Household clocks are a long-standing part of the Prussian-Russian Mennonite material culture tradition.2 These clocks were made by Mennonite craftsmen who settled the area near Danzig, Prussia, and later in the Mennonite settlements in South Russia. They did not invent this clock, but took elements from clocks of the time, and incorporated these elements into a design they adopted as their own. They produced clocks based on this design for 200 years, beginning in the very early part of the eighteenth century.

Fig. 1 Jacob Mandtler 1848 clock. (James O. Harms)Fig. 1: Jacob Mandtler 1848 clock. (James O. Harms)

All of these clocks have painted metal faces (early faces were sometimes decorated with Old Testament scenes–later designs often used flowers); long brass pendulums (one meter, more or less); recoil escapements; brass weights filled with lead, with ornate, turned end caps; cast brass hands. Many have rope drive; later clocks have chain drive. There is a stout metal box protecting the works, but no other casework. They hang on the wall.

The Kroeger family is the best known and most well-documented of the clockmakers we presently know. Other family names associated with clock making include Lepp, Hildebrand, Hamm, Janzen, Friesen, Regier, Koop, and Mandtler. We often have no documentation other than the clocks themselves, and the manufacturing and design details that tie them to their makers.

In 2006 I was asked to restore a clock for the Mennonite Settlement Museum in Hillsboro, KS. This clock was made in the Mennonite settlements of South Russia, in the area now part of Ukraine. The clockworks were marked "Jacob Mandtler 1848" (Fig. 1). Historians and collectors of Mennonite artifacts knew about Gerhard Mandtler, but he was believed to be the only clockmaker in the family. So, who was Jacob Mandtler?

Fortunately for us, Mandtler clocks made in Molotschna carry the name, or "mark" of their maker. Without this, we would have no idea who made these clocks. Earlier Mandtler clocks made in Prussia are dated, but not marked. This is to be expected, since none of the Mennonite clocks from Prussia were marked.3 Mandtler clocks had their own style, with unique design characteristics. I have used these unique characteristics to identify a Mandtler clock tradition in early, unmarked clocks going back to the early 1700s. There are many identity factors to consider, but two easily identified characteristics of Mandtler clocks are the doors of the metal box that protects the works, and the design of the pendulum.

In the following discussion of specific Mandtler clocks, I will focus on two unmarked clocks from Prussia, dated 1720 and 1804, and compare these with a later clock by Gerhard Mandtler (b.1821), marked "GM 1862". The doors of Mandtler clocks are notched at the top so they may be removed easily for servicing the clock. I am not aware of any other Mennonite clockmaker who did this. The door handles are fairly wide, with a formed loop on the outer edge. Door handles of this style are unique to Mandtler, and are found on early Prussian clocks as well as later ones made in Molotschna (Figs. 2,3,4).

Left side door from the 1862 Mandtler clock. Note the notch by the upper hinge pin, and the profile of the handle. The same design is seen on the doors from 1804 (Fig. 3) and 1720 (Fig. 4). Private collection. (James O. Harms)Fig. 2 Left side door from the 1862 Mandtler clock. Note the notch by the upper hinge pin, and the profile of the handle. The same design is seen on the doors from 1804 (Fig. 3) and 1720 (Fig. 4). Private collection. (James O. Harms)
Left side door from the 1804 clock. Private collection. (James O. Harms)Fig. 3 Left side door from the 1804 clock. Private collection. (James O. Harms)
Left side door from the 1720 clock. Private collection. (Photo by owner)Fig. 4 Left side door from the 1720 clock. Private collection. (Photo by owner)

The Mandtler pendulum design was also unique among the Mennonite clockmakers. The bob at the bottom of the pendulum slides on the pendulum rod (Figs. 5,6,7), rather than sliding on the adjusting screw as was done by the Kroeger, Lepp, Hildebrand, and Hamm clockmakers from Chortitza (Fig. 8).

