Left: Fig. 1: Tall clock, made by George Hoff (1733–1816), Lancaster, Penn., 1768. Case made by an unknown cabinetmaker, possibly Lancaster County, Penn. Cherry, red mulberry, black walnut, atypical fruitwood, lightwood crossbanding, pewter, brass, iron, steel, glass. H. 105, W. 19¾, D. Dietrich American Foundation. Photo by Gavin Ashworth. Right: Fig. 2: Detail of the hood of the clock and case illustrated in fig. 1. Photo by Gavin Ashworth. 

by Christopher Storb 

The clockmaker John George Hoff (1733-1816) immigrated from Grünstadt, Germany, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1765. He arrived with his young daughter and his wife, Justina Margaretha Schnertzel (1743–1806), whom he had married in May 1761. By the time Hoff was in Philadelphia he was a fully trained clockmaker, presumably having learned the craft from Justina’s father, clockmaker George Schnertzel.

The couple was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by 1766 when their son Michael was baptized at Trinity Lutheran Church. A thirty-hour clock and case in the collection of Rock Ford Plantation inlaid with the date 1766 has a movement attributed to Hoff. The dial has cast pewter spandrels (the corners of the clock face) and a figure of Father Time in the dial-arch identical to the pewter castings Hoff was to use later on many of his signed clocks. An 8-day clock signed “George Hoff/Lancaster” in the collection of the Dietrich American Foundation is inlaid in pewter with the date 1768. The dial has pewter castings identical to those on the 1766 clock. It is Hoff’s earliest signed clock and is housed in one of the most complex cases produced in Lancaster in the second half of the eighteenth century (Figs. 1, 2).

The George Hoff eight-day movement was constructed in the German manner and has features seen in his other early clocks (Fig. 3). The pewter spandrels and dial-arch applique of the face are painted with bronze powder suspended in an oil medium. There are traces of earlier coating materials on the reverse surfaces of the spandrels though it is not known if the first of these coatings was applied as part of the original decorative scheme or was added later (Fig. 4).

Left: Fig 3: Detail of the clock movement illustrated in fig. 1. Right: Fig. 4: Detail of the dial illustrated in fig. 1. Photos by author.

Above, clockwise from left: Fig. 5: Detail of the hood of the clock and case illustrated in fig. 1. Photo by author. Fig. 6:  Detail of the hood during treatment to remove a discolored coating applied in 1971. Photo by author. Fig. 7: Detail of the hood after treatment. Photo by Gavin Ashworth.

The metal inlay in the Hoff case was also examined and conserved during the recent survey of the Dietrich American Foundation’s collection of furniture and woodwork. It had long been assumed that the metal inlay on the case was brass or gilt silver. This was primarily due to the deterioration of a tinted finish coating applied in 1971 during a previous restoration that had darkened with age. During the recent treatment, this finish was selectively removed, revealing pewter inlay and stringing. The silver color of the pewter presents a greater contrast with the surrounding wood than the previous orange tinted coating and aides in establishing the original appearance of the case (Figs. 6, 7).

Fig. 8: Detail of the base panel of the clock and case illustrated in fig. 1. Photo by author.

The case housing Hoff’s clock is elaborately inlaid with lightwood crossbanding (possibly locust) and pewter. Crossbanded wood inlay on the hood, pendulum door, and base panel is outlined with pewter stringing. Pewter rings adorn the turned balusters of the hood. The date in the arch of the hood was created by pouring molten pewter into numerals carved into the wood. The case is made of diverse hardwoods of a variety of hues. The framing members of the front of the case, the pendulum door, base panel, sides of the upper section of the hood, the lower moulding of the hood, and the upper and lower trunk mouldings are black cherry. The sides of the lower section of the hood, sides of the trunk and the base, and the base moulding and feet are red mulberry. The corner columns on the trunk and base are made of black walnut. The wood species of the columns on the door of the hood was at first difficult to identify. Microscopic analysis confirmed it to be a species in the genus Prunus, possibly black cherry, but is atypical with more numerous and wider rays that may have been stress induced during the tree’s growth. The color of the columns is lighter than that of the black cherry of the rest of the case and they were clearly chosen for their unusual appearance and light color (Fig. 5). The effect of the contrasting colors of the different wood species was much more striking originally than it appears today as the colors have faded toward a similar reddish/brown hue due to oxidation of the wood surfaces. An unknown woodworker combined the orange tint of black cherry, the deep red of mulberry, the dark brown of black walnut, the light hued atypical cherry with an elaborate scheme of inlaid lightwood crossbanding outlined with pewter stringing to produce a work of extraordinary imagination and artistry. 

