Cuckoo Clocks are a symbol of the Black Forest (and to many people… a symbol of Germany). We had a small one in our hallway when I was a child… and I remember watching it closely to see when it would open up to “Cuckoo!” (I’d giggle EVERY TIME!) And who can forget the Von Trapp children singing, “Up in the Nursery an absurd little bird, is popping out to say Cuckoo!” But what IS a Cuckoo clock? Why does a Cuckoo bird to live in the clock, and not a different bird? Did you know that there are five distinct types of Cuckoo Clocks?? AND that there is a special certification that is only given to authentic Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks? There is a lot more to these clocks than merely telling the time.
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What is a Cuckoo Clock?
A Cuckoo Clock, quite simply, is a clock where a small Cuckoo bird comes out on hour (sometimes on the half as well) and lets everyone know what time it is by Cuckoo-ing once for every hour. The Cuckoo sound is made when tiny paper and wood bellows inside the clock open and close.
(Bear with me a second while I explain this, I’m not an engineer, and this is how I interpret the inner works)
The internal mechanism that “powers” the clock (and activates the cuckoo) is mechanical, driven by gears and gravity. When you look at a Cuckoo Clock you will see a pair of weights (usually heavy narrow pine cones) attached to a chain, and a pendulum under the box. The weights slowly pull the chain down (because of gravity), which activates the pendulum to move back and forth (tick tock tick tock) each second, shifting the gears, and moving the clock forward. One of the chains is in charge of the time, the other is in charge of the cuckoo (both the bellows and the wings). Clocks will last 1 or 8 days, and need to be wound by pulling the weights back up.
If you see a third chain with a weight, that means the clock has music as well (see, you can impress people now with your knowledge… once glance, and you can tell if there is music or not).
If you don’t see the weights, then you are looking at a Quarz Movement clock (it has batteries)… and it will not be certified as an Authentic Black Forest Clock.
(note- Most Cuckoo Clocks come with a night setting that silences the bird so your clock doesn’t keep you up all night.)
And why a cuckoo?
Originally, the plan was to put a rooster inside the clock. It makes sense, since Roosters were the original alarm clock. The problem came when they couldn’t get the sound right, they wanted to make a rooster crowing, but the sound from the little bellows just didn’t sound like “Ki keri Kee!”
But the bellows sounds remarkably like the sound of the Cuckoo in the Black Forest… so adjustments were made.
History of the Cuckoo Clock
The first Cuckoo Clock ever described was owned by Prince Elector August von Sachsen in 1629, no one knows if it was the first EVER Cuckoo Clock. Other clocks with mechanical figures that moved were also existence. And it wasn’t until 1669, when famous clockmaker, Domenico Martinelli, had the idea of bellows making the bird make noise on the hour.
How the Cuckoo Clock came to the Black Forest in Germany is a bit fuzzy. Some say that a Bohemian (today’s Czech Republic) trader sold a crude version to some clock makers from Furtwangen (east of Freiburg im Breisgau). They copied it, improved it, and made it their own. Others say it was Friedrich Dilger who learned clock making and carving in France who came up with the idea. The favorite version of the story claims that the Cuckoo Clock was invented by Franz Anton Ketterer, a clock maker from Schönwald, who had the idea of including a bird that made a cuckoo sound.
Wherever the Cuckoo Clock originated, it found a home in the Black Forest. Firsts don’t matter as much as tradition, and the industry of hand carving these beautiful clocks is deeply rooted in that part of Germany. Improvements have been made and distinct styles introduced, but essentially, it belongs to the Black Forest.
How Can You Identify a Real Black Forest Cuckoo Clock
The best way to know if you have an Authentic Black Forest Cuckoo Clock is to look for the Verein die Schwarzwalduhr (VdS) or Black Forest Clock Association certification.
“This is an original Black Forest Cuckoo Clock. It is driven by a mechanical movement, and has been produced in the Black Forest, including their most important parts. Therefore this Cuckoo Clock fills the requirements of the VdS Black Forest Cuckoo Clock Association”
Black Forest Cuckoo Clock Characteristics
- They are hand carved in the Black Forest
- They are made of Linden Wood
- They have 1 or 8 day movements
The weights that move the inner mechanism most often look like Pine Cones, and are made of cast iron. Two weights are standard, a third is added when there is a music box inside (the music boxes are the only parts allowed from outside the Black Forest, generally they come from Switzerland).
While the primary requirement is that the clock have a cuckoo, an artist or clock maker may be creative with carving and styling his clock. Other mechanical figures may be added, or the clock can be adorned in carvings. More modern cuckoo clocks are simple, actually quite plain. Still, if they follow the rules, they get that VdS certificate.
Different Styles of Cuckoo Clocks
There are 5 specific “types” of Black Forest cuckoo clocks, and before you go shopping for one, you might want to have an idea about the kind you like best.
Traditional Style (also called “Classic” or “Carved”)
This is the Cuckoo Clock you expect to find in a rustic hunting lodge. These hand carved clocks have nature or hunting scenes. Often there is a Stag with horns, carved leaves, birds, hunting horns or guns. Generally they are natural, unpainted wood, although some will have other moving figures that may be painted. The cuckoo peeps out at the top from behind his door.
Chalet Style Cuckoo Clocks
Like the name says, these clocks look like small Black Forest Chalets. (These are my favorite, because there is often so much to LOOK at!). Around the Chalet are scenes of everyday life in the Black Forest. People saw or chop wood, feed animals, or sit and raise a beer on the hour! There might be a spinning water wheel. Some even have music, and there might even be rotating dancers! Naturally, the more things happening, the more these clocks cost, but they will entertain for HOURS.
Shield Clocks go back further in the Black Forest than the Cuckoo Clock. Basically, the face of the clock is a painted shield. While the style of the may be plain, and there is no box around it, the painting is often quite intricate. Generally they were painted by women, and often personalized and given as wedding gifts.
Bahnhäusle Clocks (Railroad Station Clocks)
These clocks look like little houses covered in grapevines. The original ones were based on the lookout buildings that the Italian Tunnel Builders used while building the railways through the Alps. Today they look a bit like the Chalet style, but they have some differences, like painted faces and grape vines.
Modern Cuckoo Clocks
With clean lines, plain faces and unusual colors, these Modern Cuckoo Clocks may not be the first thing you imagine when you think of the Black Forest, but they are authentic. Hand made in the Black Forest, and there is a cuckoo popping out on the hour. Perfect if you want to mix the old and new.
So MANY Cuckoo Clocks!
There is an entire INDUSTRY in the Black Forest devoted to Cuckoo Clocks! With so many clock styles to choose from, it’s no wonder there is a House of One Thousand Clocks in Freiburg! (I got lost in that store for an hour!). My son loves his! There are ornate ones and small ones… there are even Cuckoo Clocks big enough to WALK INSIDE!
Do YOU have a Cuckoo Clock? What style is YOUR Favorite?
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