Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Post Office clock

In a posting about the City Hall clock, I noted how clocks in civic spaces—and on civic buildings—perform more than a time-keeping function. They also help the powers that be to assert their centrality to the civic order. Here, I want to explore the theme a little further by looking at the clock in Guelph's Old Post Office/Customs House in St. George's Square. Here is a nice view of the building, from a postcard that was first presented in this posting about Guelph after dark.

The postcard was printed by The Valentine & Sons' Publishing Co., Ltd. of Montreal and Toronto. The image appears to date from 1907, after the clock was installed but before the island around the Blacksmith Fountain was renovated in 1908. The image is appropriate, in part, because it gives a view of the Square from ground level, looking up at the central tower on the Post Office.

The importance of the clock's physical position is quite plain. It is made prominent in several ways. First of all, like the City Hall clock, it is situated high up on the building. This allows it to be seen from a distance and also to cast its cyclopean gaze over the space around it. Second, also like the City Hall clock, it is centrally located in an important public area. The City Hall clock looks out over the marketplace, whereas the Post Office clock looks out over St. George's Square, the place that had become the focus of town commerce at the time. Third, and unlike the City Hall clock, the Post Office clock projects forward from the face of the building. This projection enhances the visibility of the side faces of the clock, and asserts the importance of the clock in the life of the city into which it intrudes.

This arrangement is no accident. Part of the significance of federal government structures in the young Dominion was to make visible the presence of national institutions, and to underline their importance in the greater scheme of things. The ritual of sending and receiving mail there helped to integrate the federal government into daily life. Also, use of the clock to synchronize watches amongst the townsfolk helped to reinforce the power of the government to regulate the conduct of affairs.

Beyond the symbolic importance of the clock is the interesting story of its arrival. The old Post Office had been enlarged with a third storey in 1903 (more on that another time) and blank faces had been left in the tower top to accommodate a clock at a later time. As Marc Boileau notes in "Towers of time" (2006), this procedure was not uncommon. Perhaps it helped to reduce the factor of sticker shock if the new building (or renovation, in this case) could be constructed a piece at a time. In some cases, the clock never arrived and the empty, round windows where its faces would be continued to stare blankly out over the streets.

However, three years after the raising of the roof, the Post Office received its new timepiece. In fact, the story of its arrival and installation is well told in the Guelph Evening Mercury's "Local News" columns, which I will excerpt below:

Nov. 16, 1906: New Clock Here.

The new clock for the post office tower has arrived, via C.P.R., and been cleared from the customs by Mr. W. A. Clark. The new time piece is of Boston manufacture, an eight-day Howard clock, and will have dials illuminated by electricity. A 1,500 lb. bell will be part of the equipment. The clock will be put into position as soon as the representative of the makers arrives to superintend the operation.
The maker must have been E. Howard & Co., a Boston watch and clock maker that had exported many tower clocks to Canada for similar sites over the years. The clock was a single mechanism that drove several dials via electric or pneumatic means. Probably, this model was electric.

There is no record I can find of the model of clock or its cost. The "Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada, 1906–7" has a line item for "Guelph Public Building—addition, improvements, furniture, etc." in the amount of $5,122.91. There is no line item for a "tower clock" for Guelph in any federal records for that year that I can find. However, line items for "tower clock" for other towns in that period vary in $750–$2,000 range. So, the $5,122.91 for Guelph must include other renovations.

The arrival of the new clock excited some admiration and expectations of its immediate installation:

Nov. 24, 1906: Installing The New Clock.

The representative of the Howard Clock Co., the makers of the new post office clock, has arrived and the work of installation commenced this morning. The huge bell weighing 1,500 lbs. is being hoisted into place this afternoon, and the work will probably be completed by the middle of next week.
The weight of the bell gets notice again. It should be quite audible, once it is working!

Expectations for a speedy installation were frustrated, however. About two weeks later, the following piece appears:

Dec. 6, 1906: What Time Is It?

The above query was heard frequently on the streets this morning. The reason is simple. The town clock discontinued operations at 8.22. It no doubt has made a gallant effort to stay in the business until the post office clock was ready, but has grown weary of waiting for the hands to appear.
It seems that part of the excitement about the arrival of the Post Office clock may have been relief over the imminent breakdown of the City Hall clock. At this point, the city finds itself without an official timepiece. In its absence, people are not sure what the time is.

The next item identifies the snafu that has thrown a wrench into the installation of the new clock:

Dec. 11, 1906: The P. O. Clock

Mr. W. A. Clark had hoped to have the P. O. [Post Office] Clock in full working order for the Winter Fair week, but the central part of the dials have gone astray in course of transportation. Although tracers have been out for several days, the efforts to locate them so far have proved unsuccessful. Should they not be found, it will take three months to replace them with new ones. The works are going, the bell strikes, and the outer portion of the dials is illuminated at night. The clock, when complete, will prove a great public convenience, and will look swell. The pity is that an unfortunate miscarriage of a portion of it will prevent its completion at this particular time.
The fact that the faces are illuminated is interesting. So far as I am aware, the City Hall clock did not have this feature. It also suggests that the clock was designed to run each face through an electrical circuit (as opposed to pneumatic control). The illumination of the clock faces also suggests how the night life of the city was changing, thanks to electric lighting. As noted in an earlier post, electric street lighting allowed decent folk to be abroad at night. Presumably, they would like to know the official time while out about their business.

The good people of Guelph did not have to wait three months to see their new clock tell time, however. Replacements for the missing dials arrived forthwith:

Dec. 29, 1906: Those Missing Dials

Mr. W. A. Clark recently ordered another set of dials for the post office clock; they were shipped some time ago, and which have been expected to arrive for some days past. Mr. Clark had hoped to have them put in to be able to start the clock the beginning of the New Year, but it would now seem that this will be impossible; however, if the dials arrive today an effort will be made to have the put in on Monday.
Now the suspense builds! Will the new dials arrive in time to bring in the New Year?

Unfortunately, the New Year's issue of the Mercury is not on record. However, it does appear that the clock was (almost) completely functional a week later:

Jan. 8, 1907: Town Clock Celebrates

At the hour of midnight last night the town clock, after clanging the requisite dozen peals, instead of stopping and commencing the new day like a respectable clock, kept on ringing for about five minutes. The care-taker says that it must have “slipped a cog,” but it is quite possible that it could not resist the opportunity to celebrate the election of Mayor Newstead by a majority which was doubtless the greatest of any election since it was installed.
The Mayoral race took place at the beginning of each year. There is no more mention of the dials, from which I infer that they were installed and thus no longer newsworthy.

The Post Office/Customs Building clock continued to tell Guelphites the official time for over 50 years.

The message written on the back of this postcard also relates to January in Guelph, although from a few years later:

Am spending the day in this town, a very small place about one hundred miles from Toronto. I hope to finish my business in Canada by January 17th. Am very anxious to get back[.] it[']s just a little too cold for me in these parts. Best regards from Sincerely Frank Kiosny (??)
The postmark bears the date of Jan. 12, 1910. His letter was addressed to Miss A. Zimmermann of 199 6th Ave. in Brooklyn, N.Y. Was she his sweetheart? At least Frank could count the hours until his warm reception in Brooklyn, day or night, by the new town clock.

More on Guelph's civic clocks to come...

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