When people think of a retro clock, they generally think of electric clocks from the 1950s through 1970s, although many earlier models could still be considered retro. Even though the “retro” period generally covers just a few decades, clocks themselves have been in existence for thousands of years.
The earliest clocks that were moderately accurate were probably sundials and obelisks built by ancient Egyptians. These could keep track of the daylight hours reasonably well, but had obvious problems at night or when clouds obscured the sun. Through the ages newer time pieces were developed including water clocks, incense clocks, hour glasses and finally clocks with gears.
However, during the time period that retro clocks were originally being manufactured, most were electrical. This is fortunate, as most people would rather not have a sundial or an obelisk in their kitchen (although it would be quite the conversation piece). Although other types of clocks, such as table clocks can also fall into the “retro clock” category, the first thing that comes to most mind is the 1950s wall clock, usually in the Midcentury Modern style.
The Midcentury Modern design style is characterized by simple clean lines and often includes geometric shapes and futuristic elements. In the most basic form, the retro clock is a simple unadorned clock with large hands and clear letters, very similar to the “school” clock that has been used for decades. In more industrial and less decorated areas such as the garage, this clock was usually found in black and white. In kitchens, the frame and hands were often colored.
For those who wanted something a bit more formal or fashionable, the starburst clock was popular. The basic design was a central clock with large rays extending out in a geometric shape. These could often be found in the living rooms and dining rooms of homes in the 1950s and 1960s. A variation of these clocks was the ball clock. This clock was similar to the starburst design, but replaced the starburst with wires extending out from the clock, ending in colorful balls.
In any discussion of retro clocks, the Kit-Cat clock must also be mentioned. It was first produced in 1932 and consists of a smiling cartoonish black cat with large eyes that move back and forth as the tail does that same. Due to the similarity in appearance, it is also sometimes called the “Felix Clock”. Although it was originally manufactured before what is often considered the “retro clock” period (and is still being produced today by the same company), it is included as its iconic design represents classic 1950s kitsch.
Wall clocks are the most striking examples of retro clocks, but some alarm clocks from the Midcentury modern period incorporate sleek geometric designs. These can range from rectangular to triangular to circular, but almost always have a large face and simple clutter free design. Some people also consider the early digital alarm clocks from the 1970s to be retro, and as there is no “official” definition of what time period retro consists of, who can argue!