My grandfather's clock was too large for the shelf. So it stood ninety years on the floor.

-- 1876 ballad by Henry Clay Work

In this era of atomic chronometry and time measured to the billionth of a second, the grandfather clock is an anachronism.

The basic weights and pendulum mechanism haven't changed in several centuries. What, then, prompts an increasing number of Americans to fork over $1,000 or more for something that loses at least a minute a month when they can buy a quartz clock for $24.95 that is accurate to within a minute a year? Telling time is the least of reasons for buying a grandfather clock, according to Philip Miller, vice president of Howard Miller Clock Co. of Zeeland, Mich. Miller's firm boasts of being the world's largest manufacturer of such timepieces, which have become status symbols in a world where the newly prosperous make "personal statements" through their possessions.

In fact, today's buyers are so eager to create an heirloom that 80 percent of them have brass plates with their names and the purchase date affixed to the clock, said Lee Houston, general manager of Ridgeway Clock Co. of Ridgeway, Va. Like a silver tea service, the pendulum bob can be etched with the owner's initials or coat of arms.

Not surprisingly, grandfather clocks also are promoted as investments.

In the trade, they are referred to as "floor clocks" or "tall case clocks." Yet for more than a hundred years since Henry Clay Work penned his sentimental ballad, they have been popularly known -- depending on their height -- as grandfather, great grandfather, grandmother or granddaughter clocks.

Except for European and American antiques dating back to the 18th century and a few high-priced reproductions, the vogue for grandfather clocks petered out in the early part of this century, according to H. Clay Gravely III, whose family has been in the furniture business in Virginia for generations.

Domestic production languished until the 1960s. It then gained steadily, except during recessions, before taking off in the last couple of years. These days, at a time when watch and clock sales are barely moving, the pendulum has swung back toward grandfather clocks.

"Our studies have shown that a grandfather clock has crept up on the list of priorities of young affluent people," said Bob Krecl, vice president of marketing for Seth Thomas, the 175-year-old clock maker that is now a division of General Time Corp. of Norcross, Ga.

But it's not just the affluent who aspire to own a grandfather clock. "The guy who works on the line at Ford is just as likely to plunk down $6,000 as is the executive vice president of a corporation," said Doug Hill, sales manager for Sligh Clocks of Holland, Mich.

Ridgeway has gone after the middle-income customer. "People warned us, 'If you make the grandfather clock a K mart item, you'll kill the market,'" said Houston. "My response is that old-line companies like Colonial and Herchede went broke trying to serve only the upper end."

Sales of grandfather clocks are expected to rise about 10 percent this year, according to Watch and Clock Review's survey. However, the top companies offer more optimistic forecasts for 1987, ranging from 15 percent at Miller to double that at Pearl Grandfather Clocks, a small Memphis company that deals in less expensive models. Floor clocks accounted for between 30 and 40 percent of Seth Thomas' revenue five years ago, but they now account for more than half.

The potential is enormous, according to Baldwin Piano Co., because only 5 to 6 percent of American households own grandfather clocks. Two years ago, Baldwin created a clock division. Eighty percent of that division's sales -- which amounted to $3.25 million the first year -- is in floor clocks.

Baldwin President Richard Harrison said the company decided that the field looked promising for several reasons: Baldwin's name is better known than those of most clock manufacturers; the finishing of cases is closely related to the building of pianos; grandfather clocks require less show room than pianos and, finally, because the same type of salesmanship is required for both products. Harrison predicted that sales would continue to rise.

Baldwin clocks are in the middle to upper price range: $1,200 to $4,600. Sligh Clocks, the third of the top three manufacturers, reports a "dramatic increase" in the last few years in top-of-the line clocks retailing for $1,100 to $9,000.

Clocks are a highly cyclical business. In the last decade, Don Sobel, owner of the Clock Shop in Vienna, has seen 10 stores open and close. His sales have grown from under $100,000 in 1975 to $1 million today, and 65 percent of those sales are grandfather clocks.

A highly competitive industry, floor clock manufacturing is dominated by privately held companies that do not reveal sales figures. The two-year-old Clock Manufacturers and Marketing Association surveyed 173 companies earlier this year, but declined to release the results on the grounds they were "not representative" of the entire industry. More reliable results are expected next year.

A telephone survey of manufacturers by Watch and Clock Review, a trade magazine, estimated 1986 sales of floor clocks at 225,000 units, with an approximate retail value of $200 million. Furniture Today, another industry publication, offered a guesstimate of $120 million at wholesale.

Of the dozen or so manufacturers of floor clocks in the United States today, three account for about 75 percent of production, with small regional manufacturers dividing most of the rest of the market. Howard Miller Clock Co., which says sales have doubled in the past five years but refuses to give figures, boasts of having a 35 to 40 percent share of the market. That could mean sales of between $40 million and $50 million.

