At the dawn of the 20th century it didn’t take as much effort to garner the attention of the buying public as it does today, but the core principle remains the same: novelty. The titular owner of William Barthman Jeweler had a clear grasp of this concept when he and an associate installed a working clock into the sidewalk outside their store.
Barthman, along with one of his employees, Frank Homm, created the timepiece in 1896, but not as it exists today. The original clock was a mechanical jump hour clock with the numbered tablets that would flip over on the hour. It also had a little light bulb that would illuminate the clock at night. In the beginning, as passersby trampled across the clock face it was met with surprise and delight by turn-of-the-century shoppers. Unfortunately the fatal flaw of the original contraption was that it was custom designed by Barthman and Homm, and they were the only ones who knew how to fix it. Thus when the clock began to malfunction in later years, the attraction became an embarrassment, and the operators of Barthman’s store would cover it with cardboard each day to hide their shame.
Unable to make the clock work with Homm’s special touch (Homm passed away in 1917), the only solution they could come up with was to replace the clock entirely. The new clock was a more traditional analog dial, ringed with a classy brass compass rose. With the installation of the new clock, and the lucky popularity of a photographer’s snapshot of the clock, the sidewalk novelty that had vexed them for years had once again become a popular feature for Barthman’s.
The sidewalk clock still sits outside of Barthman’s on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan, just as it has for a century. It is estimated that over 50,000 people walk over the timepiece each day, not once stopping to ask the time.
Update January 2019: Barthman’s Manhattan location is relocating but the clock remains and is now visible again.
Visit New York State withAtlas Obscura Trips
Only in Queens: Tasting Our Way Through New York’s Most Diverse Borough
Manhattan may have name-brand recognition and Brooklyn a certain cache, but Queens is the city’s largest and most diverse borough. Join us, May 17–20, to dig into Queens’ rich neighborhood life.