. I assume that, because Carole has it, neither of her grandparents are still with us. No word on whether or not her Grandfather’s Clock still works. 

Wrap up...

I must admit, I wasn’t super familiar with the song when Emily reached out about the term. I had heard it at some point, but it didn’t really stand out to me. But I’ve now heard it hundreds of times by a variety of artists. It’s a moving piece. And I’m thankful to Emily for sharing part of her memories with us so we could help tell the story of Grandfather Clocks.



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


Poll time! 

Recently, we asked our Patrons… Which is the best color?

The options were Red, Green, Yellow, and Blue.


I need to jump in here before you all Tweet at me or send me hate mail.

I don’t 'see' colors like most people do, so I used the primary colors from a physics perspective; red, green, and blue. 

But American schools teach the primary colors from a painting perspective; red, yellow, and blue. Because of this, I decided to include all 4 of the colors mentioned.


As for the winner, Green and Blue tied for the top spot as the best color. 

Though I think we all know black is best. 


If you want to join our polls, head over to where Patrons at all levels can participate in our weekly silly polls that mean absolutely nothing and aren’t even scientifically valid. But they are fun to talk about!



Since the song, My Grandfather’s Clock is in the public domain, we thought we’d take you out today with a living room, jam session 

rendition of the song, with Michael Pugh on the 12 string guitar, Dan Pugh on the six string and melody, and me, Shauna Harrison on harmony. 

We’ll see you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Episode 145: Kill Two Birds With One Stone


Could you get enough feathers from the dead birds in a clock tower to pull an Icarus? Was Daedalus able to do it with just the two birds he killed with one stone? Wait... was this where the phrase comes from?! No. No it wasn't. Shauna talks French. Dan talks mullets. Everyone stans a good murder mystery. All on this week's #BunnyTrails

Episode 145: Kill Two Birds With One Stone Show Notes

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Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Episode 144: Elevator Pitch


Elevators have been around since the 3rd century, though we didn't call them "elevators" at the time. But how did we go from lifting grain to selling something to an unsuspecting fellow passenger? That story involves total quality management and statistics. We swear, it's more fun than it sounds. Bonus: Riding epic steads into battle for the sake of human kind. #BunnyTrails


Episode 144: Elevator Pitch Show Notes

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Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Episode 143: Happy as a Clam


This week Shauna continues to buck the trends as she tackles another happy phrase in Happy as a Clam. Dan makes deep cuts about late 90s music while Shauna tells really bad jokes from the 1800s. Bonus: An entire conversation about board games, booklet games, computer games, and more on this week's #BunnyTrails

Episode 143: Happy as a Clam Show Notes

 Click to read more