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October 10, 2012

Seattle, 'City of Clocks' Keeps on Ticking

by Ted Landphair

If you’ve been to Seattle, Washington - or even just heard about it - you’d probably guess that its nickname is something like “The Space Needle City.” 

That 184-meter-high tower, with an observation deck and restaurant, was built for the 1962 world’s fair there, and has become the city’s most famous landmark.

Or maybe Seattle is “The City Where It’s Always Raining.” That’s an exaggeration, as there are plenty of other U.S. cities that get more total precipitation. 

But elsewhere it often rains hard and then clears. Seattle gets long, drizzly showers off the Pacific Ocean, sometimes with days of cloudy skies before and afterward.
Landphair for 10-12 Only in America-City of Clocks

Seattle is also world-famous for its seafood - particularly salmon - caught in the ocean or fast-moving area rivers.

But the city’s nickname comes from none of these sources, and when you hear it, you’ll want an explanation.
This may be Seattle’s finest, and most ornate, street clock. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Seattle is the “City of Clocks.”  

Not alarm clocks or huge clock towers but street clocks.  “Post clocks,” they’re sometimes called. 

There are still at least a dozen of what once numbered 55 or more of these large timepieces, weighing up to two tons, perched on cast-iron pedestals or columns on important downtown streets.

Most of these clocks served as ticking advertising testimonials for the jewelry shops that maintained them. 

So many were dark green that there’s even a color called “street clock green.” 

Others were red, in the faint hope that truckers would see and avoid them.

Among those still standing, Benton’s Jewelers’ clock has four globe lamps; the clockworks inside Ben Bridge’s Jewelers’ post clock are encased in glass so all can see them; and the face of the clock in front of the Thomas Carroll jewelry store rests beneath four quaint carriage lamps.
Globes on Benton’s Jewelers’ clock give it an old-fashioned look. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Concerned about what it called “pedestrian circulation,” Seattle’s Board of Public Works came close to banishing street clocks in 1953, but a compromise was reached. 

If an owner promised to keep a clock running and accurate, and to clean it twice a year, it could stay. 

That soon drastically cut the number of clocks, but Seattle still has more than in all of vast New York City.

Whenever there’s a story about the old post clocks, Seattle’s newspapers can’t seem to resist a play on words.

“Time Will Tell,” a headline will read. 

Or, when one gets restored, “It’s About Time.” 

One Seattle historian mused that the old public timepieces had wonderful stories to tell, “if only they could tock.”

As in . . . tick  . . . tock.