Miller's nearest competitor is Ridgeway, located on the North Carolina border. It had total clock sales of $26 million in 1986. More than 90 percent of that was in floor clocks, said B.C. Wampler, president of the parent company, Pulaski Furniture.

Yet for every buyer of a $6,000 clock, there are scores of buyers of $600 clocks. Competition has thinned profit margins and turned the market into a bazaar, a trend that Houston and others deplore.

New floor clocks range in price from about $300 to $10,000 for antique reproductions. At the lower end, cases often are made of particle board sprayed with plastic to imitate wood, and movements are usually mass-produced. At the other end of the price scale, cases are often limited editions made of solid wood, and the clocks may feature fine German movements.

The average price is just over $900, according to Watch and Clock Review, but that gives little indication of quality. Discounting is still the norm. For example, the suggested retail price of a Howard Miller clock at a local store is $1,495; the advertised sale price, $899; the ticket on the item, $799; and the actual selling price probably lower depending on one's bargaining power. A TV ad for Old London clocks heralds an "$800 value" for just $395.

One reaction to this type of mass marketing comes from Clay Gravely. "A lot of people shouldn't be buying a grandfather clock anyway. It's a disservice to create the desire that becomes a need."

Gravely, whose Ridgeway Clock Co. was bought out two years ago by Pulaski, has established Virginia Clocks of Martinsville, Va., dedicated to making and selling clocks the old-fashioned way through specialty stores.

Another approach is the linkage of clock makers with furniture manufacturers. Hamilton Clock Co., for example, is producing museum reproductions in a joint venture with Kindel Furniture Co. Ridgeway's sales rose by 27 percent in the first year after Pulaski, a southern Virginia furniture manufacturer, acquired it.

Clocks were once considered a mechanical item that furniture salesmen were afraid to sell, said Krecl. They were sold in jewelry stores and clock shops, which have limited advertising budgets.

"We have noticed a big resurgence since mid-1984, and 1987 sales are going at a real good clip," said Bob Murphy, marketing director of Mastercraft Interiors, a furniture store with three outlets in the Washington area.

Tradition is still the key word in the design of grandfather clocks, although today's products are often a composite of styles. The closed case, pinched waist mahogany model has given way to a straight case combined with Victorian glass in a case with a light finish.

The latest popular innovation is a grandfather clock with lighted curio shelves on the sides. Clock height has been scaled down to fit lower ceilings. Despite efforts by the largest companies to sell contemporary styling, chrome and plexiglass grandfather clocks do not sell well.

At Ridgeway, the average production time per clock is eight to 10 hours. Although a computer-directed saw cuts some parts of the wooden case, most are cut manually. The assembly and painting are also done by hand. Once the case is completed, the movement is installed in less than an hour. Current fashion says that the bolder the brass the better; side glass and mirror backing highlight the moving parts.

Almost all movements in U.S. clocks today are made by West German manufacturers. A decade ago, one of them, Hermle, established operations in Amherst, Va., under the name of Black Forest Clocks. Manager Helmut Mangold said the Westminster, or Big Ben, quarter-hour chime, is still the most popular. More expensive models have triple chimes and tubular bells that sound like zylophones. Insomniacs can even get an automatic device that mutes the sound for eight hours a night.

Fuze-On, a Foley, Ala., concern that makes the popular moon dials for grandfather clocks, reports that its output doubled in 1986 from the previous year, to 100,000, as the result of the shift in exchange rates that made German dials too expensive. International sales manager Chris Musgrove said the trend is toward specialty dials depicting events like the Bicentennial, the Olympics, or the founding of a company.

Imports count for little in grandfather clock sales, say industry experts. Although Far Eastern manufacturers have penetrated the wall and mantel market, experts say they have not yet been able to produce a quality grandfather case.

In Work's ballad, grandfather's clock lasted 90 years. But Ridgeway's technicians have successfully repaired wooden movements dating back to the 17th century, and there are still fine examples of 18th century clocks that work.

How long should a grandfather clock last? Like many other companies, Miller offers a one-year warranty. Philip Miller boasted that his clocks are built to last for generations and require an overhaul of the movements every 20 to 50 years.

Richard Walker, a District clock maker who has serviced many grandfather clocks, warns customers that the plastic parts and thin plates and gears used in some of today's clocks can wear out quickly. Lyle Whippo, who has been in business at the Kensington Clock Repair since 1969, said: "We make six or eight service calls a day now. When they {today's floor clocks} are somewhere between five and eight years old, they need a lot of attention."

He added, "They don't make 'em like they used to."

Ask Robert Taupeka, president of Emperor Clock Co. in Fairhope, Ala. Since 1969, Emperor has been king of the do-it-yourself grandfather clock industry specializing in kits for hobbyists.

Sales soared during the recession, when unemployed people had time to build clocks in the basement.

But grandfather clock sales are so good nowadays that Emperor is getting out of kits and into finished clocks. Its Harrington House Ltd. brand will soon hit the stores.