Salem Clock Shop

Salem Clock Shop - 1085 Broadway Street NE, Salem, OR 97301  -  (503) 581-3803   Fax: (503) 581-3331



Origins in the Black Forest

A short history of the origin of cuckoo clocks in Germany in the 17th century.

Germany in the 17th century was a hard place. Europe was going through a mini-ice age, and it was so cold during the winters that milk sometimes froze in the pail between the barn and the house.


In the Black Forest area of Germany, opinion has it that around the year 1630 a glass peddler who had traveled to Czechoslovakia brought back a crude, wooden clock called a “wood-beam clock” which used wooden gears and common stones as weights. There was no pendulum; it used instead a piece of wood called a “Waag” which moved back and forth above the clock dial. Crude or not, the clock was a definite improvement over the hourglasses and sundials that were the norm in those days.

The Black Forest

The original clock was greatly improved upon over the years by the volk of the Black Forest, and clock peddlers ( “Ührschleppers” in German) began taking the clocks all over Europe. The people would work at clock making during the Winter and the Ührschleppers would take them off for re-sale in the Spring.


In 1712, Friedrich Dilger from the village of Urach went to France for a year to study advances in clocks and clockmaking tools, and brought better technology back with him.

The clock caught on, and people began to make clocks in their homes during the long, harsh winters. These clocks soon became an important source of income; particularly among the so-called “Häuslers”. The custom of inheritance by primogeniture (i.e. the 1st born son inherits) was in effect and other, younger sons usually received only a small plot of land for a hut and had to work for others in order to survive. Very shortly, clock making was a roaring cabin industry.

But these clocks were still not cuckoo clocks. There were “artist clocks” in some European cities which had moving figures; the Astronomical Clock, which is in Prague and was built in 1410, is replete with animated, allegorical figures. Among others, there is a skeleton representing Death who turns over an hourglass while his bones rattle, and a rooster that crows each hour as the climax to the elaborate show put on by the clock. There were also small, domestic clocks that had, for example, a dancing couple turning this way and that, or a butcher striking a cow with an ax, but no cuckoo clocks.

An Ührschlepper


Death and Greed—Prague

The very first cuckoo clock is attributed to Anton Ketterer of the village of Schönwald who added the famous cuckoo to his clocks in 1738. It is possible that the rooster clocks were Ketterer’s inspiration. It was certainly easier to make a clock go “coo-coo” than  making it crow, but it still must have been difficult to develop the mechanism to do this. Ketterer’s answer was the same gadget that is used today; twin bellows that send air through small pipes like a pipe organ.

By this time, clockmaking had become widespread in the Black Forest, and folks began to specialize. Some cut gears, others carved the decorations or made the cases, and still others did the painting. Many cuckoo clocks in the 18th and 19th centuries were painted with elaborate scenes on the front of the case. According to one source, in 1808 in the town of Triberg, 790 of the towns 9,013 residents were involved in clockmaking. In 1850, the Duke of Baden founded a school for clockmaking in Furtwangen which taught students drawing and mathematics in addition to movement and case-making.

The decorations on the cases of cuckoo clocks have developed into different styles or themes. There are, as an example, the “Hunter’s Clocks” which have guns, powder horns, ammunition pouches and game animals decorating the clock. The animals can be represented as alive or dead. Many people prefer live animals on their clocks.



Then, there are the “Bahnhäusle” style of clocks that are usually festooned with grapevines. When a railroad was built in the Black Forest in the 1860s, a number of tunnels had to be built. Skilled tunnel-builders were brought in from Italy who, naturally, brought their life-styles and architecture with them. They built small lookout buildings along the railway which showed the Italian influence and which were often adorned with wild grapevines. These picturesque structures were the inspiration for the Bahnhäusle cuckoo clocks.



“Live” carved stag on hunter’s clock

Bahnhäusle style clock

Hand-painted Victorian style clock