I think I know how the personification of time evolved in western culture: as an amalgamation of the ancient winged Greek god Chronos and the scythe-wielding titan Cronos (either a deliberate mash-up or an alliterative mix-up), with a touch of the Roman god Saturn thrown in there, which explains the timing of Father Time’s appearance. But when I look at the first visual representations of this composite time figure in the sixteenth century, I can’t help but think that there’s a little bit of post-plague grim reaper that was added to the mix as well. He is certainly not the gently-departing figure that we see on early twentieth-century New Year’s cards, but something/someone a bit more menacing, and vengeful. In the first sixteenth-century image below, he is wiping out cities and people, all the glory of the world. But from/at nearly the same time, the second contemporary image shows a “Father Time” that is more recognizable to us, more placid and representing “the past” (with his hourglass) across the table from a young man who personifies the future. I don’t think the placard (all is sufficient) is a message that we understand today, but the visual trope will become universal, as these two Puck covers from 1911 and 1912 illustrate. Like their sixteenth-century predecessor, these Father Times are well-accessorized, and giving way to their futures: airplanes and votes for women.
Crispijn de Passe the Elder, print from Deliciarum Juvenilum Libellus, c. 1590; Giulio Bonasone, print from the Emblems of Achilles Bocchius, c. 1555, both British Museum; Puck Magazine covers from 1911 and 1912, Library of Congress.
Before Father Time’s image became standardized on the magazine covers and postcards of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was a regular feature of watch- and clockmaker trade cards from a century earlier. In fact, I’m wondering if these trade cards didn’t play a key role in standardizing his image. These ephemeral Father Times make perfect sense; after all, clockmakers were, almost literally, selling time. Father Time as symbolic “spokesman” for this industry seems to be more prevalent in Britain than on this side of the Atlantic, but the trade card of a prominent Salem and Boston clockmaker and jeweler, Jabez Baldwin (which I featured in this earlier post) features him prominently.
Early Nineteenth-century Trade Cards from the American Antiquarian Society (Baldwin) and the British Museum.
This last trade card, from the 1820s, really harkens back to the sixteenth century and shows both the association and dis-association of time and death: Father Time seems to be breaking away/vanquishing the grim reaper. With this grimness set aside, he is now free to become the benign figure of more recent representations. Most of the New Year’s postcards from a century before depict him as a fairly passive creature, but the wording of the last postcard below (on which he appears only as a presence, not a figure) conveys just a touch of that righteous tone from days gone by.