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Gongs

In November 1792, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Henry Remsen, Jr., in New York, "The Chinese have a thing made of a kind of bell metal, which they call a Gong, and is used as a bell at the gates of large houses &c. It is in fact precisely of the shape and size of a camp oven, about 20. I. diameter and 5. I. deep .... I wish for one to serve as the bell to a clock, which might be heard all over my farm."1 After consulting with the owner of a ship engaged in the China trade, Remsen informed Jefferson that provisions had been made to meet his request.2

Nearly two years later, Remsen sent word to Jefferson that the ship had reached North America. On October 30, 1794, Jefferson wrote to Remsen, " ... thank you for your attention to the gongs. There being two of them did not merit apology: I am glad to get them, and can find use for both. ... I will thank you to have them well packed, and sent by some vessel bound to Richmond."3 On the same date, a corresponding entry in Jefferson's memorandum book reads, "Drew on Caleb Lownes for 25.D. in favor of Henry Remsen of N. York to pay for two Gongs brought by Mr. Gouverneur from the East Indies."4 In due time, the two gongs arrived at Monticello.

On December 11, 1795, Jefferson recorded the purchase of a second pair of gongs with the following entry in this memorandum book: "Drew on Barnes in favor of Plumsted & McCall to pay for 2. gongs 50.75 ...."5 To John Barnes himself, Jefferson wrote, "I have ... taken the liberty of telling [Plumsted & McCall] you would be kind enough to recieve, and forward to me, 2 Chinese gongs which they will deliver you."6 After some anxiety about the fate of the gongs, Jefferson reported their arrival in the summer of 1796: "The tea and gongs are safely recieved from Capt. Swail."7

There is no information available from Jefferson's records and notes about the original design of the gong housing on the northeast portico roof. It appears in all early illustrations from 1827 on. The wooden housing was replaced during the 1955 roof restoration with a new housing fabricated of sheet metal with an enamel finish.

One of the gongs appears to have been installed as part of the apparatus of the Great Clock being used to sound each hour and half hour. This gong is of a hammered brass-like metal and is approximately 1/16 inch thick, twenty-two inches in diameter, and five inches deep. Silvio Bedini, in "Thomas Jefferson, Clock-Designer," suggests, but without evidence, that the Great Clock gong was part of the 1795 purchase.8

A second gong with a Jefferson provenance but with varying dimensions was presented to Archibald Stuart of Staunton, Virginia, in 1797 and is now owned by a Stuart descendant.9 It is believed this gong represents one of the gongs from the 1795 purchase. The whereabouts of the other two gongs have not been ascertained.

- R. Martin, 1990

  • 1. Jefferson to Remsen, November 13, 1792, in PTJ, 24:617. Transcription available at Founders Online. Remsen was a clerk in the Department of State.
  • 2. Remsen to Jefferson, November 19, 1792, in PTJ, 24:641. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 3. Jefferson to Remsen, October 30, 1794, in PTJ, 28:183. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 4. MB, 2:920. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 5. MB, 2:934. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 6. Jefferson to Barnes, December 11, 1795, in PTJ, 28:552. Transcription available at Founders Online. John Barnes was a Philadelphia grocer and tea merchant who became Jefferson's private banker in Philadelphia. See MB, 2:927n27. Editorial note available at Founders Online.
  • 7. Jefferson to John Barnes, August 7, 1796, in PTJ, 29:168. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 8. Silvio Bedini, "Thomas Jefferson, Clock Designer," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society vol. 108, no. 3 (1964): 163-80.
  • 9. Jefferson to Stuart, January 4, 1797, in PTJ, 29:253. Transcription available at Founders Online.
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