Pendulum from the 1862 Mandtler clock. Note that the bob slides on the wide part of the rod. This design was also used on the 1804 (Fig. 6) and 1720 (Fig. 7) clocks. Private collection. (James O. Harms)Fig. 5 Pendulum from the 1862 Mandtler clock. Note that the bob slides on the wide part of the rod. This design was also used on the 1804 (Fig. 6) and 1720 (Fig. 7) clocks. Private collection. (James O. Harms)
Pendulum from the 1804 clock. Private collection. (James O. Harms)Fig. 6 Pendulum from the 1804 clock. Private collection. (James O. Harms)
Pendulum from the 1720 clock. Private collection. (Photo by owner)Fig. 7 Pendulum from the 1720 clock. Private collection. (Photo by owner)
This Kroeger pendulum from 1856 was included to show how other major clockmakers chose to do this. Note that the bob slides on the adjusting screw. This design was used by Kroeger, Lepp, Hildebrand, and Hamm. Private collection. (James O. Harms)Fig. 8 This Kroeger pendulum from 1856 was included to show how other major clockmakers chose to do this. Note that the bob slides on the adjusting screw. This design was used by Kroeger, Lepp, Hildebrand, and Hamm. Private collection. (James O. Harms)

Is This the Oldest Mennonite Clock?

The photographs show characteristics unique to the Mandtler clockmakers, which were adopted early on and are shared by all Mandtler clocks I have seen. The photographs compare these features on clocks from 1862, 1804, and 1720, and make a very strong case that both the 1720 and 1804 clocks were indeed made by the Mandtler clockmakers. The 1720 clock is dated on both the face and on the works (Fig. 9).

This makes it the oldest known Mandtler clock, and it may well be the oldest extant Mennonite clock. The paint on the face is badly chipped and wrinkled, but the "17" is quite legible. The "20" was located in an area where the paint has chipped away, but there are fragments that correspond with the numerals "2" and "0". These fragments are marked on the photographs (Figs. 10,11). This date is confirmed by the works, where "1720" has been scratched into the main gear.

This clock has both hour and minute hands, which effectively demonstrates that early Mennonite clockmakers were capable of more than simple clocks having only one hand. I have long maintained that the simple, one-hand clock did not indicate lack of the ability to build more complex clocks, but was a business decision which made the clocks more affordable.

The face is the square + arch design. Even though this design was used on contemporary English clocks, it is a common belief that early Mennonite clocks had a round face, and that the square+arch design was not adopted by Mennonite clockmakers until the early part of the 19th century. While many of the early Mennonite clocks had a round face, it is evident not all of them did.

Face of the clock dated 1720. Private collection. (James O. Harms)Fig. 9 Face of the clock dated 1720. Private collection. (James O. Harms)
On this clock, as on all early Mandtler clocks, the date is divided. Here is a closeup showing the left side, with the first part of the date, “17”.Fig. 10 On this clock, as on all early Mandtler clocks, the date is divided. Here is a closeup showing the left side, with the first part of the date, 17.
This is a closeup of the right side, with the rest of the date, “20”. The paint is badly chipped, but the circled areas show fragments of “2”, and the top curve of “0”.Fig. 11 This is a closeup of the right side, with the rest of the date, "20". The paint is badly chipped, but the circled areas show fragments of 2, and the top curve of 0.

The photographs show the remarkable similarites between the marked Mandtler clock and the unmarked ones dated 1720 and 1804. It can be said with reasonable certainty that these early clocks were made by the Mandtler clockmakers. But who were the clockmakers in this family? What are the names of those who made these clocks?

The Mandtler Family Clockmakers

What started as a search for Jacob Mandtler led to the discovery of the line of clockmakers in the Mandtler family. The big breakthrough came when I found this notice in Mennonite Historian, June, 1996.

"Mandtler I am seeking information on Gerhard Mandtler b. 15 September 1855, in Lindenau, Molotschna. He married Katharine Isaak b. 11 August 1860, in Lindenau and had a daughter, Anna Mandtler who married Franz Kroeker. Gerhard was a famous clockmaker in the Molotschna colony. Any information about ancestors, siblings or other offspring would be appreciated. Contact: Mary Loewen, Vancouver, BC ."

Even though this notice had been posted almost 10 years earlier, I was eventually able to contact her. She has been a very important contributor to my search for information about the Mandtler family, even sending family photographs of Gerhard, the last clockmaker, her great-grandfather.4

In his massive compilation of migration lists, B.H. Unruh identifies Jacob Mandtler.5 He came from Fürstenwerder, Prussia to Molotschna in 1839. Unruh lists Jacob as an "Uhrmacher," or clockmaker, which documents the fact that the Mandtlers were indeed clockmakers in Prussia. From the family tree we know that Jacob (b.1790) was the father of Jacob (b.1816) and Gerhard (b.1821), and the grandfather of Gerhard (b.1855), all of them clockmakers.

The 1720 Mandtler is not a simple clock, and it is safe to say someone in the Mandtler family was already an established clockmaker at the time this clock was made. It is 84 years between this clock and the 1804 Mandtler. But the designs are similar, and this unity of design indicates that clockmaking continued during this time, and the designs were passed from one generation to the next.