Fig. 9: The “Seed of Life” consists of seven overlapping circles of the same size. The pinwheel design created in the center circle is a common decorative device. Using the same compass setting, an hourglass shape is produced by setting the compass point in the appropriate locations. Two more hourglass shapes are drawn and the design is rotated so that one of the hourglass shapes aligns with a diagonal of the square.

The Hoff clock case is related to a group of inlaid furniture produced in one or more shops in Lancaster County, most likely located in the borough of Lancaster. The group of more than twenty objects consists of schranks, chests, and at least five other clock cases inlaid with sulfur or pewter. One case, dated 1762, houses a clock made by Rudy Stoner (1728–1769), one of Lancaster’s earliest recorded clockmakers, and is the only other clock case attributed to this maker that has inlay on the pendulum door and base in addition to inlay on the hood. Like the Hoff clock case, the inlay consists of molten pewter poured into recesses in the wood and crossbanded lightwood outlined with pewter stringing. 

The same distinctive geometric design seen on the base of the Hoff clock case is inlaid in sulfur on the lower panels of the doors of two schranks in the group (Fig. 8). To produce the pattern,  only a compass set to a single opening is needed. The design on these three objects has been referred to alternatively as a gordian or lover’s knot but is instead a variation of an ancient geometric construction common to cultures around the world. Referred to as the “Seed of Life” or “Flower of Life,” the pattern can be found on countless southeastern Pennsylvania decorative objects, from carved wood butter molds to hexagrams painted on barn sidings. As its name implies, the “Seed of Life” has been used as a symbol of blessing, fertility, and protection. Numerous designs can be generated from the initial hexagram, and the maker of this clock case used it to produce a design of three hourglass shapes with his compass. Before the channel for the inlay was cut on the base panel, a line bisecting one of the hourglass shapes was aligned with a diagonal running from the top left corner to the lower right of the panel (Fig. 9). This slight rotation, changing the static vertical position to a more dynamic, tumbling alignment, creates the illusion that the design is in motion, mirroring the actual rotation of hands of the clock dial above.

1. Stacy B. C. Wood Jr. and Stephen E. Kramer, Clockmakers  of Lancaster County and Their Clocks, 1750–1850 (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977), 22, 23. Apprentices often lived with their shop master and it was common practice for an apprentice to marry into a family, both in the colonies and abroad. The term “clockmaker” refers to someone who made the works and face/dial; the wooden case and hood would have been made by a cabinetmaker.

2. https://www.incollect.com/articles/an-extraordinary-legacy-john-j-snyder-jr-and-early-lancaster-county-decorative-arts

3. The German features include lantern pinions, three turned brass pillars joining the brass plates of the movement, a fourth pillar behind the rear plate supporting the back-cock, and an open crutch.

4. For more on this group of objects, see Lisa Minardi, “Sulfur Inlay in Pennsylvania German Furniture: New Discoveries,” in American Furniture, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2015), 98-128. For the Rudy Stoner clock, see http://chipstone.dom5183.com/objects-1/info?query=Artist_Maker%20%3D%20%22334%22&sort=0.

This article is the eighth in a series featuring the Dietrich American Foundation’s collection, intended as a type of crowd sourcing exercise, where responses and information shared by readers can inform research. The Foundation’s mission is to share findings and stories about people, place, and history that are revealed through research. For information about the Dietrich American Foundation, visit dietrichamericanfoundation.org.

Christopher Storb is a furniture conservator, woodworking historian, and wood artist. Please send comments and related research to  cstorb@gmail.com, or call 610.212.5528.