The Mandtler tradition runs as follows:

  • Maker of the 1720 clock (b. ca. 1685) Perhaps the grandfather of Jacob (b. ca. 1735)
    • Jacob (b. ca. 1735) 
      • Jacob (b. 1758): Maker of the 1804 clock.
        • Jacob (b.1790): Listed as "Uhrmacher" in Prussia by B. H. Unruh. Moved his family to Molotschna in 1839. Maker of clock marked "Jacob Mandtler 1848" at the Hillsboro museum.
          • Jacob (b.1816): He is not as well known as his younger brother Gerhard (b.1821). I know of one of his clocks, marked "Jacob Mandtler Lindenau 1862".
          • Gerhard (b.1821): He is the one most people think of when talking about Mandtler clocks. His clocks are marked on the works with "GM" and the year they were made. On early clocks this was engraved on the main gear. Later clocks were stamped on the main gear or on the frame. He is the maker of most of the Mandtler clocks brought to the U.S. and Canada by the early immigrants. His son Gerhard (b.1855) was 19 at the time of the first migration, and not yet a clockmaker on his own.
            • Gerhard Mandtler (b. 1855) in 1925. (This image was cropped by the author from a 1925 photograph of the Gerhard Mandtler extended family. Source: Mary Loewen.)Fig. 12 Gerhard Mandtler (b. 1855) in 1925. (This image was cropped by the author from a 1925 photograph of the Gerhard Mandtler extended family. Source: Mary Loewen.)
              Gerhard (b.1855): He is the last of the Mandtler clockmakers (Fig. 12). He is named in The Mennonite Encyclopedia, where it says "Prominent manufacturers of these clocks in Russia in the beginning of this century were David Kroeger in the village of Rosenthal in the Chortitza settement, and Gerhard Mandtler of Lindenau in the Molotschna settlement, each of whom had a factory valued at about $5,000".6 Clock production ended at some time during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921).7 Gerhard died in Lindenau, Molotschna in 1930.

There is also a second Mandtler clock tradition. In 1986, Jake Peters of Winnipeg MB was working on an oral history project for Mennonite Heritage Village, Steinbach MB. This included an interview with John D. Mandtler (1912-1987), who lived in Winnipeg MB at the time.8 In this interview he spoke of his great-grandfather Philip Mandtler, and his grandfather Jacob Philip Mandtler, a clockmaker in Alexanderwohl, Molotschna.

In the interview, John D. Mandtler describes the clocks of his grandfather as having dark green faces with gold lettering. The clocks were made in two different styles: one had a strike train with a "chime" (which was a cast brass bell), and two large weights, and a less expensive one without the chime and only one large weight.

It is somewhat logical to think that the clockmaking ancestors of John D. Mandtler came from the line of clockmakers in the Mandtler family. There is one Philip in that line, born in 1809, the son of Jacob (b.1758). As the son of a clockmaker he would have been trained in this craft as a youth. But there is no data beyond his name and birth date. We have no record of his children, and so cannot confirm that Jacob Philip was his son. John D. Mandtler said his great-grandfather Philip moved to Alexanderwohl, Molotschna in 1854 from Marienburg, Prussia. His son Jacob Philip (b. 1842) was a clockmaker from about 1870-1913. Peter Lorenz Neufeld in his writings on Mennonite history considered him to be a "master craftsman".9 He trained his sons as clockmakers, but there are no records that indicate they continued the family clockmaking tradition.

Final Thoughts

The Mennonite clockmakers of Prussia and Russia were an important part of Mennonite material culture. They were the precision machinists of their time. It is now apparent that the Mandtler family contributed much more to the legacy of Mennonite clocks and clockmaking than is generally recognized.

I have learned over the years that there is a lot of information in family records that is not yet part of written Mennonite history. We do not know the complete story of the Mandtler family clockmakers. There are still questions regarding this family and their clocks, and it may be that someone reading this has answers. Three of these questions are:

  1. How do the various Mandtler families connect? One source suggests they were originally Lutherans who became Mennonites in about 1700.10
  2. How does the second set of Mandtler clockmakers relate to the first?
  3. How many Mandtler clocks from Prussia still exist? The doors and pendulum are not the only identifiers for Mandtler clocks, but I chose to emphasize these details because they are accessible to anyone. They are not esoteric details involving the works, and they may help someone identify an unknown clock.

If anyone has comments, additional information, or answers to questions, I would like to hear from you.11